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INTERNATIONAL What's in store for Cuba after Castro?



Published: Sat, June 11, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



Companies are concocting 'entrance strategy' plans.

ASSOCIATED PRESS

MIAMI -- On this side of The Puddle, as the sunlit sea between Florida and Cuba is known to some Cuban exiles here, the biggest news splash in quite some time was the fall of Fidel Castro.

It happened last October -- although clearly, it was not the sort of fall for which Castro's enemies have long hoped. For Cuba's supreme commander did not fall from power, or fall off a cliff, or fall into a coma, or fall into a deep, unending sleep.

Fidel simply fell (actually, he stumbled first on a stair) while descending a stage in Santa Clara, where he had just given one of his gargantuan public addresses. With his bodyguards looking on incredulously, Castro went into an uncontrolled forward plunge which left the Cuban leader with a broken left knee and a hairline fracture to his upper right arm.

Helped to a folding chair, the 78-year-old president tried to make light of his spill. "As you can see," Castro told television viewers, sweating into his olive green uniform from the pain, "I can still talk."

Talk of The Fall

On this side of The Puddle, talk of the fall was anything but light.

Cable news networks played and replayed The Fall of Castro ad infinitum. Newspapers trumpeted the tumble on page one; the Web snapped, crackled and popped with speculation on Castro's successor. Phone boards at talk-radio stations in south Florida lit up for days, listeners calling in to opine on Fidel's final hours. (One caller claimed the accident was undoubtedly a sign from the cosmos, that Castro's fate had already been written in the stars.)

If nothing else, Castro's misstep and the flood of media coverage that followed it had Cuban-Americans of all ages, incomes, ethnicities and political stripes thinking long and hard about two undeniable facts.

The first:

Fidel -- maker of revolution, torturer of 10 American presidents, indomitable icon of the Communist world -- is old, and getting older.

The second:

Someday, Fidel's Island will be Fidel-less -- which, as it happens, is worrisome not only to Cubans who have remained on the alligator-shaped island, but to many of their American-based compatriots.

What comes next?

It's not that Miami Cubans aren't eager to see a Cuba sans Castro. Leaders of the exile community here expect huge carnival-like celebrations to break out all over Little Havana the hour Castro's passing is announced.

What does worry them is the unknown: Once the champagne, wine, musicians and dancers are spent, what comes next?

Who, or what, exiles wonder, will be arriving with the dawn? And just how will the 11.2 million newly liberated Cubans -- if, indeed, they turn out to be truly "liberated" -- treat those among the 2 million or so Cuban exiles around the world who choose to return?

It's not easy for Cubans to picture their homeland without Fidel; in a way, it would be like the citizens of Oz trying to imagine an Emerald City without the wizard.

Most Cubans have known no other leader, no other value system than the Communist system. And, as anyone who knows the island and its people will tell you, Fidel knows his constituency better than anyone else on Earth; he has been, is, always will be the quintessential Cubano.

Fidel-less Cuba

Likewise, it is hard for Cubans to imagine a Fidel-less Cuba because the man designated as his successor, Castro's younger brother, Raul (at 73, no youngster himself), does not appear to have much of the magnetism, cleverness or political magic that Fidel possesses.

It is this haziness about what comes next that makes Jaime Suchlicki, director of the Institute of Cuban and Cuban-American Studies at the University of Miami, so sought after these days.

Suchlicki runs something called the "Cuban Transitional Project." He oversees the collection, sifting and analyzing of data on Cuba, so that recommendations can be made on how Cuba might best be rehabbed once Fidel is no more.

In other words, he's a Cuba fortune teller.

His output is impressive: the CTP has published 37 studies, created six databases, crafted four "mini" analyses, and cranked out an unceasing stream of fact sheets and monthly newsletters on Cuban politics, economics, demographics and human rights since 2002.

Suchlicki gets calls not only from think-tank types, but from Cuban-American entrepreneurs and multinational conglomerates-- IBM, McDonald's, Texaco, Anheuser-Busch -- all of which are concocting "entrance strategy" plans for Cuba.

Such preparations have been made before. When the Berlin Wall came down, when the Soviet Union broke apart, when Pope John Paul II visited Havana, and a time in the late '90s when the U.S. government toyed with the idea of easing its Cuba trade embargo.

Now, once again, factory locations are being pinpointed on maps; hotels, freeways, shopping malls are being sketched out, contingency contracts are being signed, staffs designated, bank loans readied. Companies most actively salivating over the Grand Opening are those that deal in tourism, telecommunications, vegetables, oil, fast food, and the Twins of Sin: tobacco and alcohol.

"Bottom line? Cuba isn't going to open up the way Eastern Europe did," he says. "I think Cuba will probably act more like China, only with a lot less economic freedom. In the beginning, anyway."

Why?

"The military. The armed forces are running 65 percent of the Cuban economy.




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