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    Cuba after (Fidel) Castro

    Prospects and Possibilities
    By Mark Falcoff
    Posted: Thursday, August 31, 2006
    ARTICLES
    Real Instituto Elcano (Spain)
    Publication Date: September 4, 2006

    Summary

    The announcement that Cuban President Fidel Castro has temporarily ceded
    power to his brother General Raúl Castro has raised all manner of
    speculation about Cuba’s future. Actually, however, the mechanisms of
    succession have been in place for some time both in terms of the formal
    system and the sociology of power. While Raúl Castro lacks many of his
    brother’s formidable political qualities, he is not to be
    underestimated. While Cuba continues to suffer from the loss of its
    Soviet sponsor, to some degree its place has been taken by Venezuela.
    The United States has its own plans for a Cuban transition which does
    not include either of the Castro brothers, but in reality dares not to
    pursue its goals too vigorously for fear of a migration crisis. While
    the Cuban people are known to anticipate some sort of improvement after
    Fidel Castro has left the scene, their precise aspirations are vague and
    unknown, and no match for the efficiency and singlemindedness of the regime.

    The Crisis

    The announcement a few days ago by the Cuban government that President
    Fidel Castro had undergone emergency surgery for internal bleeding and
    was therefore temporarily transferring power to his brother Raúl has
    suddenly raised a series of interesting questions about the future of
    the regime on the island and its relations with the outside world,
    particularly the United States.

    If Cuba were–as it claims to be–a Communist state of a more or less
    “normal” kind, a health crisis on the part of its leader would not merit
    such intense media and political interest. In fact, however, the morbid
    fascination aroused by Fidel Castro’s illness underscores an
    inconvenient fact: in its later phases the Cuban regime has come to
    resemble to an embarrassing degree the patrimonial dictatorships which
    have often plagued small countries in the circum-Caribbean. On one hand,
    the most important institution in the country is now not the Communist
    party but the armed forces. On the other, the pyramid of political power
    is more or less coherent with the generational hierarchy of the ruling
    family. Also, until quite recently it has depended almost wholly upon
    unsavory arrangements with unscrupulous foreign investors.

    That Fidel Castro himself is a larger than life figure in Cuba, and to
    some extent the world, cannot be denied. On the island he has made
    almost all the important decisions for a half-century. Although he has
    periodically talked about institutionalizing his revolution, it remains
    a largely personal affair. Witness the fact that over the years the
    dictator has brutally truncated the careers (and sometimes the lives) of
    others who could have a reasonable hope of succeeding him or at least of
    challenging his unquestioned power, starting with Huber Matos and ending
    most recently with General Armando Ochoa. Although there was much talk a
    decade ago of his grooming a younger generation to succeed him, little
    progress has been made along that line. The sudden emergence of Raúl
    Castro from under his brother’s shadow underscores this fact.

    The Existing Succession Scenario

    Fidel Castro’s decision to temporarily cede power to his brother cannot
    have been a surprise to ordinary Cubans or to anyone outside the country
    who has carefully followed developments over the last five years. At the
    level of institutions, Raúl is vice-president of the Council of State
    and also vice-president of the Cuban Communist party, so there can be no
    disputing his right to assume the reins of power in the event of his
    elder brother’s disappearance. But it is not merely a matter of paper
    constitutions: for years Raúl Castro has been steadily amassing economic
    and political power. He is minister of the armed forces and minister of
    the interior. The former is a particularly important portfolio because
    it places him at the apex of the tourist sector, one of the few
    productive sectors of the Cuban economy, which is run by the military.
    He has also been careful to place loyalists (raulistas) at the head of
    key ministries (sugar, transport, communication, higher education, basic
    industries) as well as the Central Bank, and in key positions in the
    Communist party and the National Assembly.

    It is often said–with some reason–that Raúl Castro lacks the skills
    and assets which have made his elder brother such a successful
    politician. He is pejoratively referred to as the most charmless man in
    Cuba. Gruff and often abrasive, he is a poor public speaker, married to
    a harridan who as president of the Federation of Cuban Women is widely
    despised in Cuba. He lacks the glamour, the dash, the revolutionary
    cachet which characterized Fidel in his best years. He enjoys no
    important revolutionary legend of his own.

    On the other hand, it is possible to underestimate his staying power,
    his organizational talents, and his realism. His only serious problem
    may be his health, which is reported to be precarious. At 75 he may not
    long survive his brother, and even now it is not impossible that he may
    predecease him. If the Cuban revolution is to remain a family affair
    before long it may well have to reach into the next generation, possibly
    to Fidel Castro Diaz-Balart, Castro’s only legitimate child, a
    Soviet-trained physicist and former director of the Cuban Atomic Energy
    Agency. In the absence of both Fidel and Raúl the Cuban regime could
    morph into a more impersonal, “collective” style of leadership such as
    characterized the classical Communist regimes of Eastern Europe but such
    an eventuality requires a significant leap of imagination.

    Cuba in the International Community

    Whoever succeeds Fidel Castro must confront some difficult challenges.
    Cuba has been invented three times as a country–once as a Spanish
    colony, once as an American protectorate, finally as a member of what
    might be (generously) styled the Soviet Commonwealth of Nations (the
    only one of its members to enter voluntarily). In each of these three
    incarnations it enjoyed a profitable association with a major empire.
    Since the collapse of the Soviet Union Cuba has had to cobble together a
    series of relationships with other countries, none of which have fully
    replaced the $6 billion annual subsidy from Moscow.

    New trade arrangements with China, the end to isolation in Latin America
    (including recent accession to MERCOSUR), the opening to European,
    Canadian and Latin American tourism, and most recently the favorable
    economic relationship with Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela have stanched some of
    the bleeding. On the other hand, it is fair to say that taken together
    these relationships have thus far failed to restore the modest living
    standards that prevailed before 1989. The regime has also suffered from
    a recent tightening of the U.S. embargo, virtually ending most travel
    between the United States and Cuba and drastically lowering the ceiling
    on remittances (which at some points in the recent past were Cuba’s
    principal source of foreign exchange).

    Moreover, since 1990 Cuba’s capital plant has been in steady
    deterioration, witness the virtually collapse of the sugar industry, the
    country’s oldest and most important economic activity. Problematic
    relations with some foreign investors have caused cancellation of
    contracts or delays. New political uncertainties are bound to restrain
    foreign investors until it is clear either that Fidel Castro has
    returned to full exercise of power or that his brother has successfully
    established himself as a successor. In any case, much of the wave of
    foreign investment in the 1990s was driven by the presumption of an
    early end to the U.S. ban on tourist travel, an expectation which was
    run to ground by Castro’s shooting-down of three American planes and the
    enactment of the Helms-Burton Law (1996).

    In surveying Cuba’s international situation probably the most important
    new development has been the emergence of Venezuelan president Hugo
    Chávez as Fidel Castro’s closest friend and ally. He is reporting giving
    the island roughly 90,000 barrels of oil a day (of which the island
    consumes a little more than half, selling the rest on the world spot
    market for hard cash). In exchange the Cubans have been seconding
    doctors, teachers, sports trainers and intelligence and military
    officials to Venezuela to help Chávez consolidate his rule.

    Chávez’s contribution to the survival of the Cuban regime has hardly
    been less significant. Following the end of the Soviet subsidy in the
    1990s, when the country was on the bare edge of starvation, Raúl Castro
    is supposed to have convinced his brother to implement some modest
    economic reforms which would encourage greater agricultural production
    (and also allow a measure of self-employment). This earned him a
    reputation for pragmatism in the international press; some even now are
    suggesting that if he were to succeed his elder brother he would widen
    and deepen the reforms. However, many of the concessions to the market
    granted in the mid-90s have already been withdrawn, and the advent of
    the Venezuelan subsidy removes the last incentive to retain them.

    Some now raise the question of whether Chávez’s economic largesse has
    not bought the Venezuelan strongman a seat at the table when Cuba’s
    political future must be decided. Probably such notions are exaggerated.
    The Cuban political and military elite most likely regard their
    Venezuelan counterparts as bumbling amateurs who need stern and
    disciplined guidance. Also, Cuba’s own sense of its national identity is
    far stronger than that of Venezuela, which lacks of a coherent heroic
    narrative of its own. Finally, Chávez, having come to power by the
    ballot box, lacks the mystique of a genuine revolutionary which would
    allow him a decisive or even a significant voice in Cuban government
    councils except under conditions of extreme emergency.

    Prospects for Relations with the United States

    To discuss political change in Cuba inevitably raises the question of
    the island’s future relationship with the United States. This is so for
    historic and geographic reasons, and also because the Cuban revolution
    has produced a politically significant, well organized and well financed
    diaspora centered in two states (Florida and New Jersey) rich in
    electoral votes in presidential races.

    Without doubt this exile community has exercised an influence on U.S.
    Cuban policy far out of proportion to its numbers. (But it is also true,
    a fact frequently ignored by European and Latin American commentators,
    that the success of the exile lobby has rested to a large degree on a
    widespread public distaste in the United States for the Castro brothers
    and all their works.) The Cuban-American community has periodically
    leveraged this influence to strengthen the embargo and also, lately to
    force Washington to define the conditions under which it would recognize
    and assist any post-Castro regime. Helms-Burton, for example,
    specifically names both Fidel and Raúl Castro as individuals with whom
    the United States would refuse to deal under any circumstances. The
    latest example is the Cuban Transition Plan (2004) which supposedly
    sketches out the circumstances under which the United States would
    disperse $80 million to a post-Castro government. The fact that such
    plans might alarm ordinary Cubans (many of whom fear that the exiles are
    returning to seize their expropriated properties and take revenge on
    their former countrymen) seems lost on the exile leadership, which often
    seems tone-deaf to the vast cultural, racial and political changes that
    have taken place on the island since 1958. Needless to say, the Cuban
    government makes the most of the propaganda opportunities presented by
    such political theater.

    In spite, however, of the public posture of the United States, if there
    were significant changes on the ground in Cuba the coalition which
    supported Helms-Burton in the first place would probably shatter into
    pieces as some elements sought to reposition themselves to take
    advantage of the new possibilities for investment. Even within the
    Cuban-American community there would be significant divisions. This much
    said, such changes are inconceivable if Fidel Castro returns to the
    helm, and probably unlikely in the event that his brother manages to
    successfully takes his place, if for no other reason than that the
    latter will be challenged to validate his right to succession and his
    revolutionary bona fides.

    Although normalization of relations with the United States has been the
    stated goal of the Cuban government for some time–even to the point of
    it being its number one foreign policy priority–Fidel Castro himself
    has on more than one occasion spurned opportunities for improvement,
    most significantly in an effort made by Secretary of State Kissinger and
    Assistant Secretary William Rogers at the end of the Ford administration
    (1979-80). In some ways this is not to be wondered at; Castro’s
    revolutionary mystique depends to some degree on his adversarial
    relationship with the United States (which also pays off significant
    benefits at international organizations like the United Nations); to
    enter into a bourgeois “business as usual” relationship would undercut
    his own legend as an intransigent revolutionary. Also, given the
    official version of Cuban history (which actually predates Fidel Castro)
    the relationship between Cuba and the United States must everywhere and
    always be a zero-sum game.

    It is very possible, in fact, that both sides of the Florida straits
    find the status quo to their liking. Cuba offers the United States no
    significant economic benefits–it is a small market populated by people
    who are deeply impoverished and likely to remain so. It has nothing the
    United States needs or wants. Exaggerated expectations by the
    agribusiness community are based on inaccurate extrapolations from the
    days when the U.S. took the entire Cuban sugar crop at a subsidized
    price. Even the prospects for tourism should be discounted for Cuba’s
    inadequate infrastructure and the competition represented by established
    venues with world-class accommodations like Mexico and the Dominican
    Republic.

    Moreover, at this point the principal concern of Washington is bound to
    be uncontrolled migration flows. The present accords with Havana (1994)
    assure an orderly movement of roughly 20,000 persons a year to the
    United States and establish a mechanism for returning those who have
    fled illegally. An abrupt change of government in Cuba, or worse still,
    the collapse of authority, could lead to another migration crisis such
    as traumatized the state of Florida and much of the Southeastern United
    States in 1980.

    This unspoken agenda probably puts any administration including this one
    implicitly at odds with elements of the Cuban exile community who
    evidently place regime change at the top of its list of priorities. In
    effect, at the center of U.S. policy is a deep contradiction–a desire
    for a political transformation in Cuba towards something more or less
    resembling Costa Rica, Chile or Uruguay, but an even greater fear of
    disorder. Under such circumstances immobility is the normal prescription.

    It is a truism–confirmed by countless visitors to the island–that
    ordinary Cubans expect some sort of change after Fidel Castro leaves the
    scene. But of what this change should consist, whether an end to
    shortages, rationing, militia duty, substandard housing or merely the
    psychological state of war under which the country has lived for nearly
    a half-century, is unclear. Some observers believe that these
    expectations are so high that Raúl Castro will have no choice but to
    meet them at least partially or risk loss of authority and even power.
    But the Castro brothers have done so well with a combination of
    ideology, organization, gambling on a favorable international
    conjuncture, repression and the selective allocation of rewards that it
    would be surprising indeed either of them chose to abandon it now.

    Mark Falcoff is the Resident Scholar Emeritus at AEI.

    http://www.aei.org/publications/filter.all,pubID.24852/pub_detail.asp

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