What will follow Fidel?

When Castro fell ill there was a fevered debate about what will happen to Cuba when he dies. In fact, much ‘transition’ has already occurred.

Chris Bickerton

Topics Politics

For all the talk of globalisation today, the ‘CNN effect’ and our living in a ‘global village’, we actually live in an increasingly insular world.

Some figures, such as Osama Bin Laden, are known pretty much across the globe; ditto George Bush. Yet these figures do not impress themselves upon our lives in any deep way. Bush expresses the preponderance of American power rather than anything particular to himself, and anti-Bush feeling is more often than not a trope for a more generalised rant about the ills of the world. Bin Laden, however familiar his face may be, has very few supporters. Al Qaeda is, if anything at all, the antithesis of a popular movement.

An exception to this is Fidel Castro. As Jon Lee Anderson, US journalist and biographer of ‘Che’ Guevara, recently wrote in the New Yorker: ‘[Y]ou can be a Rwandan, or someone living in Hainan, China, and know something about Fidel Castro. There’s no other leader in the world like Fidel.’ The only comparable figure Lee Anderson could find was Nelson Mandela. And while Mandela is a pope-like figure, Castro stirs the passions. Writing in the Argentinean newspaper El Clarin, Oscar Raul Cardoso said that, depending on your point of view, Cuba can be either an ‘archaic extension of a communism that passed away in history a decade ago… [or] one of the last beacons that spread the light of justice in a darkened international sky.’ Richard Gott, journalist and author of books on Cuba and Venezuela, says of Castro: ‘[He] remains [in Latin America] this extraordinary bulwark against the United States and he’s regarded as the great Latin American figure of the twentieth century.’

For these reasons, the news of Castro’s retreat from public life, read out on Cuban TV on 31 July, has been met with a volley of speculation about the future of the island. Castro was operated on in early August for intestinal bleeding, and is said to be recovering. For some time his health has been in question – unsurprising given his age (Castro will turn 80 on 13 August this year). In 2001, he fainted from heat exhaustion during a long speech; in 2004, he fell from a stage after giving a speech and broke his right arm and shattered his left kneecap. However, so far, Castro had never ceded power to any of his entourage. So when, this time around, he decided to grant temporary control of Cuba to his brother Raul, the decision was accorded with great significance. In 1997 Raul had been formally designated as Castro’s successor. But with Fidel still around, few considered this in anything other than a hypothetical light.

The response to Castro’s current ill-health has been varied. On hearing the news of his operation and ceding of power, exiles in Miami descended into the streets to celebrate. For some older leaders of the exile community, the celebrations were too much, too early. Ramon Saul Sanchez, leader of the Democracy Movement, was quoted in the New York Times on 1 August as urging his supporters to stay calm: ‘demonstrate, celebrate, but do it peacefully. Do it appropriately. Do it in keeping with the spirit of the unity and focus on what has to happen, which is a peaceful democratic transition.’

Some believe that while Miami-based Cubans will exert considerable influence on the post-Castro era, they will struggle to agree upon a clear strategy themselves. As the Washington Post reported, ‘without a consensus, the [exile] community will split’. The US government’s response has been measured. Condoleezza Rice urged Cubans to opt for the route of free elections. In 2004, the US adopted the so-called ‘Bush Plan’, set out in a report drafted by the Commission to Assistance to a Free Cuba, a group headed by Colin Powell and Senator Martinez. The purpose of the Commission, and its 2004 report, was to develop ‘a comprehensive strategy to prepare for a peaceful transition to democracy in Cuba’. Some believe that the US would consider an invasion if Castro’s death brought about a sudden influx of Cuban emigrants from across the Florida Straits.

Others in the exile community advocate armed intervention as the only way to change the regime, especially if Raul remains in charge. A few prefer a more peaceful transition. Jon Lee Anderson quotes one exile leader as saying: ‘[M]y hope is that there will be one of those wonderful European revolutions, like the Velvet Revolution, without violence, but because of what’s gone on – the repression and the iron grip of those in power for so long – there could be a vacuum and that creates potential for violence.’

* * *

In tracing the contours of a post-Castro Cuba, there is always a good deal of speculation. However, a few points are worth remembering as ways of getting some perspective on the situation. For all the talk of change and transition, Cuba has in many ways already undergone its transition. As Richard Gott says in the epilogue to his recently published history of Cuba, ‘when [Castro] dies, there will be little change in Cuba. While few people have been looking, the change has already taken place.’

Going back to the end of the Eighties and very early Nineties, Castro survived an historical moment that washed away most of the world’s Stalinist regimes. As Romanian leader Ceauşescu was chased from office, captured and executed along with his wife in front of the TV cameras, and as Panama’s General Noriega was violently ousted by an American invasion and Nicaragua’s Sandinista government voted out of office, many thought Castro would go the same way. Alongside these political quakes, Cuba suffered at the time one of its worst ever economic crises. According to Gott, ‘the economic disaster that swept the country [in the early Nineties] was the most dramatic and significant change since the island had just become a sugar-based economy in the wake of the revolution in Saint-Domingue in 1791.’ In 1989, Cuba’s GDP fell by 2.9 per cent. In 1991, it fell by 10 per cent, in 1992 by 11.6 per cent and in 1993 by 14.9 per cent. Such a reverse of fortunes saw the reintroduction of bikes and horse-drawn carriages, while farm tractors were replaced by oxen.

Castro’s regime responded to this crisis by making concessions, and slowly introduced back into Cuba market relations. The state monopoly over foreign trade was abolished in 1992 and the country’s constitution was amended so as to permit the transfer of state property to joint ventures with foreign partners. There were only two joint ventures in 1990; in 1993 there were 112. The crucial changes, heralding the beginning of what Castro dubbed the ‘special period in time of peace’, were introduced in 1993. In July that year, Castro announced that the US dollar would be legalised. Over the next few months, two more concessions were made: self-employment was allowed for specific activities, which meant there was a huge rise in the number of private restaurants (paladares), and old state farms were replaced with agricultural cooperatives. In 1993, the state controlled 75 per cent of the agricultural economy; that had fallen to 30 per cent in 1996.

Castro’s government was able to introduce these concessions to the market without undermining the political system. In Eastern Europe, it was precisely because the Party and the State were so closely associated with the economy that economic reform prised the Party and the State apart, ushering in political pluralism. Tony Judt, writing on the dissidence movement in Eastern Europe, observed that, in Eastern Europe in the late Eighties, there was ‘no economic bishop, no political king’. The problem for the Stalinist elites in Eastern Europe was that their legitimacy ‘rested upon the universality of [their] function’. It was only through sustaining living standards through increased international borrowing that these regimes survived. Depoliticising sectors of the economy through introducing market relations stripped the regimes of their claim to universality, and opened the door to political reform.

In Cuba, the ability of the state to survive the introduction of the market suggests that the regime was legitimised by factors other than the provision of material goods. The specificity of the Cuban revolution goes some way to explaining the regime’s survival through the ‘special period’, as does the country’s history, its peculiar and highly antagonistic relationship with the United States, and the depravation and sense of martyrdom invoked by the US trade embargo (introduced in 1960).

The Cuban revolution took place in 1959. Castro led from the Sierra Mountains a two-year guerrilla war against the American-backed Batista government. In January 1959, Castro entered the capital Havana as a victor. In many ways, the Cuban revolution was an iconic Third World triumph: in the United States’ own backyard, at the height of the Cold War, nationalist guerrillas were able to defeat a US-backed regime. Eastern European states had no such experience of self-determination. Their experience of ‘state socialism’ was the result of decisions taken in Moscow, not in Warsaw, Budapest or Prague. Without any independent attachment to the Stalinist systems, populations of Eastern Europe readily turned to the West when the systems collapsed.

Today, when contemplating post-Castro Cuba, many point to figures around the leader who might ensure continuity and stability. However, it is not just today that people are stepping in to fill the vacuum left by an absent Castro. It was during the special period that Cuba began to move beyond a one-man government, towards one that relied upon the energies of a few other individuals. Those regularly cited today as possible successors all emerged in the Nineties. Carlos Lage, for instance, was responsible for implementing the economic programme of adaptation and survival. Ricardo Alarcón, responsible for foreign affairs in the Eighties, was brought back by Castro to head the National Assembly. His task was to sell the special period measures to the workers, through a variety of ‘participatory democracy’ initiatives. By virtue of the demands it placed upon the Cuban state, the special period brought some fresh faces to the fore in Cuban politics. As Gott notes, ‘although the Castro brothers remained, Cuba was no longer run exclusively by the Sierra Maestra generation’.

We can also see a similar pattern with the evolution of the Cuban army. Christopher Hitchens wrote on Slate that the temporary transfer of power to Raul was nothing less than a military coup. In his words, ‘for the first time in a communist state since General Jaruzelski seized power in Poland in 1981, the army has replaced the party as the source of authority’. Suggesting that we were entering into a new era in Cuba, Hitchens concludes by arguing: ‘[I]f we cannot yet say that Castro is dead and we cannot decently say “long live” to the new-but-old Castro, we can certainly say that the Castro era is effectively finished and that a uniformed and secretive and highly commercial dictatorship is the final form that it will take.’

In fact, the shift of the military into the centre of the Cuban economy took place in the Nineties, more out of necessity rather than political calculation. In the Seventies and Eighties, the Cuban army travelled the world, fighting in Africa and Latin America. By the early Nineties, this internationalism had entirely disappeared, and the army – shorn of much of its state funding – had to become self-sufficient. During this period, the army’s role expanded internally, as it withdrew externally. Its commitment to feeding itself, for example, saw the army oversee the civilian food programme. The army became self-financing in other ways. Gaviota, its tourist business, oversees around 60 per cent of total tourist revenue. Other army businesses include Almacenes Universales, a company in charge of warehousing, Construcciones Antex, which deals with real estate and construction, and Banco Metropolitano, the army’s financial branch.

* * *

Even regarding Cubans’ attachment to their own revolution, times have changed. Castro recently launched what he called the Battle of Ideas: an attempt to win over the ‘special period’ generation to the ideals of the revolution. At the same time, museums in Havana today nostalgically invoke Cuba’s plantation culture, and hotels play on the pre-1959 gangster themes to attract foreign tourists. As Gott puts it, ‘Cuba has embraced “heritage culture” with all the enthusiasm of the postmodernists of the West’. Lee Anderson recounts a rally he attended in March this year in support of Cuba’s baseball team. Castro, well into one of his interminable speeches, failed to notice the ‘restless din’ that had settled in the stadium as people talked, slept and moved around while their leader spoke. For Lee Anderson, this was a sign that Cubans had moved on, Castro himself soon to be added to the nostalgic museum displays of the Old Town.

For all this, the forthcoming end of Castro’s reign has some significance. Most of all, it throws light on the apparent return of radical left-wing politics to Latin America. From Chávez in Venezuela, to Morales in Ecuador, Kirschner in Argentina, and Obrador, currently out in the streets of Mexico calling for a recount of last month’s vote, many claim there is a leftwards turn on the continent. Daniel Ortega and the Sandinistas may even return to power in Nicaragua in November. Of all these new leaders, Hugo Chávez has been seen as the most obvious inheritor of Castro’s legacy. Lisa Wixon of the Washington Post writes that ‘the political inheritor of Fidel’s fortune is Venezuela’s Chávez, who rips off Fidel’s playbook with increasing regularity’. Spain’s El Mundo also noted that the ‘great beneficiary of Fidel’s death will be Chávez, who feels himself inheritor of [Castro’s] international leadership of the left’.

The irony of Castro passing over his legacy to Chávez is that both are from very different political traditions. Jorge Casteñada, a former Mexican foreign minister, recently published in Prospect an article called ‘A tale of two lefts’. He remarked that many had predicted the return of left-wing parties in Latin America after the end of the Cold War, but had assumed the parties would be reformed versions of older socialists and communist parties. Instead, Latin American populism, in the tradition of Perón (Argentina), Cárdenas (Mexico) and Ibarra (Ecuador), took up the leftist mantle. At the same time, the other left, strong in Chile, Uruguay, and Brazil, reformed itself along lines not so different from the French Socialist Party, or the British Labour Party. The exception to this was obviously Cuba, the country that had revived the Latin American left in the Sixties. The result has been that Cuba, distanced from the likes of Lula’s PT (Workers’ Party), has found common ground with populist figures in Venezuela and Ecuador.

Some in Latin America have found the mixing of traditions difficult to swallow, feeling that Chávez has corrupted a more noble left-wing tradition. Ibsen Martinez, a Venezuelan playwright and novelist, and vocal critic of Chávez, writes that ‘Chávez has found the profitable path to anti-imperialism. But it’s a devil’s bargain…because such riches only erode the legitimacy he needs to lead a crusade against Washington.’ He continues: ‘Chávez’s Venezuela feels less like a vanguard than throwback – the textbook case of a populist Latin American petrostate degenerating into an illiberal democracy, militarist as well as corrupt.’ While Castro matched his anti-American rhetoric with acts, such as nationalising the Standard Oil affiliate in Cuba after the Bay of Pigs debacle, and expropriating up to $2billion worth of US assets in 1959, ‘Chávez, his anti-American bluster notwithstanding, is still dealing with Chevron Corporation’.

Even those more sympathetic to Chávez, such as Richard Gott, acknowledge that the Venezuelan leader does not pose a threat to American interests in a way that Castro’s government did in the early years of the revolution. Gott asks rhetorically, ‘Has Chávez expropriated American companies? No. Has he affected American business interests? No, he hasn’t. There is still McDonald’s in Caracas, and you can still be an American businessman in Venezuela.’ Chávez is, in Gott’s words, more a ‘pragmatic improviser’ than a ‘dogmatic socialist’.

It would be unfair to excoriate Chávez for his inability to break decisively with the capitalist system. Castro himself was a pragmatist, and was able to cut all ties with the United States largely because the Soviet Union existed as a viable alternative. In moments when Castro could have asserted Cuba’s independence, such as in 1968 when everyone was waiting to hear what Castro would say about the crushing of the Prague Spring, he stuck unwaveringly to Moscow’s line. The limits of Chávez’s Bolivarian revolution are more the limits of the current period than they are the limits of one individual.

Yet seeing Venezuela take up the mantle of the Cuban revolution helps us see how much times have changed. As Gott points out, Chávez is a ‘very unusual leftist in the sense that he’s not much interested in trade unions or political parties’. Chávez’s focus is on building a cultural alternative to North American influence in Latin America, rather than taking on the capitalist system. With this in mind, he has promoted the regional television channel, Telesur, as a way of bringing a Latin American perspective to news. He has also set up Vive, a Venezuelan channel that promotes Venezuelan culture. On this score, Chávez has much in common with France’s Jacques Chirac, a figure who regularly fulminates against American cultural imperialism, and has promoted the idea of a ‘French-language CNN’.

As Cuba looks towards the future without Castro, there is little reason to paint that future in apocalyptic terms. Market relations have established themselves in Cuba, and figures around Castro have been running the country for a number of years. Cuba has abandoned much of its socialist rhetoric, emphasising instead the country’s stance against the US. Changes in the future will be a matter of degree rather than kind. Yet Castro remains a figure known across the world and his passing, when it finally comes, will feel like the end of an era. Yet the very fact that the legacy of the Cuban revolution will pass to lesser figures such as Chávez is perhaps the clearest sign that this era ended some time ago.

What made Castro a world historic figure, namely the anti-imperialist struggles of the second half of the twentieth century, are no longer what animate international politics today.

Chris Bickerton is a PhD student at St Johns College, Oxford. He lived and worked in Cuba for a year at the end of the Nineties. He is chairing the debate The Battle for History: National Narratives Versus Personal Memories at the Battle of Ideas festival (not to be confused with Castro’s Battle of Ideas) in London in October 2006. Email him at {encode=”” title=””}.

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Topics Politics


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