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Residents with Cuban ties don't expect swift changes on the island

POSTED: March 2, 2008 5:01 a.m.

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Hall County residents with Cuban ties said they expect President Fidel Castro’s resignation to mean little change for the communist island’s 11 million residents.

Castro, 81, announced Tuesday that he would not aspire to or accept the position of president at the new parliament meeting Sunday, which would have given him another five-year term as president of the governing Council of State. Castro’s resignation letter, published early Tuesday on the Web site of the state-run Granma newspaper, effectively ended one of the world’s longest tenures for a head of state.

Since his failing health was made public in late July 2006, Castro appointed his brother, Defense Minister Raul Castro, 76, to temporarily lead the Communist Party in Cuba as the president underwent intestinal surgery.

For the past 19 months, Raul Castro has taken the stage as Cuba’s leader while the ailing Fidel Castro directed from the wings.

Many local residents with Cuban ties said they fear the dictator’s resignation may equate to no sweeping change anytime soon. After nearly 50 years of Castro indoctrinating Cubans with a Communist education system reinforced by the familiar sound of his voice spewing propaganda over loudspeakers, Cuban-Americans said change will happen slowly as a result of the transfer of power, if at all.

"I don’t think it changes a thing, because his brother’s going to take over," said Carlos Dominguez, a Gainesville financial consultant who moved from Cuba to the United States when he was 12-years-old.

Joe Diaz, a local real estate agent whose father was born in Cuba, agreed with Dominguez, but said Raul Castro might be a step up from Fidel Castro’s pervasive ruling tactics.

"I think it’s better than it was," Diaz said. "We’ll just have to sit and watch."

Diaz recalls the trip to Havana on which his parents sent him to celebrate his 16th birthday. It was 1959, Diaz said, and Fidel Castro was just beginning to establish his Communist regime in Cuba.

On Jan. 1, 1959, Fidel Castro rolled into the streets of Havana flanked by fellow rebels and overthrew President Fulgencio Batista, who had allowed corruption and tourist-filled casinos to define Havana.

"It used to be like Las Vegas; it was the place to go on vacation, and (Fidel Castro) got rid of all that," Diaz said. "The country has gone to heck. It’s not like it used to be."

Diaz said he recalls strolling through the streets of Havana, noticing that the watchful eyes and perked ears of Castro’s informants seemed to be ubiquitous.

"(Fidel) Castro would get on the speaker and speak to the public for hours and hours," Diaz said. "He would speak bad about the U.S. for one thing."

But Diaz said he believes Castro’s legacy is not one of complete terror and oppression.

"The real poor were helped by him, but others were not. Everybody else left if they could," he said.

Douglas Young, a Gainesville State College history and political science professor, said Fidel Castro managed to implement an egalitarian national health care system as well as a public educational system that included college, but his record as a human rights abuser and oppressor of freedom trumps any accomplishments the leader trumpets.

"(Fidel) Castro is one of the worst mass murderers of modern times. He’s a hard-line Stalinist and has one of the worst human rights records of anyone in the Western hemisphere," Young said. "Cuba was not a paradise before Castro, but in terms of human rights, basic freedoms and prosperity, it was better off."

Young said through fierce nationalism and wealth-shifting Communist tactics, Castro transformed Cuba from being one of the Latin world’s most prosperous nations to a poverty-stricken country where owning a compass or an inner tube is illegal.

Young, as well as Diaz and Dominguez, said he believes the key to a new Cuba lies not in the hands of its next Castro-backed president, but in the hands of U.S. leaders who could lift the United States’ 46-year-old embargo on Cuba to allow free trade between the island and its neighbor situated only 90 miles north.

"Our trade embargo has been an absolute disaster for the Cuban people. (Fidel Castro) has been able to blame all the food shortages and economic catastrophe on the American trade embargo," Young said. "I just think the embargo is a well-intentioned failure. It’s failed for almost 50 years now. I don’t know how much longer we need."

Gainesville attorney Arturo Corso said he has seen firsthand the effects the U.S. embargo and Castro’s Communist regime has had upon Cubans. Although a native Colombian, Corso served on the Atlanta Olympic Committee as an associate envoy to the Cuban Olympic Delegation in 1996. He watched as three of the Cubans traveling in the group of athletes defected, while the other Cuban athletes scrambled to Atlanta retailers in their free time.

"I’m not exaggerating; they all had cardboard paper cutouts for their children’s feet to buy shoes," Corso said. "Because ... they can’t go to a store in Cuba and buy new shoes."

Corso said he believes the only way to see a real change in Cuba is for the United States to normalize relations with Cuba by establishing trade and diplomacy with the country, much as it did with China in recent years.

"I really hope Cuba holds free elections and has a free press, but it’s going to take some time," Young said. "For a democracy to survive, it has to have legs on which to stand. You have to have some roots."



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