Interview on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (Canadian national public radio) program Home Run, 5:10 p.m., Tuesday, February 19, 2008, on the issue of Fidel Castro’s message released on February 19.
Bernard St-Laurent (BSL): Well, Fidel Castro said farewell this morning. He did it in a resignation letter to the people of Cuba. He is 81 years old. He spent 49 of those years as President of Cuba. He moved out of the limelight in 2006 because of illness. People have been speculating for a long time about changes that might happen after Castro’s departure. Arnold August is a Montrealer. He [has] spent much of his time observing, studying and writing about Cuba. He is just back from his 35th visit to the island. It is a pleasure to welcome you to our studio. Thanks for coming in.
Arnold August (AA): It is a pleasure to be here, thank you.
BSL: So, what was your first reaction when you heard the news?
AA: When I heard the news very early this morning, I thought to myself that this is a very logical decision, a normal decision. At the same time, I also noticed that Fidel Castro said he will be continuing his work, will continue to write. So he has not really said farewell; he has not really retired. It is true, as you say, that he will not accept on February 24, when the new legislature is constituted, the position of president of the State Council. However, he will be continuing to write on international and Cuban issues.
BSL: But how much impact, how much influence, will he have in terms of Cuba after President Castro?
AA: Well, in terms of his writings, based on my discussions with the Cuban officials and people on the street, the Cubans have a great deal of respect for Fidel Castro’s opinions regarding Cuba and even the future of humanity, which many agree is in danger. This is so because of environmental problems, of wars of aggression carried out by the United States. In addition, even though he is retiring as far as [being] president of the Council of State, I am quite sure, knowing very well the Cuban political culture, he will be consulted on important overall orientations for Cuba as long as he is able to do so.
BSL: What have you been hearing from Cubans on the island today?
AA: I just spoke to a couple of my colleagues in Havana before coming here to the studio. I asked them, “What is the situation there?” They said basically that everything is normal in Havana at this time. A normal day. One person said to me, that today she, as well as her colleagues at work, said that it is a very logical, intelligent decision on the part of Fidel. However, they say that he is bound to be very useful as he continues writing about different subjects regarding the international scene or Cuba.
BSL: Now, correct me if I am wrong, but I think that President Castro said there was a need for a period of transition so that Cubans can get used to life without him as president.
AA: In fact, when I spoke to some of my friends in Havana today, this is exactly what they said. You are absolutely right. That necessity to get used to the situation has been going on for a year and a half since Fidel became ill and gave much of his responsibility to Raúl Castro and other leaders. So this comes as no major change. One person I spoke to in Havana today mentioned to me that the real shock came a year and a half ago when he became ill and was no longer able to carry out his function.
However, you are right. This “transition” period, if you like, that you mention, has been going on for a year and a half. That is why today, and I am sure as well tomorrow and the day after, things are going to be very normal in Havana and throughout the island.
BSL: Now, you were recently in Cuba to observe the elections to the National Assembly. What struck you most when you were there?
AA: About the elections?
AA: What struck me most, taking into account the announcement we heard this morning from Fidel, is that Cuba has been working for quite some time to regenerate, to renovate the people active in the Revolution. One thing I noticed regarding the election results of January 20, 2008, is that over 60% of the newly elected deputies were born after 1959, after the Triumph of the Revolution.
BSL: OK, so how will the new generation change Cuba?
AA: The problem of changing things in Cuba is, of course, on the agenda; it has been so for a long time. In general, the population is in tune with the socialist system there, with their political system. They are especially satisfied and proud that they have an independent state in the face of the U.S. However, there are still many problems, especially economic issues regarding housing, distribution and availability of food, and others. Therefore, the changes that they want to bring about concern improvements on these issues, such as housing, the variety and accessibility of foodstuffs, appropriate transportation, but always within the basic context of the socialist system and safeguarding their independence vis-à-vis the United States.
BSL: Right. As long as Venezuela and President Chávez support them, they will be able to continue?
AA: There is no doubt that what you say is correct, namely that the current excellent relations, economically and politically, between Cuba and Venezuela help Cuba a lot. They also help Venezuela a lot.
BSL: Because Cuba sends doctors to Venezuela?
AA: Exactly, as well as assisting with education, helping Venezuela virtually eliminate illiteracy in a very short period. This favourable situation goes beyond Venezuela; there are also Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua and many others.
BSL: I wanted to ask you, there is a lot of attention being focused now on the U.S. presidential elections. There is going to be a new regime, either McCain, or Hillary or Obama. How will a new president of the United States, how will a new regime in Washington, affect relations with Cuba?
AA: Well, I do not want to be too pessimistic, but one has to be realistic. Regarding policy toward Cuba, since 1959 the Republicans and the Democrats basically had the same orientation against Cuba. The Democrats and Republicans have been in power one after the other since 1959, but not one of these administrations has moved to lift the blockade against Cuba. Therefore, I do not believe that there is going to be a major change irrespective of who is elected from among the two major parties.
BSL: Is that because of the political clout that Cuban-Americans, primarily in Miami and Florida, continue to hold?
AA: I would say that this is one of the most important reasons. Many Cuban-Americans are very wealthy. As everyone knows, you can just search on the Internet and you will see for yourself that the amount of money that goes to the candidates is crucial for anyone to win elections in the U.S. We will see once they get elected what changes will be brought about.
BSL: Mr. August, thanks for coming in, helping us understand.
AA: It is a pleasure. I hope that things are a bit clearer now. Thank you.
BSL: Arnold August is a Montreal author. He has written Democracy in Cuba and the 1997–98 Elections and has another forthcoming publication on Cuban democracy.