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By Larry Smith


Tuesday, February 19, 2008.


Today, the news from Havana is that Fidel Castro has finally resigned as Cuba's President and Commander-in-Chief. Flipping through the channels one sleepless night, we happened upon a grainy black and white interview of Fidel Castro by the late Jack Paar, a former host of NBC's Tonight Show.


Turns out that Paar was enthusiastically welcoming a young Fidel in a Havana hotel on the very night that he became the pre-eminent political leader of Cuba in February 1959 - a month or so after the revolutionaries rode into the capital on tanks. It is said to be Castro's only on-camera interview with an American conducted in English.


Smiling, affable and smoking a trademark cigar, Castro told Paar (who was concerned that he might be tired after the revolution) that he could "ask all that you want for the public opinion of the United States."


There was nothing particularly insightful in that brief conversation - it was just a frozen moment in time resonating across half a century, from the point when Castro first arrived on the world scene to the point where he is about to exit stage left.


In the late 1950s Cubans from all walks of life united against their despised president, Fulgencia Batista. And Castro, a lawyer and onetime election candidate, became a charismatic revolutionary figure who described his political goals as "representative democracy and social justice in a well-planned economy."


After moderates broke with the Revolution and were either executed, imprisoned or exiled, the US made a fatal mistake by supporting Cuban exiles in the failed 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion.


Ever since, Castro has maintained a special intransigence towards America, which led to a nuclear showdown at the height of the Cold War.


But many believe that Castro's dislike for the United States has deeper roots. His father (a wealthy Spanish plantation owner) moved to Cuba after Spain's ignominious defeat in the Spanish-American War, and Fidel was well-known from a young age for his passionately nationalistic views.


In fact, American sources speaking on background have said that Castro's visceral hatred for the US would prevent a political accommodation even if he were not a communist and the embargo was withdrawn tomorrow.


So what will happen now that Fidel Castro is no longer the all-powerful dictator of Cuba?


It is the question on everyone's lips these days - and since the Bahamas is only a few dozen miles from Cuba at its closest point, it is a particularly pregnant question for us.


According to Felix Masud-Piloto, director of DePaul Univesity's Centre for Latino Research: "When someone has been in power for so long and has played such a central role in everything that has happened in Cuba, as well as its relations with the rest of the world, it's going to leave a big hole. Whether you love him or hate him, Fidel Castro is a giant in international politics -- a dominant political figure of the 20th century."


Some analysts say that Castro's earlier cession of power to his brother Raul in order to undergo abdominal surgery is merely protocol required by the Cuban constitution. And even if he were to die or become incapacitated, there is no sign that the Communist Party will be overthrown.


Not too long ago, a US presidential commission called for an $80 million programme to bolster non-governmental groups in Cuba and hasten an end to the country's communist system. A "transition co-ordinator" has been appointed in Washington, tasked with accelerating the end of the Stalinist regime that Castro built over the past half-century.


Dr Brent Hardt of the US Embassy in Nassau, said that America wanted a free and democratic Cuba reintegrated into the inter-American system.


"The imposition of Raul Castro denies the Cuban people their right to freely elect their government. We are ready to help Cuba through a democratic transition and are prepared to rapidly provide substantial humanitarian relief to support a genuine transition," he said.


And already there are credible calls in the US for an end to the embargo and normalization of relations. Some lawmakers want to repeal the 1996 Helms-Burton Act, which prevents the United States from lifting sanctions until Cuba holds free elections and releases political prisoners. The law also prohibits recognizing a transitional Cuban government led by Castro's brother and designated successor, Raul.


Most analysts think little will change in the immediate aftermath of Castro's death or incapacitation. His hardline brother, Raul, has a strong base in the military, although he lacks Fidel's charisma. So the most likely short-term outcome, they say, is a military-backed regime that will seek to maintain the status quo.


But few doubt that the communist system will eventually collapse without Castro, despite the support of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez for an ongoing anti-American alliance. Analysts say that cautious market reforms following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 "began to unravel the entire structure so that the frightened government quickly backtracked."


During the Cold War, the Soviets subsidized Castro by supplying cheap oil and buying Cuban sugar at a premium. And the Cuban economy declined by more than a third after the Soviet bloc disintegrated. An important part of the regime's response was to allow foreign investment in the tourism sector for the first time.


In 1989, there were only about 300,000 visitors generating $240 million for the Cuban economy, but by 2005 more than 2.3 million tourists visited the island, choosing from more than 43,000 hotel rooms and spending $2.6 billion. Most of the travelers were from Canada, Britain, Italy, Spain and Mexico.


Although this is roughly half of the Bahamas' total visitor count of 5 million last year, it has to be noted that Cuba is the largest island in the Caribbean, with mountain ranges, fertile plains and valleys, and a 2300-mile coastline with deep harbours, coral islands and miles of beaches. Cuba also offers a proud history and culture blending Spanish and African influences.


Cuba now has 10 international airports served by 100 airlines connecting to 40 cities worldwide. And there are 16 regions throughout the island with possibilities for another 164,000 hotel rooms. If US travel restrictions were lifted, Cuban officials predict total visitors in 2010 could reach 12 million. So the competitive threat that Cuba poses to the rest of the region is enormous.


According to the Barbados Free Press weblog, this threat cannot be overstated:

"Thanks to the USA’s embargo and travel ban, Barbados has not had to vie with Cuba for American tourism dollars. With a dramatic resurgence in the Cuban tourism industry, and an increased number of Cuban resorts catering to both the low and high-end tourists from the USA and Europe, can Barbados still be competitive? We already lose significant visitors to Cuba from the Canadian and European markets. Without the American-legislated “head-start” how will we fare?


And, the bloggers added for good measure: "Think about the potential impact of over 100,000 square kilometres of Cuban lands being dumped onto the free market at rock bottom prices in an attempt to jump-start Free Cuba's economy and foreign investment."


Bahamian tourism officials have been thinking about the long-term impact of an opening of Cuba on the US market, although they do not see it as an immediate threat:


"We are an English destination and they are a Spanish destination," one official source said, "so that is an advantage for North American tourists. "Certainly we will have to increase our marketing efforts to differentiate our product, to maintain and grow our US and other country market share. But Cuba and The Bahamas are two different destinations that can effectively compete. We will have to continue our efforts to target new markets like China, India, and Brazil."


"The curiosity factor for visiting Cuba will be huge, but high-end travelers demand a greater level of service than that currently offered by most Cuban properties and businesses. There will be a period of time for Cuba to catch up."


And it is also likely that there will be a power struggle in Cuba that could go on for years. Since the state owns all hotels, management chains can leave with little loss in the event of unrest. And even with an elected government, there will be many problems related to Cuban-Americans seeking to reclaim properties confiscated by the Castro regime.


Perhaps the most immediate risk to the Bahamas from a post-Castro transition is the same as that faced by the United States - the prospect of mass migration.

The average Cuban lives on about $8-$10 a month, surviving on food rations and free health and education services. But Communist Party members live much better than ordinary people and have access to luxury goods and better jobs.


Political discontent in 1980 led to the exodus of more than 100,000 Cubans to Florida during the so-called Mariel Boatlift, overwhelming local authorities and the US Coast Guard. Another wave of emigration came after the collapse of the Soviet bloc, which threw Cuba into an economic tailspin in the early 1990s.


Post-Castro instability in Cuba can be expected to lead to more mass migration, although there is no sign of that yet. Newspaper reports say that the Coast Guard, which routinely patrols the water between Cuba and Florida, has been closely watching for any increase of refugees following Castro's health announcement.


The Bush II Administration says military forces stand ready to avert any mass immigration of Cubans in the event of chaos on the island - another Cuban blockade.

In the worst-case scenario, there could be a civil war, producing 2 or 3 million refugees, experts say.


If such an exodus does occur, many Cubans will no doubt end up on Bahamian shores. And the pregnant question is, what will we do about that - rely on the Americans?


Larry Smith writes a column called "Tough Call" every Wednesday for the Bahamas Nassau Tribune. A former reporter and editor, he now operates a communications agency in Nassau (www.bahamasmedia.com). He also blogs at Bahamapundit.


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