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Cuba after Fidel Castro

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
deter
ioration, 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 t
hose 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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