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Cuba: A Country for Old Men -- Now What About Us?

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Well, they went ahead and did it -- yesterday morning, despite the fact that the new membership of Cuba's National Assembly is one of the youngest and most diverse ever, it dutifully rubber-stamped 76-year-old Raúl Castro Ruz as El Presidente, thereby further cementing that paradise lost's Soviet-style gerontocracy. Not only that, but they installed an even older and harder-line communist, ideologue José Ramón Machado Ventura, as his número dos, to be first and foremost among five simultaneously serving vice presidents. Not only that, but in his acceptance speech Raúl made darn sure nobody forgot that Comrade Fidel is still very much in the picture if behind the scenes, quoted him up the wazoo, and with unintentional hilarity "appealed" to the handpicked Party kids in the hall to "allow" him to "continue consulting with the maximum leader of the Revolution" forever and ever, amen (though at least his speech lasted just a half hour or so instead of nine). Not only that, but he wound up with another sunny Fidel gem pointing to "the arduous path of duty, not to a more comfortable life." And that very same day, yet another boatload of escapees from the island washed up in Key West.

Not exactly a swell start to a transition most of the world hopes will bring reforms, eh? The picture on the front page of this morning's Miami Herald was of a wrinkled old man squinting out at the crowd flashing a "V" for victory. Does this really mean the long-hoped-for changes that might finally make life a little more bearable for Cubans are being put off for years - maybe even another decade or so - and the ones to come are likely to be no more than Band-Aids and window dressing? Did they decide to count on the Cuban public's continued passivity to let them perpetuate their creaky old failure of a system without significant protest?

All the experts are certainly now busy arranging the various tea leaves under various microscopes, classic Kremlinologist-style, to try to discern what might come next. I had mixed feelings about yesterday; while it admittedly wasn't promising, we shouldn't necessarily throw up our hands in despair. Maybe Raúl won't be a tropical Mikhail Gorbachev after all. But on the other hand, just as the Bush-Cheney crowd's web of ideologically-blindered fantasy in the United States has become unstuck by the cold, hard facts those of us in the "reality-based community" have seen all along, in Cuba economic, political, and social pressures have reached their highest ebb since the Fulgencio Batista régime. Reality bites, and it's unlikely they'll be able to get by for much longer with mere window dressing.

And remember, despite all the Communist platitudes spouted in China then and now, it was Deng Xiaoping, also in his mid-70's, who saw the handwriting on the wall and finally lifted the dead hand of that country's Fidel, Chairman Mao, opening the door to turning a still nominally Communist country into a crypto-capitalist powerhouse that has in many ways changed the world. And even if none of that comes to pass in Cuba for now, if in fact the chance has been missed for reform, Raúl could well help do what old guys Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko once did for the Soviet Union, post-Brezhnev: prime things so that change is all the more certain next time around, making way for that Cuban Gorbachev. The Miami exiles are just going to have to accept one of those two scenarios, and it would be nice to think they'd at long last realize that the U.S. can better help by engaging rather than bulling ahead with its boneheaded and counterproductive stabs at isolation and strangulation.

I'm not holding my breath on that front, of course. But I do hope that American voters might at least take note this November and not allow the installation our very own 70-something gerontocracist with a heroic past, John McCain. The elderly gent who sounds generally reassuring and admits that mistakes were made, but still praises his failed predecessor and clings to disastrous, discredited policies - ring a bell? What a tragedy it would be if we, too, ended up prolonging these dark days by ignoring the lessons of Cuba and letting the fears from the past overcome hope for the future.