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Brian Latell: Raúl Castro faces huge challenges ahead
CubaNews / March 2007

By Larry Luxner

Brian Latell has been in hot demand lately — though not everybody likes the message he’s delivering.

“I’ve been attacked verbally, pretty regularly in radio and TV shows, sometimes very vehemently,” he says. “Since my book came out — first in English and now in Spanish — people say I’m promoting Raúl and the raulista succession, and my response is: I’m not promoting anything or advocating Raúl, I’m just explaining the situation as it’s evolving.”

Latell recently spent an hour with CubaNews, discussing his career and his new 289-page book, entitled “After Fidel: Raúl Castro and the Future of Cuba’s Revolution.”

The book’s February 2007 release in paperback by publishers Palgrave MacMillan could hardly be any more timely.

It’s been eight months since 80-year-old Fidel Castro ceded power to his brother Raúl. right before emergency surgery for a condition known only to a handful of people.

The specific nature of Fidel’s illness is a state secret, though U.S. analysts suspect he’s suffering from diverticulitis. Recent reports show him talking and even walking, leading some in the regime — most recently Ricardo Alarcón, president of Cuba’s National Assembly — to boast that Fidel will be back in power soon.

Unlikely, says Latell.

“He’s clearly very gravely ill. I don’t think he’s ever going to come back to power,” the former CIA analyst told CubaNews. “That’s the assumption of the rest of the leadership, and it’s increasingly the assumption of the Cuban population. I think everyone is moving forward with the belief that Fidel Castro’s era is over.”

Latell, who divides his time between South Florida and Virginia’s Tidewater region, spent four decades tracking the Castro brothers for the CIA.

He studied in Mexico and Spain, taught at Georgetown University for 25 years, and from 1990 to 1994 was the U.S. government’s national intelligence officer for Latin America.

“That’s the most senior position in the intelligence community, and I had responsiblity for the whole region, though I worked more on other countries than on Cuba,” he said. “At that time, there was a lot more interest in Peru, Mexico and Central America, where the insurgencies were.”

Despite his expertise on the subject, Latell has met neither Fidel nor Raúl, and he’s only set foot in Cuba twice — once in 1990 and again in 1993. During his trips, he traveled around Havana, leaving the capital only to tour Varadero and Matanzas.

“I visited as a government official, with the approval and knowledge of the Cuban government,” he told us. “They really kept tabs on me.”

But Latell says he doesn’t want to mislead people by basing his views of Cuba on those two trips.

“Since my visits, conditions have vastly im-proved. I was there at absolutely the bottom. There was significant discontent at that time. After all, 1993 and 1994 saw the worst demonstrations against the regime in its history.”

Fast-forward to 2007, a year in which government officials are predicting a 10% jump in GDP, following Cuba’s astonishing 12.5% economic growth last year.

Few experts outside Cuba take these numbers literally, but Latell says there’s no question Cuba is enjoying an economic expansion.

At present, Latell is a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and at the University of Miami’s Institute for Cuban & Cuban-American Studies (ICCAS), a nonprofit agency that receives funds from the U.S. Agency for International Development.

The first edition of his book, originally published in hardcover in 2005, was well-received in the academic and intelligence community.

“After Fidel reflects the unusual imagination and clarity of the author who thinks and writes powerfully,” wrote the late Jeane Kirkpatrick, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and member of President Reagan’s cabinet.

Brig. Gen. Rafael del Pino, the highest-ranking defector of the Cuban military, had this to say about Latell’s book: “After Fidel is the first complete and detailed analysis available on the impenetrable world of the leaders of Cuba. Latell succeeds in putting together the puzzle that 10 American administrations have been trying to decipher. This is an invaluable work for those trying to understand Cuba and its future — the result of Brian Latell’s decades of dedication, discipline and sacrifice.”

Yet Latell’s opinions have sometimes gotten him into trouble, and despite his current association with ICCAS, Latell frequently disagrees with the institute’s outspoken director, Jaime Suchlicki — especially when it comes to current Bush administration policy on Cuba.

“I’ve always been known in the U.S. government and in my teaching career for speaking my mind. I’m an independent voice,” he said. “I speak the truth as I see it. That was the career I had in intelligence. I don’t speak for ICCAS or the University of Miami.”

And one thing Latell emphasizes is that the United States should pay attention and engage Raúl rather than pretend he doesn’t exist.

“Raúl has now twice spoken of his interest in becoming engaged with the United States,” he said. “I don’t know what he really has in mind, whether he has preconditions or whether he’d insist that the embargo be lifted before he engages in talks. But I would think that, since a number of American administrations have engaged in serious talks with Fidel Castro, that it would make sense to hear Raúl out.”

Latell says that Raúl, who will be 76 in June, doesn’t have his brother’s magnetism or personal charisma, but also lacks Fidel’s ego and may be easier to deal with.

Raúl’s immediate challenge, says the former CIA analyst, is to find a successor to the revolution he and Fidel started in the 1950s while bringing Cuba into the global economy — and resolving the regime’s differences with the United States.

“I think we should sit down and listen to what Raúl has on his mind, find out what kinds of concessions he might be willing to make. Maybe one way would be military-to-military contacts,” Latell said.

“But we cannot lose faith with the brave, courageous activists and the human-rights community. Those people have received indirect support from this country, and we need to honor them. Human-rights conditions on the island were abominable under Fidel, and they continue to be abominable.”

On the other hand, Latell says some things have definitely changed since Raúl assumed the day-to-day leadership of Cuba. One of those things is a much greater willingness to criticize the system’s failings in state-controlled media, including the Communist Party newspapers Granma and Juventud Rebelde. “Such things would never have happened under Fidel,” he says. “This is one of the key changes. Raúl himself told students at the University of Havana that you should fearlessly engage in debate. I think Raúl is very concerned about the younger generation and the economy — and the two, of course, are interlocked.”

Of course, the question on everyone’s minds is the same in both Miami and Havana: what will happen when Fidel dies?

Not that much, answers Latell, though he’s quick to add that the United States is “very wary about saying anything that might induce or provoke instability” among Cuba’s 11.2 million inhabitants.

“The last thing the administration wants is instability on the island leading to another boatlift. I don’t know of any [Bush] spokesman who has said or intimated anything provoking an incident in Cuba. That could get out of control, and South Florida could be flooded.”

He predicted: “Raúl will not do anything to intentionally force an exodus, like Fidel did in 1965 and 1980, and again in 1994. It would be potentially destabilizing for him, because it would confront the Bush administration in a way he doesn’t want.”

On the other hand, says Latell, “if there were large-scale instability caused by factors that his government could not control, I think chances are very high there would be another boatlift.”

In the meantime, now that he’s updated his book, Latell says his next project is to write another non-fiction book from his home along the Chesapeake Bay — partly based on personal experiences.

And one day, says the scholar, he’d love to return to the island that has fascinated him for over 40 years.

“I haven’t applied for a visa. I haven’t even tested the waters,” he told us. “I’m just not sure what the response would be.”

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