Predictions that the Castro regime will soon collapse are popular again. Such speculation is fueled by many developments over the last year, including missteps by Raul Castro, stasis and confusion in the ruling gerontocracy, the rehabilitation of Ramiro Valdes, severe economic contractions, and rising international condemnations of Cuba’s appalling human rights record. And of course, actuarially, the odds favoring sudden changes at the top are steadily increasing. All of that adds up to greater uncertainty than before.
But predicting the demise of the Castro brothers’ regime has been a losing proposition for all of the 51 years they have exercised power. There have been a number of occasions when observers on and off the island let themselves be convinced that the final chapter was being written. I believed that once myself, as I have explained in After Fidel.
It was following the disappearance of the Soviet Union when Cuba’s economy plunged into what seemed then like terminal seizure. The largest riots the regime ever experienced broke out on the Malecon in Havana and in a few other places. Ox carts were substituting for transport vehicles; factories were shutting down for lack of inputs; and extended energy blackouts were provoking popular discontent. The leadership was in a state of geopolitical shock.
By any rational analysis, the economic survival strategy Fidel Castro decreed would never be able to compensate for the loss of the approximately $6 billion of annual Soviet bloc subsidies. But the regime did survive its worst economic crisis, the Special Period in Peacetime. There were few defections from the leadership, no known challenge to Castro from within the nomenclatura, and no outward signs of political tremors.
At other junctures, political and economic convulsions also appeared to some to be more than the Castros could handle. There was, for example, the chaos of the first few years of the revolution as rapid confiscations of property and brutal repression of dissent fueled the exodus of skilled and professional Cubans and their families. The Matos-Cienfuegos crisis in the fall of 1959 could easily have ended differently, that is, in violent conflict within the embryonic armed forces and the diverse July 26th Movement.
In the 1960’s there were numerous real or apparent challenges to the Castros’ hegemony. The 1962 “sectarian” purge, the 1964 Marcos Rodriguez affair, the “microfaction” purge later in the decade, and the defections of many prominent officials and scapegoating of others by Fidel Castro suggested at times that the regime was faltering. But of course, the hopes of those predicting its downfall came to naught.
In retrospect, the gravest of all the crises the regime has weathered probably occurred during the summer of 1989. Highlighted by dramatic show trials, executions, dangerous purges, suspicious deaths (suicide and heart attack?), and preposterously contrived charges of drug trafficking, the Ochoa-de la Guardia-Abrahantes affair may some day be known to have been the closest the Castro brothers have ever come to a genuinely regime-threatening crisis. They were playing with fire when they ordered convulsive purges in the Ministry of Interior (MININT). And their frantic behavior during those tense weeks are evidence enough of how grave a backlash they thought might materialize.
Juan Antonio Rodriguez Menier, a late 1980’s defector from Cuban intelligence who has written about the DGI and the Ministry of Interior, has commented on the fateful summer of 1989. “Internal opposition has been serious in the past,” he has said, “proven by the execution of (General Arnaldo) Ochoa & the imprisonment of nearly 200 MININT officials who were opposed to Castro and were almost to the point of conspiring to overthrow him.”
Rodriguez Menier explains that “the old generation of MININT leaders long contemplated a conspiracy against Fidel, but in the end, they saw no viable alternative. While the armed forces are largely ‘yes sir types,’ the MININT consists of the most intelligent Cubans who are also the best informed.”
It has been more than twenty years now since the MININT purges and executions, plenty of time for Fidel and Raul Castro and their subalterns to have repaired the damage done. But Rodriguez Menier’s judgments may nonetheless have relevance to Cuban conditions today. An elite-led rebellion or challenge to the doddering regime will be more likely than one that spontaneously arises in the streets. But predicting it will continue to be a reckless undertaking.
Dr. Brian Latell, distinguished Cuba analyst and recent author of the book, After Fidel: The Inside Story of Castro’s Regime and Cuba’s Next Leader, is a Senior Research Associate at ICCAS. He has informed American and foreign presidents, cabinet members, and legislators about Cuba and Fidel Castro in a number of capacities. He served in the early 1990s as National Intelligence Officer for Latin America at the Central Intelligence Agency and taught at Georgetown University for a quarter century. Dr. Latell has written, lectured, and consulted extensively.
—————————————- Havana Journal Comments—————————————-
One thing is different now than during the Ochoa and Special Period, Fidel Castro is not the President and he is not rallying the country behind his (failed) ideology.
Raul is CERTAINLY not a leader that people look up to for hope. He is a manager at best.