The Magazine

Cuba After Fidel

Can the society he ruined get back on its feet?

Mar 3, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 24 • By DUNCAN CURRIE
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In January 1959, during the early days of the Cuban revolution, Fidel Castro declared, "Behind me come others more radical than me." It was a reference to the hardcore Stalinists such as his younger brother, Raúl, and also a warning of what might ensue should Fidel be assassinated. Today, however, Raúl is thought to be the more pragmatic of the two Castros--more willing to liberalize the economy and to pursue normalized relations with the United States.

Despite what you may have read, the post-Fidel era did not begin last week when the dictator's retirement was made official. It began about 19 months ago, in the summer of 2006, when Fidel was hospitalized and the 76-year-old Raúl became Cuba's interim president. He has forged a collective leadership and preserved stability on the island. Raúl is likely to be "elected" president at the February 24 Cuban National Assembly gathering, though there has been some speculation that Carlos Lage, the 56-year-old vice president, might become the formal chief executive and that the younger Castro would keep a separate leadership title. The nature of a Raúl-led regime is shrouded by uncertainty. But the factors that will determine the future of post-Fidel Cuba, and of U.S. policy toward Cuba, are obvious.

The military. Raúl has headed the Cuban military for decades. Brian Latell, who spent three decades following Cuba as a CIA officer, argued in his 2005 book, After Fidel, that "Raúl was his brother's one truly indispensable ally" and that his "brilliant, steady leadership of the Cuban armed forces secured the revolution." Post-Fidel Cuba has essentially been run by a civil-military committee and that won't soon change. "Civilian elites, individually or in any conceivable alliances, will be unable to challenge the military as long as it remains united," Latell wrote. "The Communist Party and popular organizations are hollow shells that have been allowed by the Castros to fade in importance." According to Jaime Suchlicki, a Cuba expert at the University of Miami, the Cuban military now "controls more than 50 percent of the economy," including a large portion of the tourism industry. They are the real power brokers.

Latell made another crucial point: A Tiananmen Square-type incident could cleave apart the military and topple the regime. "Even if the survival of the revolution were at stake, many troop commanders would probably be unwilling to fire indiscriminately on protesting civilians." If ordered to do so, some of the elite paramilitary forces might carry out a massacre, Latell added. "But that could be the surest formula for civil war, pitting loyalist and dissident commanders and units against each other."

China. While Fidel has disavowed the Chinese economic model, Raúl is said to favor it. The Wall Street Journal reported in November 2006 that "Raúl has traveled to China a number of times to study Beijing's economic policies, and in 2003 he invited the leading economic adviser to China's then-premier Zhu Rongji, who played a leading role in opening up China to foreign trade and investment, to give a series of lectures in Cuba." Raúl also supported the modest free-market initiatives devised by Lage in the early 1990s.

China is cranking up its investment in Cuba and boosting bilateral ties. There seems little doubt that Cuba's new leaders will seek to borrow from the Chinese blueprint and mix political repression with expanded economic freedoms. But they will do so warily, and probably through piecemeal reforms (starting with agriculture).

Helms-Burton. If Cuba embraced the Chinese model, would America scrap its embargo? The 1996 Helms-Burton Act stipulates that before the U.S. embargo can be lifted or diplomatic recognition granted, the Cuban government must not include Fidel or Raúl Castro, and it must meet a series of democratic benchmarks, such as legalizing all political activity, releasing all political prisoners, abolishing certain state security forces, and pledging to hold free elections. "It's an all-or-nothing approach," complains a former Bush administration official. "There's no room in U.S. policy for an incremental transition."

Peter Orr, a retired Foreign Service officer who served as Cuba coordinator at the U.S. Agency for International Development under President Clinton, disagrees. "There is nothing in Helms-Burton that impedes an incremental strategy," Orr told me via email. "Yes, the bar to formal diplomatic recognition and direct assistance to the Cuban government has been codified at a fairly high level that is not going to be met in the near term following Fidel Castro's demise. But the same Helms-Burton legislation authorized the president to take steps to promote democratic change in Cuba, including but not limited to providing assistance to the Cuban people and promoting information flows and people-to-people engagements that would further democratic change."

Even under Helms-Burton, "the president has a wide degree of discretion to make the determination of what constitutes a step that will promote democratic change"--and nothing bars U.S and Cuban officials from talking or negotiating.

Venezuela. In recent years, Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez has lavished Cuba with petroleum largesse. In 2006, according to Jorge Piñón and his colleagues at the University of Miami's Cuba Transition Project, "the market value of Venezuela's crude oil and refined products exports to Cuba amounted to over $3.3 billion." In 2007, they reckon, Venezuelan oil subsidies to Cuba might well have eclipsed $4 billion.

Chávez and Fidel get on famously, but Raúl has remained more distant from the Venezuelan leader. "The bulk of evidence suggests that the two men have little in common and are more rivals than allies," notes Latell. Many Cuban military officers are said to be dismissive of the buffoonish Chávez and resentful of their dependence on Venezuelan oil. For that matter, Chávez has been weakened at home: He lost a December referendum on constitutional reform and has alienated many onetime supporters. If the future of Venezuelan aid to Cuba is uncertain, the consequences of its withdrawal are clearer. If Caracas withdrew those subsidies, says the former Bush administration official, "there would be a crisis [in Cuba] as big as the one that attended the fall of the Soviet Union."

Migration. Once Fidel dies, "I don't think Raúl can keep it together," a senior Bush administration official told me late last year, noting that things could get "very bloody." Raúl has dodgy health, no charisma, and a reputation for brutality--not exactly the makings of a transformative figure. If the regime loses control and violence engulfs the island, it could spur a massive migration to Florida.

The 1980 Mariel boatlift brought around 125,000 Cubans to American shores; the 1994 balsero frenzy saw nearly 40,000 Cubans intercepted by the U.S. Coast Guard. Any major post-Fidel instability could trigger another huge exodus. "It could be bigger than Mariel," Latell told me.

"I would like to think that a U.S. president would put promoting democratic change in Cuba above concerns about uncontrolled immigration, but I don't believe any administration in recent times has and I'm skeptical that even Fidel's death will change that," says Orr. "Even in the absence of gradual political change, economic progress in Cuba becomes imperative if an immigration crisis is to be avoided, if and when sudden political change occurs. This logic suggests that a successful implementation of the Chinese model in Cuba would serve U.S. interests of minimizing the risk of an illegal immigration crisis."

Fidel Castro's 49-year tyranny hasn't just ruined the Cuban economy; it has also ruined Cuban society, producing generations of Cubans who have learned to "succeed" in life by lying, spying, cheating, and stealing. Trying to fashion a market-oriented, democratic culture out of the wreckage of five decades of bloodstained totalitarianism will not be easy, no matter who is in charge.

If post-Fidel Cuba adopts the Chinese economic model, as expected, the lot of ordinary Cubans will improve. But the road to full-blown democracy will likely be slow, fitful, and deeply frustrating to Cubans on both sides of the Florida Strait, who have waited half a century for their homeland's long national nightmare to end.

Duncan Currie is managing editor of the American.