May 21, 2009 / 9:08 AM / in 8 years

Eritrea's Isaias admires Cuba, few hints on future

* Says Cuba’s “resilience” impressive

* Not contemplating a comfortable retirement

By Andrew Cawthorne

ASMARA, May 21 (Reuters) - Eritrea’s long-serving leader Isaias Afwerki says he has no role models among fellow guerrilla fighters who have gone on to lead nations -- but does admire Fidel Castro’s achievements.

“I don’t know Cuba, but I admire their resilience,” said Isaias of a nation that analysts sometimes compare to his.

“Being near the United States, and the United States blockading this country for so many decades, how were they able to do it? How was it possible for them to have the best scientists in biotechnology, the best health services?”

Isaias, who led his rebel movement to power in 1991 more than three decades after Castro’s rode into Havana, is now 63 and is about to celebrate Eritrea’s 18th independence day.

But he said he was much more interested in working on present concerns -- such as food security for Eritreans -- than looking back with the nostalgia some in Eritrea express for the 30-year independence struggle that bonded a generation.

For supporters, Isaias is a symbol of resistance and self-reliance, but critics say he is an authoritarian whose government brooks no dissent.

So will he stay in power for as long as he fought for it?

“I don’t know ... You don’t plan life,” Isaias told Reuters, after a rare pause, in an interview on Wednesday.

“You think about how to the best of your ability you can make this life useful, for yourself and for the community. And the options are there open for you.”

A quieter life was not on the table though. “Someone may want to live in a palace with a swimming pool with heavenly things around. That becomes very boring to me,” he said. “I have got older but that is not a problem ... You get old very slow.”


The Eritrean leader, who says elections can only be held once a border standoff with Ethiopia is resolved, said he ruled by consensus, not as a “Big Man”.

“If you’re implying ‘is there a successor?', are you saying you are the only person who has the good ideas? Not at all. It is a collective,” he said.

“We are very realistic human beings in this country. We know our limitations but we have a goal -- to create an environment for the collective contribution and prevent crazy ideas about individuals who think they can do miracles and can stay there forever and do things on behalf of everybody.”

Isaias said talk of an Eritrean diaspora opposition was a concoction. “We have a very powerful opposition and that is the CIA,” he said.

“We have in our history traitors. But that is very natural in any community. Any outside force will come and buy someone and there are a handful willing to be sold in the market ... (But) it has strengthened our nation-building process.”

Asmara bristles at repeated accusations by rights groups that it puts independent journalists and non-Orthodox Christians in jail, tortures detainees, and keeps people indefinitely in military service.

“We are not children. We were not born yesterday. No one can educate us on what freedom means,” Isaias said.

“It is not a question of human rights, religious rights. It is part of a fight, of a powerful opposition, and this powerful opposition has not succeeded in achieving anything.”

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