‘Lost Gen­er­a­tion’ pre­pares to take power

The Oneida Daily Dispatch (Oneida, NY) - - Front Page - By Michael Weis­senstein and An­drea Ro­driguez

HAVANA » Fidel and Raul Cas­tro were scruffy young guer­ril­las in 1959, when they de­scended from Cuba’s eastern moun­tains, seized power and never re­lin­quished it.

As they aged into their 80s and 90s, the Cas­tros and their fel­low fight­ers cast a shadow so deep that Cubans born in the first decades af­ter the revo­lu­tion be­came known as Cuba’s “lost gen­er­a­tion,” men and women who spent their lives ex­e­cut­ing the or­ders of gray­ing rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies.

Next week, Raul Cas­tro will step down as pres­i­dent af­ter a decade in of­fice, hand­ing the po­si­tion to a suc­ces­sor widely ex­pected to be 57-year-old Vice Pres­i­dent Miguel Diaz- Canel. The April 19 hand­off is the cen­ter­piece of a broader tran­si­tion to a group of lead­ers from the lost gen­er­a­tion, who face an un­prece­dented test of their abil­ity to guide a na­tion that has fol­lowed the same “com­man­dantes” for 60 years.

De­spite a se­ries of re­forms under Cas­tro, Cuba re­mains locked in grind­ing eco­nomic stag­na­tion that has driven hun­dreds of thou­sands of Cubans to em­i­grate in search of bet­ter lives. Change will re­quire po­ten­tially painful re­forms, like the elim­i­na­tion of a dual-cur­rency sys­tem that has cre­ated dam­ag­ing eco­nomic dis­tor­tions.

“A great num­ber of this coun­try’s young peo­ple will be watch­ing to see if they’re ca­pa­ble of chang­ing things, of of­fer­ing some­thing new, of go­ing be­yond what’s seemed like a great gray­ness un­til now,” said Yas­sel Padron Ku­nakbaeva, a 27-year-old blog­ger who writes fre­quently from what he de­scribes as a Marx­ist, rev­o­lu­tion­ary per­spec­tive.

The world should ex­pect no im­me­di­ate rad­i­cal change from a sin­gle-party sys­tem-ded­i­cated to sta­bil­ity above all else. Raul Cas­tro will re­main first sec­re­tary of the Com­mu­nist Party, de­scribed by the Cuban con­sti­tu­tion as the coun­try’s “high­est guid­ing force.” Cas­tro has said noth­ing pub­licly about how he will use that po­si­tion. But Cuban lead­ers have been mak­ing clear that a gen­er­a­tional han­dover is un­der­way.

On Feb. 24, Cas­tro awarded one of Cuba’s high­est hon­ors, the ti­tle Hero of La­bor, to fel­low guer­ril­las Jose Ra­mon Machado Ven­tura, an 87-year-old vice pres­i­dent and sec­ond sec­re­tary of the Com­mu­nist Party, as well as to 85-year-old vice pres­i­dent Ramiro Valdes and 90-year-old for­mer

rebel leader and vice pres­i­dent Guillermo Gar­cia Frias. For many Cubans, the elab­o­rate cer­e­mony in the soar­ing, newly re­opened neo­clas­si­cal Capi­tol build­ing had a vale­dic­tory tone, a sign that the pow­er­ful Valdes and Machado Ven­tura will have far less im­por­tant roles in Diaz-Canel’s ad­min­is­tra­tion. While the in­ner work­ings of the Cuban gov­ern­ment are opaque, both men were widely per­ceived as con­ser­va­tives slow­ing re­form.

“We’re prac­ti­cally al­ready in that fu­ture that’s been talked about so much, that a mo­ment of tran­si­tion had to ar­rive,” Machado Ven­tura told state tele­vi­sion in March. “Now it’s gen­er­a­tional. It has to ma­te­ri­al­ize, has to be that way.”

Along with Diaz-Canel, a group of mid­dle-aged lead­ers are be­ing closely watched as can­di­dates for more pow­er­ful po­si­tions. They in­clude 60-year-old For­eign Min­is­ter Bruno Ro­driguez, 54-year-old Havana party leader Mercedes Lopez Acea, 57-year-old eco­nomic re­form czar Marino Murillo and 63-year- old Lazaro Ex­pos­ito, party head in Cuba’s sec­ond most-pop­u­lated prov­ince, San­ti­ago.

Be­hind the scenes, Raul Cas­tro’s 52-year- old son, Ale­jan­dro, is a pow­er­ful fig­ure in the In­te­rior Min­istry, who se­cretly ne­go­ti­ated the re­open­ing of diplo­matic re­la­tions with the U.S. under Pres­i­dent Barack Obama. Cas­tro’s for­mer son-in-law, Gen. Luis Al­berto Ro­driguez Lopez- Calle­jas, also in his 50s or 60s, runs the eco­nomic ar­mof Cuba’s mil­i­tary, which con­trols a vast swathe of state-run busi­nesses rang­ing from tourism to ship­ping.

Born in the years af­ter the Cuban revo­lu­tion, lead­ers from the lost gen­er­a­tion lack the cre­den­tials of their rev­o­lu­tion­ary pre­de­ces­sors, who were adored by some, de­spised by oth­ers, but al­ways rec­og­nized as fig­ures of his­tor­i­cal im­por­tance en­dowed with pop­u­lar cred­i­bil­ity among Cubans on the is­land by their ac­tions on the bat­tle­field. Diaz-Canel and his co­hort of mid­dleaged lead­ers rose through the Com­mu­nist Party bu­reau­cracy thanks to their suc­cess in lo­cal gov­er­nance.

“This gov­ern­ment that we’re choos­ing to­day will be a gov­ern­ment that will owe its ex­is­tence to the peo­ple,” Diaz-Canel told staterun me­dia af­ter vot­ing for mem­bers of the Na­tional Assem­bly in March. “The peo­ple will par­tic­i­pate in the de­ci­sions that this gov­ern­ment takes.”

What­ever his style, the Cuba that Diaz-Canel will lead is rad­i­cally dif­fer­ent from the coun­try that he knew as both a child and a younger adult.

For those grow­ing up in pro-rev­o­lu­tion­ary fam­i­lies in the hey­day of Soviet aid to Cuba, the so­cial­ist state was a pa­ter­nal­is­tic pres­ence that pro­vided mod­est but com­fort­able lives to vir­tu­ally ev­ery­one on the is­land. Rus­sian prod­ucts filled the stores and Rus­sian car­toons played on Cuban tele­vi­sion.

“There was the sen­sa­tion that we were liv­ing very hap­pily, ev­ery­one mixed to­gether, with no pres­sure to earn money in the mar­ket­place,” said Abe­lardo Mena, a 55-year-old fine art cu­ra­tor.

Mena re­mem­bers re­ceiv­ing three nearly free toys a year from the gov­ern­ment, and never wor­ry­ing about his par­ents putting enough food on the ta­ble. There were am­ple sup­plies of cof­fee, Rus­sian tele­vi­sion sets and wrist­watches, and canned meat from Bul­garia.

In­stead of de­fend­ing their home­land, Diaz- Canel’s gen­er­a­tion fought over­seas in wars waged by Cuban forces along­side Soviet al­lies in An­gola and Nicaragua.

For those who dis­agreed with the com­mu­nist sys­tem, times were harsh. The gov­ern­ment or­ga­nized pub­lic gath­er­ings to “re­pu­di­ate” those who spoke against the sys­tem or wanted to em­i­grate. Gays and even mild dis­senters were sent to work camps, “hip­pies” forced to cut their hair and hide their rock-and-roll records in al­bum cov­ers of more ac­cept­able mu­si­cians.

Life changed dra­mat­i­cally af­ter the fall of the Soviet Union, which nearly elim­i­nated Cuba’s ex­ports and im­ports, and cut gross do­mes­tic prod­uct by more than 30 per­cent in a cri­sis known as the Spe­cial Pe- riod. There were black­outs, short­ages and ques­tions about do­mes­tic and for­eign pol­icy.

“We re­al­ized we weren’t sav­ing much. We weren’t ready for the Spe­cial Pe­riod. Cuba spent 15 years fight­ing wars in Africa. We gave a lot away for noth­ing,” said Car­los Al­berto Careaga, a 52-year-old park­ing at­ten­dant at Havana’s Com­modore Ho­tel.

Diaz-Canel’s gen­er­a­tion was marked by three waves of mass mi­gra­tion from Cuba. Some 125,000 fled in 1980 when Fidel Cas­tro al­lowed free mi­gra­tion from the port of Mariel out­side Havana. The Spe­cial Pe­riod saw tens of thou­sands more Cubans flee­ing on home­made rafts. And Raul Cas­tro’s elim­i­na­tion of manda­tory exit per­mits for most Cubans saw hun­dreds of thou­sands other Cubans leave over the last decade.

As a re­sult of the mi­gra­tory waves, hun­dreds of thou­sands of Cubans in their 50s and 60shave reg­u­lar con­tact with friends and rel­a­tives in other coun­tries, a sharp dis­tinc­tion from Cuba’s orig­i­nal rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies.

That in­creased con­tact with the out­side world is boosted by a broad set of changes im­ple­mented by Raul Cas­tro that in­clude the spread of cell phones and in­ter­net and a pri­vate sec­tor that’s come to em­ploy nearly 600,000 Cubans.

Cuban of­fi­cials did not re­spond to re­quests by The As­so­ci­ated Press for in­ter­views with Diaz-Canel and other lead­ers ex­pected to as­sume higher pro­files when a new Cuban gov­ern­ment is seated this month. In oc­ca­sional pub­lic state­ments, Diaz-Canel has given in­di­ca­tions of sup­port for some of those changes and hos­til­ity to­ward oth­ers. But his most defin­ing char­ac­ter­is­tic in re­cent years has been his low pub­lic pro­file. Many Cubans be­lieve he’s been try­ing to avoid the fate of men like for­mer Vice Pres­i­dent Car­los Lage and for­mer For­eign Min­is­ter Felipe Perez Roque, young stars who rose to promi­nence under Fidel Cas­tro and were pushed out of power in the first years of Raul Cas­tro’s pres­i­dency.

“Diaz- Canel has spent years in a very un­com­fort­able po­si­tion. No one of his gen­er­a­tion has man­aged to get to the level he’s at, and that cre­ates a cer­tain amount of ten­sion,” said Harold Car­de­nas, a prorev­o­lu­tion­ary blog­ger whose work has been sup­ported by Diaz-Canel.

Af­ter years in the shad­ows, Diaz- Canel and his gen­er­a­tion now must show they are able to lead a na­tion fac­ing deep eco­nomic prob­lems, a hos­tile U.S. ad­min­is­tra­tion, dwin­dling ranks of re­gional al­lies and in­creas­ing dis­en­chant­ment among younger gen­er­a­tions of Cubans. But just a week be­fore a new pres­i­dent takes of­fice, many Cubans are un­con­vinced lead­ers from the lost gen­er­a­tion will be able tofix thep­rob­lems they­have in­her­ited fromthe founders of com­mu­nist Cuba.

“This gen­er­a­tion hasn’t been able to make any pro­pos­als of its own, and those who’ve shown ini­tia­tive have paid a heavy price,” said Ar­mando Ch­aguaceda, a Cuban po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist at the Univer­sity of Gua­na­ju­ato, Mex­ico. “It’s a very gray gen­er­a­tion, or so they’d have us be­lieve.”

RA­MON ESPINOSA — THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS FILE

In this file photo, images of rev­o­lu­tion­ary hero Ernesto “Che” Gue­vara, Camilo Cien­fue­gos, Fidel Cas­tro, Cuban Pres­i­dent Raul Cas­tro, and singer Com­pay Se­gundo, adorn a wall, in Havana, Cuba. De­spite a se­ries of re­forms under Raul Cas­tro, Cuba re­mains...

RA­MON ESPINOSA — THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS FILE

FILE- In this file photo, peo­ple march in the May Day pa­rade at Revo­lu­tion Square, in Havana, Cuba. But just a week be­fore a new pres­i­dent takes of­fice on many Cubans are un­con­vinced lead­ers from the “lost gen­er­a­tion” will be able to fix the prob­lems...

JAVIER GALEANO — THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS FILE

In this file photo, Fidel Cas­tro, left, raises his brother’s hand, Cuba’s Pres­i­dent Raul Cas­tro, cen­ter, as they sing the an­them of in­ter­na­tional so­cial­ism dur­ing the 6th Com­mu­nist Party Congress in Havana, Cuba. As they aged into their 80s and 90s,...

ANDREWST. GE­ORGE — THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS FILE

In this file photo, Fidel Cas­tro, the young an­tiBatista guer­rilla leader, cen­ter, is seen with his brother Raul Cas­tro, left, and Camilo Cien­fue­gos, right, while op­er­at­ing in the Moun­tains of Eastern Cuba. Fidel and Raul Cas­tro were scruffy young...

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