HAVANA (AP) - Raul Castro seems ready to discuss improving
relations with Washington. Brother Fidel is clearly uncomfortable
with the idea.
Do the mixed messages from Cuba's current and former presidents
reflect the communist leadership's resistance to moving too
quickly? Or are they a ploy for leverage ahead of any talks?
As the White House ponders its next move, the question of who
calls the shots in Cuba is less clear than ever.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described the delicate
situation in comments to Congress on Wednesday, saying the Obama
administration needs to be ready to engage with Cuba, even though
its government "is one that is very difficult to move."
Noting Fidel "contradicted" his brother in an essay published
earlier in the day, she said, "I think you can see there is
beginning to be a debate."
Some Cuban dissidents put a more negative spin on the brothers'
"Raul Castro says one thing and Fidel comes out in subsequent
days and says the opposite," said Miriam Leiva, founder of a
Havana-based support group for the wives and mothers of Cuban
political prisoners. "It's no way to run a government."
Fidel, 82, clearly sought to diminish expectations of a thaw in
Cuba-U.S. relations with his column, which asserted that President
Barack Obama "misinterpreted" Raul's seemingly conciliatory
statements last week.
At issue was Raul's declaration that his government is ready to
discuss "everything, everything, everything" with U.S.
negotiators, including human rights and freedom of the press in
Cuba and the 205 dissidents its government is accused of jailing.
Obama responded warmly at the Summit of the Americas, saying
perhaps the U.S. is ready for a new beginning with Cuba. But he
also said that as a sign of good will, Cuban authorities should
release political prisoners and reduce a 10 percent tax on the U.S.
dollars that Cuban-Americans send to support relatives on the
That angered Fidel, who called Obama's analysis of Cuban policy
"superficial" and said the U.S. leader had no right to suggest
even small concessions.
Obama "without a doubt misinterpreted Raul's declarations,"
Fidel wrote, without explaining exactly what he supposedly
Fidel defended the government's right to tax dollars received by
Cubans, a levy that he says is spent on social needs like food,
medicine and other goods.
Fidel did not directly contradict Raul, and he defended his
brother's comments, saying they showed "courage and confidence."
Still, the Castro brothers have certainly adopted different
tones, if not policy positions. That could mean there is a division
within Cuba's collective communist leadership over whether detente
is moving too fast. Or the leaders could be trying to create an
appearance of friction that keeps Cuba in the news and may become a
bargaining chip in any negotiations with the U.S.
"It's a game of political strategy," said Elizardo Sanchez,
the island's leading rights activist and head of the Cuban
Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation.
Sanchez praised Obama's decision to lift U.S. restrictions on
money and travel to Cuba by people with family on the island. "Now
is the time for pragmatic steps like those the United States has
taken because the Cuban government has done nothing," he said.
Fidel posted another column on a state-run Web site Wednesday
night, suggesting that Washington is attempting to foist its
political system on Cuba - but not directly broaching the subject
of bilateral negotiations.
Referring to Obama, he wrote that Cuba "has not asked for the
capitalist democracy in which you grew up and in which you
sincerely believe, as is your full right."
"We are not trying to export our political system to the United
States," Castro said.
Fidel has been publishing his "reflections" nearly every day,
and it seems likely that he will weigh in again on his brother's
sentiments toward Washington, Obama and better relations with the
U.S. But Raul probably won't respond. The 77-year-old has been
president since Fidel formally stepped down due to illness last
year, but he does not write commentaries and rarely even gives
speeches or addresses the news media.
This raises questions about who is really in charge.
"Here, Fidel has always made the final decisions," Leiva said.
"He is provoking and impeding, creating a confrontation between
the two countries because that's what Cuba uses to justify its
Leiva's husband, Oscar Espinosa Chepe, was a state-trained
economist who became a dissident and was among 75 political
opposition leaders arrested in 2003 and convicted on charges of
conspiring with Washington to undermine the communist system. He
has since been freed on medical parole, one of 21 prisoners from
the group now out of prison.
Raul suggested last year that Cuba would be willing to free more
political prisoners in a swap for five Cuban spies imprisoned in
the United States. So in some ways it didn't break new ground for
him to offer last week to trade "all" such prisoners and send
them and their families to America in exchange for the five Cubans
convicted of espionage.
Even Fidel defended the idea in the first of his essays, writing
that "no one should feel astonished that Raul spoke about
pardoning those who were convicted in March 2003 and about sending
them all to the United States, should that country be willing to
release the five Cuban anti-terrorism heroes."
Still, some Cubans were irritated by Fidel's insistence that
Obama misinterpreted the Cuban president's sentiments.
"These are contradictions that go against the people. They go
against working people, suffering people," said Wilfredo O'Farril,
a 59-year-old construction worker.
"I'm not afraid to say it. We are a people without a future,"
he said, adding that Fidel "first says one thing, then says
"We've been this way for 50 years."