Cubans prepare for new leader |

Cubans prepare for new leader

Mike Williams
Cox News Service
Vail, CO Colorado

HAVANA ” After nearly 50 years of Fidel Castro’s unwavering hand, Cuba’s National Assembly will name a new leader Sunday, setting this communist island on what could become an unfamiliar course.

That notion was reinforced Saturday when Castro, in a front-page article in the Communist Party newspaper Granma, rejected speculation from abroad that his retirement after 49 years at Cuba’s helm would lead to a political shift.

“The reality is otherwise,” Castro wrote under his new title of “Comrade Fidel.” He pointed to news articles that said U.S. officials had failed in their attempts to influence the transition.

But it is clear that the news of impending change at the top after so many years has stirred a deep curiosity among the Cuban people.

Most expect the new leader will be Raul Castro, 76, Fidel’s younger brother and designated successor, who has ruled since the elder Castro, 81, fell ill with intestinal bleeding 19 months ago.

Some believe the post-Fidel era began then, and many are relieved the transition wasn’t marked by street protests or uncertainty about who is in charge.

But others profess to cautious optimism, saying they can’t help but feel intrigued as they watch a new chapter in their nation’s history unfold.

“Everyone knows it will be Raul, there’s no doubt about that,” said Tony Gomez, a taxi driver. “But the people are waiting with curiosity. They have a feeling there will be changes.

“Cuba is a country rich in spirit and beauty and climate, but the economic situation is difficult. Raul knows that. The people want better living conditions. They hope this will come.”

Those economic problems will be a big challenge for Cuba’s new leadership. Salaries are low, with many professionals, including doctors and scientists, earning $15 to $20 a month. Many professionals have left their fields to find jobs in the tourism industry because it gives them access to tips that can double or triple their income.

This creates tensions with Cubans stuck in low-paying jobs, whose earnings are often barely enough to feed their families, despite the state rations they receive.

In a country where only a tiny handful of people can afford cars, many also complain about the dilapidated public transportation system. Ancient buses belching black smoke stay jammed with commuters heading to school or work, and government efforts to replace the fleet with new vehicles purchased from China are only beginning to relieve the stain on the system.

There is a shortage of housing and many of the older homes and apartments are in disrepair from decades of neglect. Roads and other infrastructure need major improvements, and the electrical grid in recent years has been prone to blackouts and rationing that leaves some neighborhoods without power for long periods.

The triumphs of Castro’s revolution are now a distant memory for most. Aging billboards still feature propaganda slogans, such as “Socialism or death,” or “Together toward victory,” but on some the paint is faded and peeling and the messages hollow for people hungry for higher-paying jobs and more opportunity.

Fidel Castro has proved to be one of the modern world’s most durable leaders, surviving an ill-fated invasion by American-backed Cuban exiles, the Cuban Missile Crisis when Russia attempted to station nuclear-tipped rockets on Cuban soil, and hundreds of CIA-plotted assassination attempts, Cuban historians insist.

For decades he held his island of 11 million people together largely by force of his own will, cajoling and exhorting his people to sacrifice for the greater common good. He also relied on a heavy-handed secret police operation that stifles almost all dissent.

But with Castro’s generation now passing from the scene, younger Cubans are by necessity taking over. Some 60 percent of the population is younger than 35, their knowledge of the 1959 Revolution’s triumphs coming from textbooks and the state’s ubiquitous propaganda rather than direct experience.

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