CASTRO vs CASTRO: The battle for power?
Fidel Castro may no longer be the President of Cuba, but contrary to his indications at the start of 2009, he has no intention of slipping away quietly. The question for Cubans and commentators alike is whether his presence as revered elder statesman in his brother Raul Castro’s government remains either relevant, influential or even lasting.
In early January 2009, Fidel wrote that Cuba should not feel bound by his “occasional Reflections, state of health or [his] death”. He noted that he had “the rare privilege of observing events over such a long time. I receive information and meditate calmly on those events,” he wrote. “I expect I won’t enjoy that privilege in four years, when Obama’s first presidential term has ended…I have reduced the Reflections as I had planned this year, so I won’t interfere or get in the way of the [Communist] Party or government comrades in the constant decisions they must make”.
An 83rd Birthday
Beware those who take Fidel strictly at his word. Coinciding with his 83rd birthday this week, a new collection of Fidel’s thoughts and writings over the last fifty years has been published in Cuba. His Reflections in the State-run Granma newspaper, far from being reduced, have become increasingly agitated over recent months. Fidel’s latest essay entitled “The Yanki bases and Latin American Sovereignty” is a belligerent rant against American imperialist adventures across the continent. Relying on the well-worn themes of Latin American liberators who have peppered his psychology and speeches for over fifty years, the latest references to Bolivar and Martí are not only surprisingly incoherent at times – with one thread of thought juxtaposing itself against something rather different – but in light of the new economic crisis facing his country, and a young generation who no longer consider themselves on a constant war footing, the articles appear strangely out of tune with Cuban reality.
Will Raul talk to the old enemy?
At a meeting of socialist leaders in Venezuela in April 2009, Fidel’s younger brother Raul, who formally took over the Cuban presidency in February 2008, declared a willingness to talk to the United States. “Human rights, press freedom, political prisoners, everything, everything, everything they want to talk about,”, he had said. Obama’s response was to indicate that relations between the two old enemies might begin to improve. Fidel responded angrily from his Granma platform, announcing that Obama had misinterpreted his brother’s comments and that Cuba would not concede even minor issues. Notwithstanding his brother’s constant and critical musings concerning Cuba’s northern neighbour, last week Raul again reiterated that Cuba was prepared to discuss “everything” with the United States, so long as the United States was prepared to discuss “everything” with Cuba. Despite a lifetime of living in the shadow of his brother’s “tall tree”, as Castro Senior once described their relationship, it seems as though Castro Junior is beginning to make his own policy decisions.
This extends to more than just rhetoric. In the course of comments made last week to the Cuban National Assembly, a body which supporters unrealistically argue lends democracy to the country’s electoral system, Raul Castro announced that there would be spending cuts in the “unsustainable” but prized education and health systems of Cuba. He did not provide any detail of these measures which are bound to prove massively unsuccessful in a country which has had to bear decades of isolation, hardship and basic shortages. The free health and education systems are the placards upon which the success of the Revolution generally is held. Many young urban Cubans, often critical of both Castro brothers and their stranglehold on the political system, remain fiercely proud of their state health and education systems, citing statistics about the number of Cuban doctors being exported to Venezuela and other Latin American countries. It will become increasingly difficult for the Cuban government to justify their dictatorship if key planks of their policies crumble. Over the last year, Cubans have often considered themselves protected from the global financial crisis because of their non-capitalist system. Now, the impact of the crisis is being felt on their own beleaguered economy: Major foodstores are temporarily closing in the urban centres, oil and electricity shortages lead factories to close early and severe restrictions are being placed on air conditioners as the summer heat rips through the island. Rationing remains in place. Memories of the so-called ‘special period’ during the 1990s, when the country underwent severe hardships following the collapse of the USSR and its accompanying handouts, are not yet distant, and the ravages of three hurricanes which caused an estimated $10billion worth of damage last summer remain fresh in Cuban minds. In these difficult and worsening conditions, and with many Cuban youngsters increasingly viewing Castro Senior as an irrelevancy in their lives, it will be surprising if murmurs of dissent do not become louder.
Where will this lead?
They are unlikely, however, to lead to an internal uprising. Across the straits in Washington, think-tanks will know that the Cuban political system has weathered many a storm before. Previous US Presidents have hoped unsuccessfully that crushing Cuba’s economy, by whatever means, will bring down Fidel Castro. They have been proven wrong. For decades at least, the Revolution has been carried by a wave of popular support. The great irony is that, at the height of its popularity, the Revolution probably would have been sanctioned by democratic victory, had Fidel gone to the polls, not unlike the Allende government in Chile. But, almost certainly because of the almost-complete block on relations between the US and Cuba, there has never been a known attempted coup, whether supported by the US or otherwise. Raul has commanded the army with unprecedented levels of support in Latin America. For that reason alone, another revolution is not yet brewing in Cuba, no matter how discontented its inhabitants are.
The younger sibling
True it is that Raul has never inspired the same influence and devotion that Fidel has instilled in many of his admirers. Historically he has been feared as being merciless and cold-blooded. He became infamous for refusing to tolerate “ideological diversionism” since the early 1970s. However, over the last decade, as the inevitable transition of power from the older to the younger brother has taken place, he has stepped back from his uncompromising image. In courting some form of positive relationship with the Americans, many Cubans believe that Raul is practical and so willing to engage in market reform.
For now, however, Raul Castro has warned Cubans that they must work harder. They have heard this mantra many times before, from Fidel. Raul has stated categorically that the political and social system built during fifty years of Cuban struggle will continue long after the death of his older brother. Raul said last week that he was not “elected president to return capitalism to Cuba”, nor “to surrender the revolution”. He told the Assembly that he was “elected to defend, build and perfect socialism, not destroy it”.
A birthday wish
When Fidel first came to power, he warned that if he was assassinated, those that came behind him carried even more hardline zeal. Far from being the soft touch that some predicted, Raul Castro is allowing his brother to limp back from the limelight with dignity, but is fundamentally unyielding to his brother’s ideals. He may be willing to make some compromises – perhaps Chinese style – to ensure that the Cuban suffering can be alleviated where possible, but the Cuban political system is not about to collapse. The real danger to Fidel’s ideology, and to his Cuban Revolution, will be if Raul, aged 78, becomes infirm or dies. No one has been groomed properly to take over the country. No credible internal opposition party exists. A power vacuum at that stage will almost guarantee interference from Washington, notwithstanding Obama’s overtures. On his 83rd birthday, Fidel Castro will blow out his candles, wishing for his brother’s good health.
11th August 2009