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Trinidad Dispatch

It's Thursday evening in Trinidad, Cuba, and Fidel Castro has a captive audience. In house after house on the cobblestoned main street of this river town 200 miles southeast of Havana, the image of El Comandante flickers from Soviet-era TV sets. Of course, it's hard not to score high ratings when your country has only two TV stations, both of them state-run, and the neighborhood Committee for the Defense of the Revolution keeps watch on who's tuning in and who isn't. But the old days of unquestioning Fidelism are long gone, and several Trinidad residents were less than enthusiastic about the comandante's droning monologue. A waiter in one of the handful of semi-legal private restaurants in Trinidad groaned as Fidel's speech entered its fifth hour. He studied the gaunt figure on the TV screen. "He's losing it," the waiter muttered.

Forty-six years after Fidel Castro seized power, the majority of his country's eleven million people have known no other leader. But that may soon change. Although the word "succession" is taboo in Cuba's government-controlled media, the leader's health has been a growing source of speculation here. In recent years, Fidel has suffered several fainting spells, as well as a shattered kneecap and broken arm in a fall. One Western scholar told me that, at a recent appearance, the Cuban dictator appeared to be wearing a heavily padded suit to disguise his increasingly frail physique. As a result, more and more Cubans have begun to consider the once-unthinkable: life after Fidel.

For the Bush administration, that can't happen soon enough. In recent years, the White House, which has staffed the State Department's Latin American Affairs bureau with hard-line Cuban exiles, has put the squeeze on Havana, tightening the economic embargo and cracking down on cultural exchanges and family visits. The belief in Washington is that inflicting more misery is the best way to guarantee a thaw after Castro falls. The U.S. strategy is, "Give them no life preservers," one Western diplomat in Havana says. And yet, even as Castro falters, the White House is unlikely to get its wish. Change is likely to come slowly in post-Castro Cuba. In fact, Castro and the ruling elite appear to be paving the way for an authoritarian successor--and the U.S. crackdown might only bolster Fidel and his friends.

While critics of U.S. policy toward Cuba often complain that politicians are forced to placate Florida's Cuban exiles, recent U.S. moves suggest that the Bush administration is eager, rather than begrudging, in its efforts to tighten the screws on Havana. Administration officials hope that sharp economic pain will put pressure on Cuba to enact reform--or, better still, that it will bring down Castro's regime altogether. James Cason, a tough Latin America specialist appointed by President Bush in 2002 to head the U.S. Interests section in Havana, courts pro-embargo dissidents and launches frequent barbs at Castro. He recently put up a mock Cuban prison cell in the lobby of the U.S. high-rise overlooking el Malecon, Havana's seafront boulevard. He is known to refer to his time in Havana as "living behind enemy lines."

Meanwhile, the U.S. Treasury Department has slashed the number of licenses it grants to American groups for cultural and academic visits to Cuba (I visited Cuba on one such difficult-to-obtain license). Licensed travelers can no longer bring back the $100 worth of Cuban goods they had been allowed for decades. Treasury has also cut the number of visits that Cuban exiles in the United States can make to family members back home, from one a year to one every three years, and slashed the amount of money the visitors can give relatives, from $3,000 to $300.

But diplomats, analysts, and Cubans themselves believe that Bush's hard-line approach isn't working. The Cuban government's political repression, economic crackdown, and tight control of information, they argue, may well keep control firmly in the hands of the regime--at least for several years after Castro dies. In the last two years, Castro and his associates have tightened tax requirements for the handful of private businesses that are allowed to operate, forcing many to close. The number of people who now work for themselves rather than for the state fell from a high of 209,000 to about 150,000 last year. Ordinary shops no longer accept U.S. dollars from Cubans, and the government demands a 10 percent service charge to change dollars into "convertible pesos"-- a fee that, because of a peso reevaluation, is effectively about to double, in another blow to Cuban families that depend on remittances from Miami for survival. Castro's close relationship with President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela has helped the country stay afloat: Chavez sends his compadre 53,000 barrels of oil per day to keep the lights on.

Meanwhile, reformers are increasingly targeted. "There is--what would you call it?--a pogrom going on now," says Oswaldo Paya, the country's leading dissident. According to Paya, several months ago, Castro's secret police began tracking down all 45,000 signatories to the Varela Project, a list of names calling for freedom of the press, free enterprise, and multiparty elections. "They tell them they will lose their jobs unless they remove their names," he says. Paya, who looked tired and flu-ridden, is himself under round-the-clock surveillance.

This crackdown is unlikely to ease any time soon. Most diplomats in Havana believe that power post-Fidel will likely pass to Raul Castro, Fidel's younger brother. While considered to be more flexible than Fidel, Raul still commands the allegiance of the Cuban military and would probably support much of the same rigid central planning, press censorship, and one-party rule espoused by Fidel. So, too, would the generals and party hacks at the top levels of the Central Committee. Government insiders who dare to stray from the party line are silenced: When grumbling arose over Castro's policy of dispatching thousands of physicians to Venezuela in exchange for oil, Castro, according to a diplomat in Havana, promptly forced one of his ministers to step down. "In the last two years, there has been little dissent within the government," one European diplomat in Havana told me. "There is no group of potential reformers that we can focus on." Liberals in Cuba are bitterly divided, with hard-liner dissidents like Martha Beatriz Roque, a favorite of the White House, attacking Paya for his willingness to enter into a dialogue with the Cuban government, and Paya claiming that Roque is too close to Cuban exiles in Florida.

The White House's harder line may even bolster popular support for Castro. Many Cubans still manifest a sense of pride in their homegrown revolution and get defensive when challenged about Castro or their political system. "Don't lecture us about freedom of the press when you don't have it in your own country," one government-sanctioned novelist told me at a meeting I had with members of a writer's cooperative in Havana. He cited the Bush administration's quiet payoffs to several journalists to be mouthpieces for administration policy and the high profile of Fox News as "evidence" of government control of the media. In the town of Cienfuegos on the southern coast, several writers and artists insisted that most Cuban dissidents were "mercenaries" and "American agents" on the "U.S. government payroll."

Paya insists that the economic embargo has been a failure, and he and other anti-embargo dissidents argue that it allows Castro to portray the United States as the enemy of the man on the street. Many others agree. One European diplomat in Havana points out that Cuba gets most of its necessities--such as medicine and oil--from other countries, while using the embargo to intensify anti-American sentiment. Although Paya has met with Cason, he goes out of his way to stress his distance from the Americans. "We're not in business with anyone," he says. "We represent the interests of the Cubans."

Cason, in fact, may be one of the Cuban government's best assets. Castro and his friends have scored political points with many Cubans by ridiculing the hard-line American envoy at every turn. TV spots portray him as a cartoon rat and dismiss him as a servile Army "corporal" kowtowing to the "generals" in Washington. And Cason's charges that the Cuban government regularly violates human rights has played right into Castro's hands. Now Cason can't leave his downtown Havana office without confronting a stark mural, directly in front of the U.S. Interests section, that portrays hooded, humiliated prisoners at Abu Ghraib. It's an image of the United States that may endure well after Castro is gone.

This article originally ran in the May 23, 2005 issue of the magazine.