Los Angeles Times
Exiles and officials urge Cubans to foment change during Castro's illness. Some are wary.
By Carol J. Williams, Times Staff Writer
August 5, 2006
MIAMI — Exhortations from exile groups and the Bush administration for Cubans to seize the moment of Fidel Castro's illness to end communist rule have stirred little reaction there, and some analysts say the thinly veiled calls for a pro-democracy uprising could undermine prospects for change.
Cuban American exile organizations and conservative politicians have appealed to Cubans to reject the Communist Party succession plan and demand free elections.
Cuban American National Foundation Chairman Jorge Mas Santos appeared to be urging a military coup on Wednesday when he said senior officers of the Revolutionary Armed Forces and civilian officials in Havana should schedule a multiparty vote and free political prisoners.
"There are many in the military and in government ranks in Havana who do not accept the transfer of power to Raul Castro. This is our rally to those brave men and women," Mas Santos told reporters at Versailles, the Cuban restaurant in Little Havana that has become a command post for exiles impatient for change in their homeland.
Cuban Democracy Movement leader Ramon Saul Sanchez has been lobbying at Versailles for exiles with boats and planes to organize a relief flotilla to their homeland — an action the U.S. government has discouraged to avoid confrontation with Cuban defense forces.
On Thursday, President Bush called on the Cuban people to work for change and warned Communist officials that Washington would watch their responses to any pro-democracy demonstrations.
On Friday, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice urged Cubans not to flee the island because of political uncertainty, but "to work at home for positive change," the Associated Press reported. Her brief remarks were aired on the heavily jammed TV Marti and Radio Marti.
Acts of resistance to the regime have been rare in Cuba throughout Castro's nearly 48 years in power. The Cuban armed forces, led from their inception by Defense Minister Raul Castro, Fidel Castro's brother and designated successor, have never been called upon to quell demonstrators.
Cuban American lawmakers have asked the Pentagon to make a military C-130 aircraft available to help the U.S. government-funded TV Marti overcome Cuban signal-jamming. Airborne broadcasts are more difficult for Cuban authorities to target than land-based signals.
"What we want is to do anything possible to hasten the end of the dictatorship," U.S. Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) told reporters here after meeting this week with members of the National Security Council and the Department of Homeland Security.
The Cuban-American Bar Assn. has also weighed in with a message to Cubans on the island, asserting that they have "an inalienable and fundamental right" to agitate for democratic reforms and human rights.
But Cuba's state-run media have lambasted the U.S. attempts to influence Cuban politics as intrusive and futile efforts to destabilize the country.
Washington and the exiles "shouldn't make a mistake or fantasize … that their desires are reality," said Rogelio Polanco, director of Juventud Rebelde, the Communist Party youth newspaper. He warned that the Cuban military was prepared to defend the country from U.S. provocations.
Randy Alonso, a Cuban legislator and moderator of state TV's Round Table public affairs program, called Bush's statement "the epitome of delirium."
Some veteran Cuba-watchers say U.S. moves to influence Cubans fall on deaf ears and expose a lack of understanding about the country.
Wayne Smith, the top U.S. diplomat in Havana during the Carter administration, describes White House expectations of a post-Castro Cuba as "pie in the sky."
He scoffs at voluminous reports by the U.S. Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba that assume those who fled Castro nearly a half century ago would return to build a new Cuba.
"The idea that the exiles will play an important role is, of course, absurd," Smith said. "Almost equally so, the idea that much will depend on the U.S. It's a far more complex world now."
Others say the attempts at galvanizing discontent reveal misunderstanding of Cuban sentiments and behavior.
"To some degree U.S. policy is on a collision course with the Cuban reality," said Dan Erikson, Cuba policy specialist at the Inter-American Dialogue think tank in Washington. "Most Cubans want to look before they leap. They are not going to rally or put themselves at risk until they have a sense of where this is going."
Encouragement from the U.S. discredits Cuban dissidents, says Smith, the former diplomat, because it creates the appearance that they are trying to implement Washington's agenda.
Cuban activists have indeed distanced themselves from U.S. suggestions.
Oswaldo Paya, architect of the Varela Project that has gathered 40,000 signatures calling for free elections, told the Spanish news agency EFE in Havana that the power transition may signal a decisive new era for Cubans. But he said the push must come from Cubans and not be seen as instigated in Washington.
Miriam Leiva of the Ladies in White, a group of wives, mothers and sisters of Cuban political prisoners, has warned that "the United States should not try to solve Cuba's internal problems."