Cuban President Raúl Castro was the longest speaker at last weekend’s Summit of the Americas in Panama. At age 83, he was also the oldest.
And that matters as the U.S. and Cuba normalize relations after a half century of cold war – a process that on Tuesday led President Obama to remove Cuba from the State Department’s list of terrorism sponsors.
It matters because President Obama says his new engagement policy isn’t meant to change Cuba overnight. It’s meant to help the U.S. influence democratic change once Castro’s generation of hardline communists is gone.
But that begs the question: What about Cuba’s next generation of communists?
The eventual success or failure of Obama’s strategy may well depend on how Gorbachev-like they turn out to be, on how they interpret the leftist maxim that “every generation has to make their own revolution,” as Cuban communist Sergio Gómez told me at the Panama summit.
At age 27, Gómez is a senior international editor for Granma, Cuba’s official communist newspaper. He’s an intellectually bright, articulate and well traveled Marxist, and he's part of the cohort that could play a more pivotal role when Castro leaves power in 2018 as he’s promised.
For that reason I sought out Gómez and a number of young oficialistas, or Castro loyalists, who had a large presence at the summit – the first Cuba had ever been invited to attend.
I didn’t expect them to stray from the party line. Gómez, for example, still bristles at the U.S.
“We have been enemies,” he said. “We are still enemies.”
But I did listen for any hint that they might be more open to the kind of reform the U.S. eventually hopes to see in Cuba. This, after all, is a group that is better educated and more knowledgeable about the U.S. than Castro’s cohort ever was.
“Since we are small [children] we learn about the United States,” said Gómez. “We almost know everything about the United States because it’s important in our own life.”
That means they know about things like multi-party elections. Those are still prohibited in Cuba – but in February the communist youth newspaper, Juventud Rebelde, hosted an unusual online forum that allowed Cubans to suggest electoral reforms.
So I asked the loyalists if they consider freer elections a possibility in post-Castro Cuba.
While Gómez defended Cuba’s autocratic government, he also made a telling argument: Cuba’s system, he said, is a necessary defense against U.S. aggression.
“The political system in Cuba is not the result of a normal situation, that’s important to know,” he said. “A half century of confrontation between the United States and Cuba. We have been in a war the [past] half century.”
OK. But if I accept that premise, I said, doesn’t the rapprochement between Washington and Havana mean Cuba can chill now and loosen up?
Gómez at least left the door open:
“Our political system is changing with time,” he said. “We can change [it] – except [its] principles and values.”
That last part, however – defining what the Cuban Revolution’s inviolable “principles and values” are – is a big stumbling block. Is the one-party system one of them? Many of the oficialistas I spoke with seemed to think so – and they’re convinced Cuba already is a democracy.
CHE GUEVARA T-SHIRTS
“It’s not recognized in any international treaty that democracy means [a] multi-party system,” said Patricia Flechilla, 26, who wore a dark red T-shirt sporting the iconic image of revolutionary Che Guevara.
Flechilla is a member of the Federation of Cuban Women, a key communist party satellite group. To her, multi-party elections were part of the corrupt world the revolution overthrew in 1959.
“We had different parties [but] we didn’t have education, we didn’t have [a] healthcare system,” she said.
Flechilla also made it clear that the U.S. may not find Cuba’s next communists all that easy to deal with on another core issue: human rights. For starters, the young comunistas don’t even see a free speech problem in Cuba:
“If you go to Cuba, you will see that we have many, many spaces to have dialogues,” Flechilla insisted.
Cuban dissidents often go to jail for publicly speaking against the Castro regime. But many of them were allowed to attend the Panama summit. Even so, the Castro loyalists tended to regard them all as U.S.-sponsored traitors.
“When they speak openly against the government [inside Cuba],” said Flechilla, “they do it trying to subvert the public order. And that is against the law.”
Still, younger communists like Dianet Martínez do reflect one ray of human rights advancement: a new tolerance for religion. Martínez is a Presbyterian communist (that’s not a writer’s error) and she belongs to the Student Christian Movement of Cuba – a group whose government endorsement once would have been unthinkable.
“If I’m here today, it’s because of the right of expression I have in Cuba,” Martínez argued.
And the one area of reform the loyalists did find acceptable was the moribund Cuban economy.
“Our economy hasn’t worked exactly as we need,” Granma's Gómez admitted.
That’s a major understatement. But the acknowledgment is good news for U.S. engagement policy, because making Cuba’s economy work again means promoting private businesses – and that sector's independence could undermine communist authority.
Which means it could have a lot to say about how Cuba's next generation, as the young communists told me, makes its own revolution.
Tim Padgett is WRLN's Americas editor. You can read more of his coverage here.