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‘Real change can only come from Cubans themselves’

Ronaldo Schemidt, AFP | High school students wait for the urn with the ashes of Cuban leader Fidel Castro as it is driven through Santa Clara on December 1, 2016.

Fidel Castro’s death last month came as the Communist-ruled island restores ties with the US and slowly opens its economy. FRANCE 24 spoke to Miriam Leiva, an independent journalist, about Cuba’s historic leader and the prospect of political change.

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After nine days of national mourning following Castro’s death on November 25, and widespread coverage of the leader's legacy and posthumous ceremonies, life has returned to normal in the country. Cuba's economic hardships continue, while a small, but increasingly vocal opposition, demands more meaningful changes.

Leiva, 69, is a former high-ranking Cuban diplomat and the widow of the economist Oscar Espinosa Chepe, who worked as an advisor to Castro until he was declared a “counter-revolutionary” by the government. Espinosa was fired in the 1990s and became a political prisoner in 2003. Leiva was also fired from her ministry job after refusing to disavow her husband.

Independent Cuban journalist Miriam Leiva in her home in Havana in November, 2016
Independent Cuban journalist Miriam Leiva in her home in Havana in November, 2016

In 2003, she co-founded the Ladies in White opposition group, but left in 2008 to dedicate herself to writing. She was among a group of Cuban opposition figures who met President Barack Obama during his historic visit to Havana in March, 2016.

FRANCE 24: Who was Fidel Castro for you?

Miriam Leiva: Fidel Castro was the most loved politician in Cuba in the first years of the revolution. But his hunger for notoriety and absolute power brought economic, political and social chaos to Cuba. He divided Cuban families, fuelled exile, and destroyed the economy with his gigantic and unproductive plans. He banned everything, made everything illegal in Cuba.

F24: What do you think about Fidel's last wish, rejecting a cult of personality around him?

Leiva: [Cuban President] Raul Castro said that Fidel did not want a cult of personality, but his cult of personality is already very intense. The government is not going to build a plaza in his honour, but Fidel is already everywhere, he is in ether. It's horrible, on television they are not only comparing him to [Cuban independence hero Jose] Marti, that’s always been the case, but I’ve also heard people saying Fidel is the “father of the country”. The government or the [Communist] Party do not say it themselves, but they are putting the idea out there, telling people to say that. They are replacing Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, who is the historical father of the Cuban nation! That cult of personality always existed in Cuba, but now we are going to see much more of it, especially in order to justify everything Raul Castro and the new government will do in the future.

F24: How has this time of improved relations with Washington and Fidel Castro’s death been for political dissidents in Cuba?

Leiva: I have always backed lifting the US embargo on Cuba and the end of the island’s isolation, because totalitarian governments need that isolation. The Cuban government exploited the confrontation with the United States to justify all the disasters here, which they would always blame on the threat of “Yankee imperialism” and the embargo.

Obama's measures have helped ordinary Cubans, from receiving remittances to closer contact between Cubans and Americans, both here in Cuba and abroad. In the case of the opposition, Obama directly expressed to Raul Castro the need to stop the repression and to open new spaces for dialogue. [Obama] said it publicly at the press conference with Raul, and repeated it when he met us in person.

Raul Castro started implementing a new kind of repression starting in 2006. Instead of long-term detentions or the firing squad, the regime is using short-term detentions that last hours or days. So the system is the same, and the people running the country are the same, and no foreign country is going to end that. Foreign countries can help change things, diminish repression, but the regime is not going to renounce its power. I believe that neither Obama nor any government can completely eliminate repression in Cuba. They can help, but real change depends on Cubans; it really all depends on Cubans themselves.

F24: What would you like the future to look like for Cuba?

Leiva: I hope that one day all Cubans can participate in the political, economic and social decision-making in their own country. Participate in all decisions.

I think a hopeful sign is the “oath” to Fidel that Cubans were invited to sign after his death, and I think the words they chose are important. The text comes from a speech in which he said “revolution is seizing the historical moment, to change everything that needs changing”. Of course it’s much longer than that, but supposedly it has also been written next to his tomb.

Raul Castro's economic reforms have been too slow, with practically no positive results so far. But in April of this year he told the [Communist] Party Congress that the major barrier on change was to cling to the past and to obsolete ideas.

Those words by Fidel, and what Raul has said, it gives me hope. Hopes are always dashed here in Cuba, but anyway, if they truly embrace that idea and they even wrote it on Fidel’s tomb, maybe change will come.

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