Life After Fidel

Fidel Castro’s official resignation as head of the Cuban state, although expected, was a turning point that has raised major questions concerning Cuba’s future. His younger brother Raúl, who now officially assumed the highest position in the country, had already “temporarily” replaced the commander in chief on July 31, 2006 after Fidel Castro stepped aside due to a serious illness, the nature of which was declared a state secret.

The decision of Cuba’s rulers to appoint 77-year-old José Ramón Machado Ventura as Raúl Castro’s successor, was surprising but revealing. Most observers, including this writer, expected the appointment of Carlos Lage, a medical doctor still in his fifties, who is reputed to be a moderate and who, for several years, has had a major role in the conduct of the Cuban economy. Instead, the Cuban rulers appointed a political hard liner who has been dedicated to preserving the ideological purity of the system. He also helped to further consolidate the power of the military in the top echelons of the government, thus allowing a status-quo succession to ensure the greatest possible continuity of the system.

There are political differences in the leadership and intelligentsia on the question of political and economic change that pose questions regarding their future relations with the dominant military circles. At the same time, there have been recent signs of new protests emerging from below that may confound elite plans. And there is pressure from the outside, particularly the United States, that will undoubtedly have an important impact on any political transition in the island.

Social Decay

The political discussions on Cuba’s future are taking place against the backdrop of considerable social decay. In an important speech delivered at the University of Havana in November of 2005, Fidel Castro had already pointed out that corruption had become so widespread that he feared that it could destroy the revolution from within. Much of this corruption is the outcome of great economic hardship. Although there have been significant material improvements, particularly in the delivery of electricity (blackouts have almost disappeared) and most recently in Havana’s urban transport, the country has not fully recovered from the severe economic crisis brought about by the collapse of the Soviet bloc.

Health and education, the areas that witnessed the greatest progress since the early years of the revolution, were very hard hit by the crisis. There has been an ongoing serious shortage of teachers primarily due to the low salaries prevailing in that sector. Among the results of the crisis in Cuba’s educational system has been the replacement of teachers by televised classes and the growing importance of privately paid tutoring, a trend that was noted with concern by the newspaper Juventud Rebelde on March 30. There are major shortages of medicines and medical supplies in clinics and hospitals serving the general population (as distinct from the medical facilities available to the political elite and in the system of medical tourism). The medical crisis has become aggravated by the oil-for-doctors exchange with Venezuela, which created a shortage of general practitioners in the otherwise highly regarded family doctor program, as well as among the specialists to which these patients are referred.

In addition, the official ration book covers no more than half of peoples’ food needs. The rest must be obtained in the expensive free market priced in convertible pesos (that are even more expensive than the dollar.) The UN’s Economic Commission for Latin America (ECLA) has estimated that 62% of Cubans have access to hard currency (in greatly varying amounts) while 20% of the island’s urban population is at risk of not being able to cover its minimal basic needs (Cuba is currently 75% urban). It is then no wonder that theft, particularly of state property (including even parts of power transmission lines) and all kinds of hustling have become a way of life for large numbers of Cubans. Lately, the Cuban press has reported on a growing number of incidents that suggest a more generalized social breakdown beyond utilitarian law breaking and corruption. These range from school truancy, alcoholism, and the decline of public civility to more dangerous incidents such as unprovoked attacks on urban buses traveling through poor neighborhoods and unprecedented instances of “hooliganism” at sports events.

Raul’s Reforms

In the short term Raúl Castro is trying to increase his popular support and legitimacy by granting liberalizing reforms to remove current restrictions, particularly on the economic life of the country, while maintaining a tight political rein to prevent any degree of democratization of Cuban society. This seems to be his highly discretionary and selective response to the popular demands that were made after he called for an open and frank national discussion in his speech of July 26, 2007.

This is not the first time that such a call has been made in the island. Something similar happened in the period preceding the Fourth Communist Party Congress in 1991. In that instance, however, the official press frequently published the proposals made at workplace and community meetings, although with little or no practical effect. Some Cubans have described this type of institutionalized venting as the “culture of the elevator” – proposals are sent up to the authorities and their answers come down without people being able to act laterally. In other words, people are forbidden from organizing independently with each other outside of official channels to prevent them from directly confronting and demanding solutions to their problems from the people in power.

Thus, Raúl Castro has already removed the ban on the purchase of cell phones, computers, and other domestic electrical appliances and agricultural implements and supplies. He also removed the ban on Cubans staying in tourist hotels and renting automobiles. However, these concessions only benefit those Cubans who have access to hard currency. Raúl Castro has removed the cap in state salaries and is also likely to ease requirements to allow more Cubans to become self-employed in the service sector in the cities. He has also begun to distribute to individual peasants some of the large amounts of unused state lands, a good part of which became available with the dramatic shrinkage of the sugar industry. Such a measure, if it were to be considerably extended, may open a Pandora’s Box with important political consequences. He is expected, in the near future, to relax the harsh restrictions on traveling abroad, and reduce if not eliminate the exorbitant amounts of money, homes, and personal property that Cubans have to give up in order to be allowed to emigrate. Overall, he will maintain his own style of rule limiting the frequency of political demonstrations that interrupt work routines, delegating instead of micro managing, and curtailing the sudden and arbitrary improvisations in the economy. In other words, Raúl will try to establish “normal” ruling class bureaucratic rationality to replace Bonapartist and charismatic chaos and disorder.

Should Raúl survive his older brother, or if the military continues to maintain its current supremacy after the death of Fidel, the Cuban rulers will likely adopt a variant of the Vietnamese and Chinese model that Raúl so greatly admires. This model would entail an opening to the capitalist market economy under the rule of an autocratic one-party state mostly controlled by the military. The material basis for such a model already exists with the dominant economic role that the Cuban Armed Forces, often in conjunction with foreign capital, have been playing at least since the early 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The army has been coordinating its economic activities through a corporation called GAESA; one of its holdings, Gaviota, is probably the single biggest tourism enterprise in Cuba. High-level army officers have been running other major sectors of the economy such as the sugar industry. It is significant that Raúl Castro recently promoted another old timer, Major General Julio Casas Regueiro, to minister of defense. Casas oversaw the perfeccionamiento empresarial (enterprise improvement), an efficiency drive based on capitalist organizational methods, in companies run by the military (the same methods have also been used in many civilian enterprises). The army’s economic activities have created a significant stratum of army technicians and managers, “businessmen in uniform,” who together with their equivalents in the civilian joint ventures with foreign capital, constitute the principal social base for the possible emergence of a Sino-Vietnamese type model in Cuba.

Liberal Communists vs. Talibanes

For some time, a liberal Communist tendency supported by the majority of intellectuals, academics, and artists on the island has been functioning in a very careful fashion and is likely to continue to play a role in the foreseeable future. Recently, this group made its presence felt at the congress of the UNEAC – Artists and Writers Union – that took place in early April. This tendency tends to favor an opening to the market, not along neo-liberal lines but more like the moderate market reforms tried in Eastern Europe before the collapse of Communism in the 1980s and even earlier. In addition to these economic reforms, the liberal Communists would also like to see a number of democratic reforms and a more pluralist Cuba, perhaps even including open political tendencies within the Cuban Communist Party. These views are published and predominate in venues of relatively small circulation such as La Gaceta de Cuba, Temas, Revolución, and Cultura.

Although these democratic reforms would not be acceptable to a future “Sino-Vietnamese” ruling group, the market liberals and the market autocrats may cement at least a temporary alliance, as the introduction of the market is bound to bring about liberalization in the social realm. This might include reforms that are under active consideration and might soon be announced such as fewer restrictions on traveling abroad, greater freedom for small businesses, the right to rent, buy, and sell one’s home, and greater access to the Internet even if limited by censorship. Any material concessions that such a regime is able to give to the educated groups (the social basis for the liberal Communist currents) will prolong the life of such an alliance.

To be sure, the hard-line Fidelistas are bound to resist further liberalizing changes in the economy, and will fight against any effort to democratize the polity. In Cuba they are called the Talibanes, and include people like Felipe Pérez Roque, the former chief of staff for Fidel Castro, who is now foreign minister. The main centers of Taliban power have been the Grupo de Apoyo (Support Staff) for Fidel Castro and among sectors of the Communist Party apparatus, particularly in the provinces, involving individuals that were personally cultivated by the commander in chief. The Grupo de Apoyo, constituted by such figures as Carlos Valenciaga, Fidel Castro’s personal secretary, has been marginalized by Raúl Castro. Jokingly referred to as the huerfanitos or little orphans, they played a key role in Fidel Castro’s “Battle of Ideas.” This “battle” involved not just political and ideological struggles accompanied by massive demonstrations, but also the implementation of economic projects that often deviated from pre-established plans and usurped the powers and functions of the government’s departments and ministries.

The Talibanes have no political future as long as the army under the leadership of Raúl Castro, or whoever eventually succeeds him, remains united and is able to deliver important economic reforms over the short term that can increase its legitimacy and popularity among the population at large. China’s transition is a good example against which to compare the role of the Talibanes: their equivalents were the “Gang of Four” types who stood for the old Stalinist system. They were no match for Deng and what he promised: an improved standard of living and relief from Mao’s endless mobilizations and arbitrariness.

Political Trends

Like in many of the post-Communist transitions that have taken place since the late 1980s, there is little significant political support in Cuba today for a collectivist economy and society popularly controlled from below in an open democratic polity. The political landscape seems to be limited to three main views: two of these support the rule of the one-party state while differing on whether and how much Cuba should open itself to a market economy. A third view, influential among intellectuals and academics, does support the liberalization and democratization of society but within the context of a turn toward the market short of neoliberalism. Nevertheless, the public mood in Cuba is such that even though growing numbers of people might think that capitalism is the best system to produce goods and services, they will ferociously defend the free public health, education, and other social services they won in the early years of the revolution.

The ample histories of transitions to capitalism suggest that a capitalist transition in Cuba is highly unlikely to take even a relatively benign form. Instead, we are highly likely to witness “shock therapies” and sharp reductions of “welfare state” institutions and spending enforced by the dictatorial rule of the army in partnership with foreign and nascent domestic capital. We can also expect a substantial U.S. role in the internal affairs of the island with its IMF-type structural adjustment, privatization, and austerity policies and its devastating effect particularly on black Cubans and the poor. The possibilities of a fourth view, that of democratic anti-capitalist politics, lie in the popular opposition to such a type of transition.

Recent events in the island suggest the emergence of a trend in that direction. The year 2007 may have witnessed the beginning of a transition from the politics of individual complaint – that gained particular currency with the crisis provoked by the collapse of the Soviet bloc in the early 1990s – to the politics of collective resistance. The year began with the protest of many Cuban intellectuals and artists against the public reappearance of three individuals associated with the most repressive cultural policies that purged numerous prominent intellectuals and artists in the darkest period of the 1970: Luis Pavón Tamayo, Armando Quesada, and Jorge “Papito” Sergueras. The protest was politically limited since it never challenged current censorship nor raised questions about who had given orders to these repressive cultural functionaries back in the 1970s But the protest was quite unusual for Cuba since it started spontaneously through email and allowed artists and intellectuals to flex their political muscles independently of the control of the one-party state. The government managed to contain the protest, but the protesters succeeded in obtaining an official reaffirmation of the current relatively tolerant cultural policies.

Since then, a number of events have occurred that confirm that something new is brewing in the country. In September 2007, several hundred students openly demonstrated at the University of Oriente in Santiago de Cuba to protest poor living and educational conditions as well as lack of security for women students. The student protest must have been quite serious since the government found it necessary to hold a large official counter-demonstration in Santiago de Cuba, in early October, reaffirming support for the regime. There are unconfirmed reports that many protesters were expelled from the university but the government-controlled media has maintained total silence on the matter. In January 2008, a near-riot broke up a meeting at which government officials informed employees of foreign companies that they would be taxed for the under-the-table hard-currency salary supplements that they received from their foreign employers. The workers were particularly indignant because the Cuban government was already collecting their hard-currency salaries from these companies and then paying them in pesos.

In early February, on a video widely distributed through the Internet, students at the elite Information Science University, located at what used to be the Soviet listening post at Lourdes, were shown confronting Ricardo Alarcón, the president of Cuba’s National Assembly. They were protesting travel restrictions, their inability to visit tourist facilities in Cuba, the inequitable effects of the dual currency system, a lack of information about the candidates for the official parliamentary elections and their positions, and the censorship preventing access to search engines such as Yahoo. The students were raising libertarian democratic demands from an explicitly revolutionary standpoint. In his disingenuous response, Alarcón argued that most people in the world lacked the means to travel and if everyone could travel there would not be enough resources to accommodate all this demand. He deliberately confused the issue of the legal and political right to travel with whether people could afford to do so. He also omitted the fact that in Cuba, for exclusively political reasons, some people had more right to travel than others.

The U.S. Role

For almost 50 years, U.S. imperialism has enforced an economic blockade that has violated Cuba’s right to self-determination and made life considerably worse for the Cuban people. The blockade has also provided an anti-imperialist rationale to the regime that has helped to insure its survival. The end of the Cold War vastly reduced Cuba’s importance to American foreign policy, as witnessed by the virtual absence of Cuba from practically all strategic analyses of the international threats and challenges facing the U.S. government. Nevertheless, the Castro regime has stoked invasion fears whenever it has found it convenient for domestic and foreign consumption to divert attention from domestic scandals, as when he imposed heavy prison sentences on 75 peaceful dissidents in the spring of 2003.

Several decades have passed since the United States seriously contemplated an invasion of the island. Nevertheless, the U.S. government, and the Bush administration in particular, has continued to follow a bullying policy of ever-growing harassment with the goal of worsening conditions in the island, thereby hastening the collapse of the regime from within and obviating the need for a U.S. invasion. At the same time, it has harbored terrorists such as Luis Posada Carriles and Orlando Bosch — responsible for the death of 73 innocent civilians in the bombing of a Cubana airplane near Barbados in 1976 — and attempted to buy itself political support inside the island. Current U.S. government strategy toward Cuba seems to be based on the notion that individuals and groups on the island who support U.S. policies and interests would come to power with the aid of the U.S. government and their Cuban-American associates in south Florida. These people would then implement a “democratic” capitalist transition in Cuba. Aside from the fact that such a transition would actually require a vicious dictatorship, it belongs to the quite discredited political fiction genre that predicted that U.S. troops would be greeted as liberators in Baghdad.

Since the collapse of the Soviet bloc, the policy of economic blockade and political harassment has been primarily maintained for electoral and political considerations rather than by the will and desires of the American corporate class, which in fact has been showing increasing interest in doing business with Cuba. Numerous corporate leaders and important politicians – particularly those from the midwestern and western farm states already selling hundreds of millions of dollars a year in food and processed goods to Cuba under the “humanitarian” exceptions to the blockade granted in November 2001 – have visited the island in recent years. This increased interest has been reflected in Congress. During the younger Bush’s years in office, Congress came close to approving legislation with Republican support that would have dealt serious blows to the blockade, and Bush successfully lobbied to get it off the agenda. Some of these legislative proposals are likely to be approved by the new Congress that will be elected in November 2008. Whether or not they will end up being vetoed by whoever becomes the new President, remains an open question.

Meanwhile, a “Sino-Vietnamese” style transition in Cuba, especially if it is eventually headed by a leader with a last name other than Castro, is likely to split the Cuban right-wing in Florida, and thereby undermine the principal political support for the U.S. blockade. At that point, the island leaders are likely to invite the south Florida Cuban-American capitalists to come, invest, and enrich themselves in Cuba provided they stay out of politics. This would replicate what the Chinese government has done with the overseas Chinese businessmen and the order that Putin has imposed on the Russian business oligarchy.

The prospects for a post-Castro Cuba are worrisome, whether it turn towards a “Sino-Vietnamese” model or toward the continuation of the present order (even with liberalizing changes). Progressive Americans can help to improve the possibility of a democratic, humane, and socialist transition in Cuba by demanding the immediate restoration of full U.S. economic and political relations with the island republic. To do this, it is not necessary to create illusions about the nature of the Cuban regime. In fact, it would be counterproductive because it would undermine the credibility of the forces struggling for a change in U.S. policy. The normalization of relations with Cuba would advance the cause of self-determination of nations and would also be a good, practical alternative to an almost fifty-year old failed policy of economic blockade and political harassment. There cannot be a better time to bring up and press for this change than the election year of 2008.

Samuel Farber was born and raised in Cuba. His most recent book is The Origins of the Cuban Revolution Reconsidered (University of North Carolina Press). He is a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus (www.fpif.org).