Cuba after (Fidel) Castro. Prospects and Possibilities

Cuba after (Fidel) Castro. Prospects and Possibilities

Theme: This paper analyses Cuba’s prospects and possibilities, now that President Fidel Castro has temporarily ceded power to his brother General Raúl Castro.

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 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 the 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 unsavoury 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 half a century. Although he has periodically talked about institutionalising 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 and 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 and the revolutionary cachet which characterised 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 organisational 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 Díaz-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 characterised the classical Communist regimes of Eastern Europe but such an eventuality requires a significant leap of the 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 and 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 US$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 favourable economic relationship with Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela have staunched 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 US 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 virtual collapse of the sugar industry, the country’s oldest and most important economic activity. Problematic relations with some foreign investors have caused the cancellation of contracts or delays. New political uncertainties are bound to restrain foreign investors until it is clear that either Fidel Castro has returned to the 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 US 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 reportedly 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-organised and well-financed diaspora centred in two states (Florida and New Jersey) rich in electoral votes in presidential races.

Without doubt this exile community has exercised an influence on US 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 recognise 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 disburse US$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 theatre.

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 take 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 normalisation 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 organisations 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 US took the entire Cuban sugar crop at a subsidised 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 traumatised the state of Florida and much of the south-eastern 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 centre of US 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.

Conclusions: 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, organisation, gambling on a favourable international conjuncture, repression and the selective allocation of rewards that it would be surprising indeed if either of them chose to abandon it now.

Mark Falcoff
Resident Scholar Emeritus, American Enterprise Institute