Dick Greco: Fidel's Death Won't Change Cuba Overnight

Dick Greco

Former Tampa Mayor Dick Greco hasn't gotten a lot of love from the city's Cuban exile community for his support for reopening trade ties with the island's communist leaders.

Greco says his revelations came after he had a five-hour meeting with Fidel Castro during a trip with a local trade mission in 2002. Greco says the meeting gave him a new understanding of the undercurrents of Cuban discontent - and how the winds of change could lead to new hope for the country's people.

During the trade mission visit, Greco met with some of the top-echelon communist leaders who were just below Fidel and his brother Raul in rank.

GRECO: I asked one of them, 'I hear you're the heir apparent in case he dies.' You know what he said to me? 'I don't ever talk about his demise, because we've been friends since we were kids.' So that's the kind of person you're dealing with.

Greco says Fidel is looked at as something of a father figure by a generation of Cubans who have known no other leader.

GRECO: When Fidel took over, there were something like 5.3 million people in Cuba. Now, there's 11.5 million. So you've got to understand that over half of them have never seen any other kind of government. They have free education, free doctors and a little bit of food, but if that's all you've had since the day you were born, you don't miss it.

But Greco says his efforts to keep the lines of communication open after his visit were stifled. He says that came from official Washington policy, and by people who will never forgive the Communists for their brutal takeover of the island. One of those rebuffs included a 'no, gracias' to Cuba's offer to send a thousand doctors to Louisiana in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

GRECO: His ambassador - or whatever you want to call it in Washington - called me to see if we could get that done. And our country simply wants to wait until he's gone. It's understandable. There's no way you're going to go to an older Cuban who lost everything in one of the most beautiful countries I've ever seen, and say 'We're going to do business - or we're going to straighten out things - with Fidel Castro.' Conversely, I don't think the people who are close to him are - just because he's gone - start doing something different.

Greco says the island's current leadership would likely continue Castro's policies. But he says change would be a signal of hope for many people trapped by the poverty of communism.

GRECO: We've got to start having dialogue with a lot of people, whether we like them, or don't like them, whatever. Or pretty soon we'll wake up, and we won't have any friends. We're not all the same. And certainly, I don't like some things that he's done, and so forth and so on, but anyone can change. And that's the hope that I have.

Just talking with the island's leaders could lead to some kind of change, Greco says. That's not going to lead to democracy overnight, but at least, he says, it would give the ordinary Cuban people some hope.

You can hear more about the predictions for Cuba's future after Fidel on Florida Matters, tonight at 6:30 and noon Saturday on WUSF.

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