June 12, 2005. BY TODD LEWAN. AP
MIAMI -- On this side of the Puddle, as the sunlit sea between Florida and Cuba is known to some Cuban exiles here, the biggest news splash in quite some time was the fall of Fidel Castro.
It happened last October -- although clearly, it was not the sort of fall for which Castro's enemies have long hoped. Fidel simply fell while descending a stage in Santa Clara, where he had just given one of his gargantuan public addresses. With his bodyguards looking on, Castro went into a forward plunge that left the Cuban leader with a broken left knee and a hairline fracture to his upper right arm.
Helped to a folding chair, the 78-year-old president tried to make light of his spill. ''As you can see,'' Castro told television viewers, ''I can still talk.''
On this side of the Puddle, talk of the fall was anything but light.
If nothing else, Castro's misstep and the flood of media coverage that followed it had Cuban Americans of all ages, incomes, ethnicities and political stripes thinking long and hard about two undeniable facts.
*Fidel -- maker of revolution, torturer of 10 U.S. presidents, indomitable icon of the communist world -- is old, and getting older.
*Someday, Fidel's Island will be Fidel-less -- which, as it happens, is worrisome not only to Cubans who have remained on the island, but to many of their U.S.-based compatriots.
Military has tight grip.
Who, or what, exiles wonder, will be arriving with the dawn? And just how will the 11.2 million newly liberated Cubans -- if, indeed, they turn out to be truly ''liberated'' -- treat those among the 2 million or so Cuban exiles around the world who choose to return?=
It is this haziness about what comes next that makes Jaime Suchlicki, director of the Institute of Cuban and Cuban-American Studies at the University of Miami, so sought after these days.
Suchlicki runs the ''Cuban Transitional Project.'' He oversees the collection, sifting and analyzing of data on Cuba, so recommendations can be made on how Cuba might be rehabbed once Fidel is no more.
Suchlicki gets calls not only from think-tank types, but also from Cuban-American entrepreneurs and multinational conglomerates -- IBM, McDonald's, Texaco, Anheuser-Busch -- which are concocting ''entrance strategy'' plans.
But Suchlicki says American firms may have to wait a while -- five to 10 years after Castro's death.
''Cuba isn't going to open up the way Eastern Europe did,'' he says. ''I think Cuba will probably act more like China, only with a lot less economic freedom. In the beginning, anyway.''
Why? ''The military.
The armed forces are running 65 percent of the Cuban economy. Those guys are not going back to the barracks -- not unless they think they can make more money for themselves by wearing a suit and a tie.''
The fact that Cuba is, literally, an island unto itself and equipped with a sophisticated homeland security apparatus should make it easier for the country's generals to keep capitalism at sea for years, he says.
''Of course, in the end, it will depend on how they manage the economy. Sure, it's a disaster right now, but the Communists are helped by three factors: cheap Venezuelan oil, tourism, and remittances from Cuban exiles. I think they'll be able to muddle through for a good, long while.'' And to Cuban-Americans who dream about returning to Cuba to become president, Suchlicki has one bit of advice: ''Get a good suntan.''
Nowadays, he notes, Cuba is one-third white and two-thirds black and mulatto -- the reverse of what it was in 1959. ''I can't see mulattos in Cuba voting for a white, fat-cat Cuban-American.''
$80 billion, 15-20 years= There are those in Little Havana who say a tsunami of Miami exiles will wash over the Caribbean island upon Castro's death, leaving golden arches, freshly paved highways, spanking new hotels, and lots of smiles in their wake.
Antonio Jorge, a renowned guru of Cuban economics who teaches at Florida International University, says these rosy predictions are hokum. Studies, he says, show that fewer than 100,000 of the more than 1.2 million Cuban exiles in the United States will move back for good after Castro dies.
''You dread to think what it will take to bring Cuba back even to where it was in 1959,'' says Jorge, who in 1959 was Cuba's chief economist and undersecretary of the treasury. ''Castro has succeeded, quite well, I'm afraid, in developing underdevelopment.''
Just to rebuild the island's highways, bridges, phone networks, sewage and drainage systems -- not to mention airports, electric grids, ports -- ''we're talking about $80 billion and 15 to 20 years,'' he says.= And the longer Fidel remains in power, he says, the more things will deteriorate, and the higher the reconstruction price tag will go.
In south Florida, Cuban Americans operate more than 80,000 businesses, and some are expected to invest in a post-Castro Cuba. But without the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and big U.S. banks to finance big ventures, Jorge says, the reconstruction of Cuba will go nowhere fast.