Although simply an academic question for half a century, Cuba without Fidel Castro is now knocking on the door. Will it be succession, transition, peaceful change or another cycle of national violence? From here on, many parties –both in Cuba and elsewhere, including Europe– will play a role in the uncertain Cuban future.
The approaching end of the dictatorship following the anticipated demise of its creator is awaited with anxiety and expectation by Cubans and the international community alike. Castroism, stripped of its Marxist pretensions to reveal its dictatorial identity, lacks the roots necessary for continuity despite its ephemeral heirs making themselves ready. Mr Castro’s legacy is a society whose essential ethics have been crushed and a hybrid economic concept, mutilated, immersed in crisis and lacking any strategy for the future. A strange Cuba, scarcely related to the republic of 1958 or the modern world, is awaiting a necessary and traumatic transformation. The domestic democratic opposition, the exiles and the international community are rehearsing –like leading actors– their roles in Cuba’s destiny ‘on the day after’.
For 45 of the slightly more than one hundred years since Cuba gained its independence from Spain, including the subsequent period of US military tutelage, Castro has been in charge. His imprint on the convulsive life of the Cuban Republic has no equal on the continent and few others elsewhere. It is not too far-fetched to predict that the power vacuum that will follow his biological end –rightly seen as the most likely way the dictatorship will end– will have a similar magnitude. The possible scenarios that might follow this death foretold are already gripping the domestic political community.
Initially the Cuban political system was seen and accepted as a social revolution with deep popular roots and progressive ideas. However, events since the implosion of European socialism have caused this image to be redefined. The final days of Castroism are characterised by many features. They include capricious personal dominion over all spheres of life, an absence of any coherent strategy to deal with the economic crisis, rigid control of the social scene, selective and implacable repression of any departure from the enforced unanimity and progressive withdrawal from socialist rhetoric in favour of bombastic nationalism.
For anyone unaware of the recurrent and previously successful use of the reckless flight into the future and the use of extreme situations for political provocation, the wave of repression in April last year was inexplicable. It put an end to the idea held by many intellectuals and the traditional left in Europe and North America that Cuba is a remnant of the Cold War or a legitimate and defendable cause despite its errors.
Fidel Castro, who never attached much importance to a future in which he was not to be present, does not face his final days ‘with the patience of Job and a Mona Lisa smile’ – as he described himself to the Spanish king and Ibero-American leaders at their only meeting in Havana in 1999. In his latest actions the Cuban dictator established his right to power as long as he lives. Indeed, he went further and demanded open support and legal endorsement of his excesses as the price of appointments and privileges. This cast yet another shadow on the future.
Opposition, inequality and the new social class
In just over a decade two vital factors have made an appearance on the island. They are the polarisation of society due to increasingly disparate income brackets and the public presence of a peaceful and democratic opposition. Neither inequality nor opposition are unheard of in Cuba. The difference is the leading role these concepts have assumed and their connection with the various scenarios of change.
Among other hurried economic reforms, the island now tolerates certain types of foreign investment and a dollar-denominated section of the internal economy. This has opened up a clear gap between the majority of the population on the one hand, that still depends on the lean pickings offered by a ‘protective socialist state’, and those who have access to the privileged hard-currency sector or who receive remittances from family members abroad (the country’s major source of foreign currency). The wide gap between rich and poor is back in its pre-revolution form –together with other evils. One consequence of the current economic experiment is the creation of a business generation that has mainly emerged from the ranks of the military. It is separate but linked to the dominant political class and it aspires to perpetuate its privileges beyond any future change in the political scenario.
The Revolutionary Armed Forces (FAR) and the Communist Party of Cuba (PCC) are the regime’s two basic institutions and –in that order– they underpin the regime’s plans for succession. In the new millennium, the FAR are no longer the most powerful army in Latin America, that participated in adventures on other continents while Soviet subsidies covered the economic setbacks at home and financed the regime’s military activities. Over the last decade their numbers have been cut back to 50,000; they lack spare parts for their ageing weapons and their air force and navy are fast becoming extinct. At the end of 2001 they received a severe blow when Lourdes, the biggest electronic surveillance facility outside Russia, was closed. This base had provided Cuba with US$200 million a year in military supplies. Despite this the professional military apparatus represents a formidable internal deterrent. This force also includes and controls the security forces, the police, the coastguard and others. They are all part of the Ministry of the Interior –directly controlled by the FAR.
At the end of the eighties, for the first time a person who had not participated in the Sierra Maestra guerrilla was promoted to general. Since then a new generation of senior officers and generals has gradually taken over direct control of the troops. The chiefs of staff and the top ranks at the ministries, however, are still in the hands of loyal ‘historic guerrilla leaders’ whose grip on control is preventing normal replacement of the military structure. Similarly, forces specifically earmarked for repressive activities (such as the so-called Special Forces, the Black Beret Brigades or the Special Police Force) are commanded by men considered fiercely loyal to the Castro brothers. The attitude of these two generations towards change is one of the most important questions for the immediate future.
In the Communist Party the elements most impervious to change have increased their iron grip on the party apparatus in recent years, blocking any hint of reform. In 1997 the fifth congress reduced membership of the central committee by a third while re-appointing most of the previous leaders. Six years later, when a new congress should already have been held, the possibility now appears increasingly remote. The lack of any strategy for dealing with economic problems, growing domestic opposition and international isolation appear to be the only plausible explanation for this delay. Since mid-2003 numerous changes in key positions in the provinces and some in the Politburo (the main organ of the party) clearly indicate a decision to promote ‘loyal and reliable’ leaders on the eve of succession. They include representatives of the new generation who were chosen mainly for their ‘unconditional’ support of Castroism.
Fidel Castro has appointed his younger brother, Raúl Castro, as his successor. He is already Minister of the Armed Forces and an army general, and he will inherit the highest offices of State, of the single political party and of government. The younger Mr Castro is also suitably positioned at the head of the ‘business soldiers’ in the succession plans. This new class, the creature of a totalitarian society, was created by widening inequality and should not be endorsed as a continuation of power under any circumstances. However, its value as a participant in a negotiated process of transition should not be overlooked. Any such transition will be opposed by an ephemeral but rigid structure bent on continuity but whose death rattle may yet herald a final cycle of violence.
The growing domestic opposition is the primary and most legitimate option to this form of succession which in reality is only loosely defined and whose duration is highly uncertain. For historic reasons the traditional exiles used to be the most visible sign of resistance to the dictatorship. However they were beaten in the military and political fields as early as the sixties. At the present time they are increasingly appreciative of the role played by members of the domestic opposition, which is seen as a central element of change and a guarantee of future governability of the country.
The emergence of domestic opposition and its growing recognition in international circles is the most important political development in the last decade. Its strength is demonstrated by continued support for the Varela Project, which is calling for reform within the system’s legal framework. The presentation before parliament of 14,000 new signatures supporting the movement and the failure of the government to suppress the independent press despite the crackdown last spring, demonstrates the extent and depth of the opposition forces. There is no better gauge than the government’s efficient information and repression systems (that cover all Cuban society) to reveal the real extent of this democratic opposition. Mr Castro may have seen its advance as a threat to his power and this might explain his decision to punish a peaceful opposition in a similar fashion to the armed groups that opposed him during the early years of power –with the high price of isolation that he has paid as a result.
At the time of the repressive wave in April last year, there were about three hundred opposition organisations. This is a very surprising number given the circumstances in Cuba, although many of them had few members. Over the last two years these organisations have commenced a process of integration on the following three fronts while conserving the independence of their respective structures: the Assembly to Promote Civil Society (Asamblea para Promover la Sociedad Civil), the Progressive Group (Arco Progresista) and the Varela Project (Proyecto Varela). The latter is the most forceful and most visible opposition force.
The democratic movement includes supporters of quite different contemporary political trends, many of them hitherto unknown on the island. Their interaction with the equally broad political spectrum in exile has resulted in unnecessary echoes of the divisions that affect the political groups abroad. The distinguishing feature today, however, is an increasingly independent definition of their priorities and goals. A recent document called Diálogo Nacional (National Dialogue) is a programme for transition proposed by the sponsor of the Varela Project, Oswaldo Payá. It is the most recent and most enterprising call for debate to have originated on the island and a demonstration of the opposition’s mature approach. However, the democratic opposition must face many challenges. It is essential to leave fragmentation and internal divisiveness behind and to define clearly the strategies that will make it an effective vehicle of the changes expected by the majority of Cubans. The tactics of discredit and contamination used so successfully by the repressive organs of the government (which have categorised the opposition as marginal and minute) cannot hide the historic experience of swift change in Eastern Europe where groups classified in the same fashion became the most important factor in the demise of communism.
A new enemy with fifteen heads
Europe’s position with regard to Cuba can have a considerable impact on the speed and direction of future changes. Mr Castro has foolishly attacked the EU over its criticism of his human rights record and punished his oldest trading partner with constant cash purchases in the North-American market. He has thus embarked on a new course, hoping that his intransigence and time will dissolve the crisis. Stirring up differences between members of the EU or between Europeans and North Americans, paid handsome dividends in the past. The political moves by the Cuban government at the end of last year, aimed at the “nearest European governments” and thus driving a wedge between the EU’s position and the bilateral agreements, reveal his plan. Ireland’s position, stated as it started its current term as EU president, of not returning to the negotiating table before prior positive steps have been taken by the Cuban government, ought to be respected without question. The Common Position, which will be reviewed before next summer, must take into consideration the continuing repression and inhuman treatment of jailed members of the opposition. Preservation of the international isolation of the Cuban government on the eve of the inevitable collapse of the regime could be a decisive contribution to a real opening-up after the dictator disappears. The heirs to reduced legitimacy must be immediately given a clear warning of the need for change.
Cuban society lacks any real experience of democracy. This is demonstrated by the erratic performance of practically all the governments prior to 1959, by the widespread corruption of the first republic and by the violence that erupted after the fall of the dictators, Gerardo Machado and Fulgencio Batista. Indeed, Mr Castro’s long rule has ignored democratic principles and fostered even greater corruption, extending it to all levels of society.
Europe’s contribution to the spread of democratic standards and the balance of international factors during the unavoidable crisis associated with the coming changes, together with the need for transparency in economic management, could be decisive for the future governability of the country. Due to its historic ties, its own experience with transition and its position in the EU, Spain has a particular responsibility on the road to Cuba without Castros. This will be the only Cuba that can really ensure peace and prosperity for the island.
Castroism will disappear with Fidel Castro. His political legacy lacks the necessary legitimacy to ensure continuity of a system of government that was based precisely on the absence of any model. There are various possible scenarios for Cuba after Mr Castro has gone. All these point to a final collapse of the regime and of the atrophied institutions that support it. Among other internal factors, the duration of any transitory scenario of succession and the nature of the change will depend on the performance of the domestic economy. So far it has been constantly on the edge of collapse and it will still have to withstand the last-ditch reforms that will be no doubt attempted by a new government. Despite the succession plans the option of a peaceful and democratic opposition that expresses society’s thirst for freedom is already gathering strength.
In this scenario the influence of various external factors will be decisive. The first of these are the Cuban exiles. Although far from adopting a united approach to the nature of the change, the idea of a peaceful transition led by a domestic opposition is gaining ground. The United States has prepared its own options for the outcome of the Cuban situation. They do not necessarily coincide with interests of the domestic opposition or with those of the majority of exiles. Europe, and especially Spain, have an important influence and responsibility for the pacific political development of the island. It is essential that the European Union maps out and maintains from here on, an unequivocal path that favours the change that Cuba needs.
Alcibíades J. Hidalgo
Journalist and Cuban ex-diplomat. Until 1994 Cuba’s Permanent Representative at the UN in New York and a member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party until 1997.