Life After Fidel
Date: Thursday, October 06 2005
Embassy, October 5th, 2005
By Jim Creskey
Life After Fidel
Cuba's Foreign Minister, Felipe Pérez Roque, on the U.S. embargo, Castro's succession, the OAS, Hugo Chavez and human rights.
"The blockade of Cuba," says Felipe Pérez Roque, Cuba's Foreign Minister, is the longest in history -- 45 years by 10 successive U.S. presidents. But, he admits, its end would pose a major challenge for Cuba and its leadership. Mr. Pérez, who was in Ottawa this week to meet with Canadian ministers Pierre Pettigrew, Jim Peterson and Aileen Carroll, spoke about the blockade and other hemispheric topics in an interview with Embassy.
And yet the eventual lifting of the blockade, a position supported by Canada at the UN, will have enormous consequences on the island nation which has known little else for generations.
"The lifting of the blockade would be a major challenge, but there is no question that we want it to be lifted the opportunities are greater than the challenges, " says Mr. Pérez
Part of the challenge is that seven out of ten Cubans have never know anything different. Even Mr. Pérez, who was born in 1965 and became one the world's youngest foreign ministers in 1999, has never experienced life in an unblockaded Cuba. The small island (the size of Newfoundland) on Florida's doorstep could expect to be awash in a massive flow of American tourists, goods and trade that would follow the blockade's end. The blockade as the Cubans call it -- in the U.S. it is the "economic embargo" -- was repeatedly condemned by Pope John Paul II in his 1998 visit to Cuba. The only pope to ever visit Cuba, the Cold War Communist nemesis criticized the Castro regime on human rights.
"Liberation cannot be reduced to its social and political aspects, but rather reaches its fullness in the exercise of conscience, the basis and foundation of all human rights," said the late pontiff, saving a stinging condemnation of the U.S. blockade as "an indiscriminate measure that hurt Cuba's poor" for his parting words at José Marti airport.
Mr. Pérez believes that within five years of the blockade's end, the number of Americans visiting Cuba annually would rise to 5 million -- more than 10 times the number of Canadians (Cuba's biggest source of tourists) who visited Cuba last year.
"There is no doubt that [lifting the blockade] would be a major challenge. It would test our resolve to preserve our culture, our language, our traditions."
The minister's arrival in Canada coincides with 60 years of diplomatic relations and particularly celebrates the days since 1959 -- the start of the Cuban revolution. Only Canada and Mexico have maintained continuous diplomatic relations with Cuba, and Mr. Pérez says he is grateful for Canada's enduring friendship particularly in the face of constant pressure from Washington to treat Cuba differently.
"Next January is the 30th anniversary of Pierre Trudeau's visit to Cuba," says Mr. Pérez. It was former prime minister Trudeau's warmth for revolutionary Cuba that played a big role in keeping Canada open minded about the little Caribbean country that long drove Washington crazy.
Something good for Cuba even came out of Pierre Trudeau's funeral. During the Oct. 2000 meeting of Fidel Castro and former U.S. President Jimmy Carter in Montreal at Mr. Trudeau's funeral, a final posthumous opportunity came up for Mr. Trudeau to help broker a friendly gesture for Cuba. That time it was the idea that that Cuba was developing biological weapons, a concept that Mr. Pérez calls "that dirty campaign" advanced by former U.S. undersecretary John Bolton. It was, he says, "A provocation, a campaign that amounted to a gross sham." Most observers saw it as a trial balloon.
Jimmy Carter agreed. He told Fidel Castro that he would visit Cuba and speak out against the accusations, but only if he were allowed to speak openly on human rights and religious freedoms.
Cuba has a sizable genetic engineering and pharmaceuticals industry, producing, according to Mr. Pérez, 80 per cent of the vaccines used domestically for diseases like hepatitis, tetanus and meningitis. Mr. Carter, along with most of the world, was convinced, that Cuba pharma-labs were far from being a source of bioterrorism.
"President Carter emphatically debunked those accusations," said Mr. Pérez. And the trial balloon from Washington evaporated almost as quickly as it was released. Today, Cuba's pharmaceutical industry is one of the reasons Mr. Pérez hopes to meet with Canadian pharmaceutical executives when he goes to Toronto this week where he will be speaking at the Economic Club of Toronto.
When you have a national leader who has been in power through 10 U.S. presidential administrations and who still firmly holds power at age 79, the subject of succession is always lurking behind the next calendar page.
"Fidel's absence from Cuba [would be] a vacuum that can not be replaced," says Mr. Pérez, "but it is a mistake to think that the Cuban revolution is owed to only one man. Our country will outlive Fidel's passing. There is a constitutional mechanism, but most importantly there is the support of most of the people." He says that Havana watchers shouldn't be too quick to set up a Fidel vigil: "He is a healthy 79." But they could rightfully expect first vice-president Raul Castro to achieve prominence not because of his last name, but because he was one of the revolution's founders.
Mr. Pérez points out that the Bush administration has its own announced plan for "The Assistance of Free Cuba" which is headed by former Republican congressional aide Caleb McCarry. According to most reports, the plan would swing into action after Mr. Castro's demise with a number of aid, trade and political programs.
"It is intended to turn Cuba back into a colony," says Mr. Pérez who has some support in a recent statement from former American diplomat Wayne Smith. Mr. Smith was Chief of Mission at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana during the Reagan administration and was recognized as the Department of State's leading expert on Cuba. This week he told the Associated Press that the plan was " a blatant intervention in the internal affairs of another state."
The U.S. State Department's website quotes from a report on the plan: "President Bush formed the U.S. Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba to explore ways we can help hasten and ease Cuba's democratic transition. As this report shows, the United States seeks to cooperate with neighbors in the hemisphere and nations across the globe to help Cubans prepare for democratic change."