New generation stands by in Cuba
Tech-savvy younger leaders could bring 'change in style'
By Manuel Roig-Franzia
The Washington Post
updated 3:23 a.m. ET Feb. 21, 2008
MEXICO CITY – They've traveled the world. Surfed the Web. Zinged text
messages. And watched news direct from the BBC and CNN, rather than
filtered through a government censor.
Bombarded by ideas from abroad, a generation of Cuban political leaders
who came of age after Fidel Castro's 1959 revolution is preparing to
inherit it. Many of them, now in their 40s and 50s, have developed a
more open political outlook than their fathers, partly because of the
thriving black market in outlawed Internet connections that in Cuba have
cracked open a window on the world.
It remains to be seen how Fidel's 76-year-old brother, Raul Castro, who
is expected to be named president Sunday, will incorporate the next
generation into his government. But Cubans and outside analysts say that
given the personal experiences of these younger leaders — especially
the elite, who have more privileges than the general population — they
might further nudge open the flow of information and ideas from outside.
'Change in style'
"We're going to see a change in style with this new generation," Manuel
Cuesta, a Cuban dissident, said in a telephone interview from Havana.
"Cuban society — the powerful and the citizenry — have more
information. And people are asking more questions."
Fidel, who is 81 and ailing, initiated a rare moment of political
uncertainty in Cuba when he resigned this week after nearly five decades
in power. He and Raul represent the generation known in Cuba as the
"historicos," those who rose to power because of their active early
support for the revolution. Those who fought with the Castros in the
Sierra Maestra mountains have traditionally had special status.
But many of the historicos have died or fallen out of favor, giving way
to a generation of Cubans for whom the revolution is merely a historical
concept. Demographic shifts have brought new figures into Cuba's
stratified political system, and more than 70 percent of Cuba's current
population was born after the revolution.
Cuba's foreign minister, Felipe Perez Roque, 42, belongs to this
generation. He was the first Cuban born after the revolution to be named
to Fidel's cabinet, and for the past 19 months, he has served under Raul
in the interim government created when Fidel turned over power
temporarily because of illness.
Because Raul is 76 and rumored to be in poor health himself, many Cuba
experts view his expected tenure as transitional. Perez Roque and Vice
President Carlos Lage, who was 7 when Fidel Castro's rebels declared
victory, are the top contenders outside the Castro family to become
Cuba's future leader. Both are expected to retain leadership posts when
the National Assembly picks the next head of state Sunday.
Older Cuban leaders once considered possible successors to the Castros
— such as National Assembly President Ricardo Alarcon, 70, and former
interior minister Ramiro Valdes, 75 — are now given almost no chance of
ascending to the top post.
Below the elites is a vast network of regional political leaders. In
recent years, the Castros have begun to inject more up-and-coming
leaders into provincial Communist Party branches in order to expand
their appeal to younger generations, Rafael Hernandez, editor of the
Cuban magazine Temas, said in an interview last year.
"It's often a young person, and many times a black person or a woman,"
At 56, Lage is the oldest of the new wave of Cuban political figures and
among the most influential. He worked alongside Raul to open Cuba's
economy to foreign investment in the 1990s after the country descended
into a economic depression following the breakup of its biggest
benefactor, the Soviet Union.
Cubans like to joke that Lage can put an audience to sleep with a speech
faster than anyone. A pediatrician by training, he cuts an unthreatening
figure, more mild-mannered accountant than firebrand rebel.
"I remember watching him standing in line with his mother, who was in
her 90s," said Ann Louise Bardach, author of "Cuba Confidential" and the
upcoming "Without Fidel." "He's just a gentle, appealing guy."
Rising political star
Lage's son, Cesar Lage, is also considered a rising political star.
Until recently, he was the president of Cuba's University Students'
Federation, a prestigious post that Fidel Castro himself coveted but
The younger Lage played a role in the recent controversy over videos
posted on the Internet that showed university students complaining about
travel and Internet restrictions during a government-sanctioned
criticism session. He is believed to have persuaded one of the students
to make a follow-up statement, saying he wanted to improve socialism,
not end it.
Years before Cesar Lage became president of the students' association,
the post had been a springboard for Perez Roque. While head of the
group, Perez Roque impressed Fidel Castro enough that the Cuban leader
later named him his chief of staff and personal aide. The young man
evolved into a behind-the-scenes force, the gatekeeper to Fidel who was
believed to have safeguarded the leader's personal papers and diaries.
Perez Roque was named foreign minister in 1999 when Fidel Castro fired
his then-foreign minister, Roberto Robaina, a 30-something moderate who
wore his hair long and looked out of place among the "dinosauros" of
Fidel's inner circle. Before being ousted for reportedly favoring
reforms, Robaina had been considered a future presidential contender.
By contrast, Perez Roque emerged immediately as one of the staunchest
defenders of Fidel's policies. Echoing a common Cuban saying, Cuesta
said he has been "more like the pope than pope" in terms of his loyalty
to the Castro doctrine.
Among those best known beyond Cuba is Mariela Castro, a psychologist and
Raul's 45-year-old daughter.
With a flowing mane of brown hair, she is at ease in the spotlight and
has traveled throughout the world, mostly to lobby for equal treatment
of gay men, lesbians and transgender people. She has done the same, with
some success, in socially conservative Cuba. She contributed to a Kinsey
Institute encyclopedia of sexuality, and at Havana's annual book fair
last week crowds swarmed "Marielita."
"She's got the most visibility of what I call the 'monarchical family,'
" Cuesta said. "And she looks like she likes it."
© 2008 The Washington Post Company