WESTPORT, Conn. -- The former director for Latin America Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations recently delivered a timely talk on Cuba, President Raul Castro, the recently signed treaty between the U.S. and Cuba, and about what may come next to the Y’s Men of Westport and Weston.
Julia Sweig, a senior research fellow at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, began traveling to Cuba nearly 25 years ago and knows the players. Her incisive talk made the Y’s Men instant Cuba experts.
“Shockingly, a lot has changed since my last talk to Y’s Men (perhaps five years ago). I was of the belief that we would be treading water forever," she said.
Raul Castro took over as president from his now-frail 88-year-old brother Fidel in 2006, and was elected to that position in 2008. Where Fidel Castro is “skeptical” about markets, Raul Castro is “far more pragmatic,” she said.
He is making “rather rapid changes… has very different goals, and doesn’t have the allergy to money and capitalism his brother does,” Sweig said.
Raul Castro is reshaping the country, cutting the size of government, licensing private enterprise and allowing foreign business ownership. And because the country has a strong education system, he also has to find a way to keep Cuba’s talented young people home, a process he has begun by granting permission to travel and start private sector businesses.
Negotiations on the bi-lateral agreement began about 18 months ago, in secret, in Ottawa. With the help of Pope Francis, the initial objective of the U.S. to repatriate jailed government contractor Alan Gross was expanded to the treaty the two presidents signed on Dec. 17.
Cuba exchanged Gross and another US agent for three Cuban spies. Additionally, the U.S. will reduce restrictions on money flowing into Cuba, and on travel and banking, all of which President Barack Obama is implementing under his executive authority.
Obama also asked Congress to lift the travel and trade embargo. And he has asked the State Department to remove Cuba from its list of states that sponsor terrorism.
Sweig said she “can’t predict what will happen when Raul leaves,” but she said she doesn’t expect either a liberal democracy or multi-party elections any time soon.
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