Castro brothers send mixed messages to USA

HAVANA – 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 yesterday, 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 yesterday, 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’ messages. ‘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 latest 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 island. 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 misunderstood. 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 clearly 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 has been publishing his ‘reflections’ nearly every day, and will likely continue, but Raul isn’t likely to 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 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 repressive policies.’ 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 espinoage. Even Fidel defended the idea in his latest essay, 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 yesterday 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 another. We’ve been this way for 50 years.’