Coverage of Castro’s health overlooks key truths

Lost in all of the media chatter about Fidel Castro’s health are a couple of key truths.

  • The first is that the Castro era is effectively over. He will not reassume the duties he “temporarily” ceded to his brother Raul. A veteran Washington intelligence official says that the gravity of Fidel’s illness — cancer, most likely — and because he is almost 80, the president can no longer carry out the demanding job of running an embattled nation.
  • The second truth that few experts understand, let alone accept, is that whatever government follows Castro’s rule, it will be what Cubans who live in Cuba decide is best. This, of course, flies in the face of the conventional wisdom that says powerful and wealthy Cuban Americans and the U.S. government will impose on the island their vision of Western democracy. It also defies Washington’s long history of ensuring that regional governments serve U.S. interests above all else.

In a little-noticed move, the Bush Administration has overseen establishment of the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba. That includes $40 million per year to foment political and economic change in Cuba. Although the United States insists it will not intervene militarily, plans include efforts to “empower Cubans to prepare for change, build support for the transition to a legitimate democratic government, undermine regime finance and survival strategies, and plan support for a Cuban transition government.”

Ah, and there is a caveat: should “democratic” anti-government forces ask for military aid, Washington would come through.

That sort of talk makes most Cubans nervous and angry. I know this based on years of travel to Cuba and hundreds of conversations with Cubans from every sector _ workers, retirees, students and even anti-Castro activists.

Yoli, my wife, is typical. Until May 16, when we were reunited in Miami, she lived in Havana. No revolutionary _ she never joined the Communist Party or the Federation of Cuban Women _ Yoli is, like many Cubans, quite patriotic. She also is acutely aware of past U.S. intervention in her country and U.S. efforts to recast Iraq.

“What makes the Americans think we want or need their so-called help?” she asks. “Any help from them would come with a high price, and that would be our independence. We would have to answer to them, and that is unacceptable.”

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, which supported the island economically, Cuba has for the first time in its history made its way in the world independently. Since gaining independence from Spain until the early ’90s, Cuba leaned heavily on either the U.S. or the Soviet Union. Indeed, experts agreed that Cuba’s history of dependence meant it would not survive the loss of Soviet economic aid.

Not surprisingly, Cubans underwent one of the worst economic crises in modern times. But they survived. As a consequence Cubans have developed an extremely powerful sense of independence, again a development mostly ignored here.

“We know that our country has many problems, thanks to Fidel. But it would be dishonest not to note that he gave Cubans medical care and access to education we never had,” says Alfonso, an acquaintance of mine who ran a small business in Havana until he retired recently. He was 24 when Castro came to power. “People outside of Cuba must think that we have no idea of how to build a new Cuba. We do, and we will not accept outsiders coming into our country telling us what kind of government we should have. “

United States hubris could well lead to our nation’s setting off on the fool’s errand of trying to impose a democracy that meets Washington’s criteria. It’s the kind of smug arrogance that led us to believe that Iraqis would forever regard us as liberators. But, as in Iraq, the people on the ground in Cuba are certain to have the last word.

(Ricardo Chavira is a veteran editor and foreign correspondent who teaches Latin American Studies and journalism at the University of California-Irvine. He may be contacted by e-mail at ricardochavira50(at)