Aging exiles wait for Castro to die

December 31, 2005

Houston Chronicle- Carol J. Williams

ALONG THE FLORIDA STRAITS - On both sides of this 90-mile-wide waterway separating the United States and Cuba, the aging adversaries of the Cold War's most enduring battle are exercising, eating right and trying to outlast one another.

Septuagenarian Cuban exiles like Alfredo Duran, a Bay of Pigs veteran and Miami lawyer, proclaim themselves fit for the day that mortality will vanquish archenemy Fidel Castro and they can return triumphant to their homeland.

But the 79-year-old communist leader, who has withstood assassination attempts, a U.S. embargo and economic stagnation and who will mark his 47th year in power on New Year's Day, takes care of himself as well.

He eschews the cigars and rum for which his country is famous and adheres to a natural food diet.

Although the CIA recently claimed he suffers from Parkinson's disease, Castro has appeared hale and strapping lately, well enough to stand for hours ranting against imperialism and opponents of his revolution.

From Havana to Washington there is a sense that, inevitably, Cuba will embrace the reforms and democracy that have swept other communist countries over the past two decades. But there is also a prevailing sense of resignation that nothing can be done to hasten the process and that only Castro's death will clear the way.

"People are just waiting," said Damian Fernandez, head of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University. "They want a biological solution."

Cuba's succession process calls for Castro's lifelong understudy, his 74-year-old brother Raul, to take power when he dies. Exactly how he would lead the nation remains unknown. But U.S. lawmakers, trade group officials and others who have had contact with Cuba's leadership say some officials desire reform but will not speak openly about it, in deference to Castro.

While most Cubans are proud of the early social accomplishments of Castro's tenure, many are disenchanted with the lack of entrepreneurial opportunities.

In conversations with Cubans in Havana, not one spoke in support of the current crackdown on private enterprise. Most cited Castro as the main obstacle to a freer and more prosperous Cuba.

For Duran, the Bay of Pigs veteran, the exile community's strategy of waiting for Castro to die is tantamount to allowing their communist adversaries to declare victory. He despairs of both Castro's repression and the official U.S. strategy of isolating and impoverishing Cubans in the hope of driving them into rebellion.

"I'm dieting and exercising, trying to outlast him. I want to see the transition."


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