Jonathan Brown | Santiago Times
Last week the Associate Press quoted Thomas A. Shannon Jr., the assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, saying that Fidel Castro’s attempt to turn over power to his brother Raúl is doomed to fail. “The transfer won’t work,’’ he said. “Ultimately, there is no political figure inside of Cuba who matches Fidel Castro.’’
Many Americans seem to think—some of us, wishfully—that chaos will follow Fidel’s departure and that the government will tumble. Maybe so, but a month’s tour of Cuba this last July leads me to believe that the Revolution will survive its leader, just as Chinese Communism survives despite Mao’s passing. And Raúl Castro is an important part of the reason.
Gen. Raúl Castro has been the heir apparent since the early 1960s. He began the revolution at his brother’s side in 1953. He has commanded the Revolutionary Armed Forces, the FAR, since their inception and nurtured the development of a loyal, ideologically trained officer corps. The FAR gained stature in the military victories over the CIA-directed Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961 and against South African mercenaries in Angola in 1976. Raúl joined the Communist Party long before Fidel proclaimed his membership, and he has ranked number two in the party’s Central Committee since 1965.
In short, the Cuban revolution is thoroughly institutionalized and Raúl has been a central figure in that process.
But Raúl is as reclusive as his brother is outgoing. He lacks Fidel’s gift for oratory, although he may share his brother’s considerable political instincts. Raúl has served as Fidel’s chief confidant since their days as guerrilla fighters, and one should not expect him to change basic policies that he himself has had a role in making. The Communist state structure will support him in power, as will the FAR. No organized alternative faction exists within Cuba to challenge his assumption of power or to threaten internal civil strife. The human rights activists visible to foreigners are unknown to ordinary Cubans, a consequence of the state’s control of the news media.
Further, the Cuban public may be supportive of Raul’s coming to power because it knows he will not permit a return of Cuban exiles. Even Cubans critical of the regime were appalled to learn of Cuban-Americans dancing on Miami’s Calle Ocho after the announcement of Fidel’s surgery. By the same token, the U.S. government, despite its rhetoric about “assisting in a democratic transition,” will be reassured that Raúl would not permit an embarrassing mass exodus such as the Marial boatlift of 1979.
Will Raúl open up the economy if his temporary leadership becomes permanent? He may—but slowly. He has been to China and cannot but be impressed with the Chinese achievement of encouraging economic growth while maintaining rigid political control. For 47 years, the Cuban Revolution has been all about rigid political control even at the expense of economic dynamism.
The Cubans reacted calmly to the news of Fidel’s surgery. They have noticed him slow down over the past few years and his speeches lose their fiery delivery. At his last public appearances on July 26, the revolutionary holiday commemorating the date of his first armed rebellion in 1953, Fidel practically numbed the smallish crowds by endlessly reeling off one statistic after another—from memory. Local party chiefs standing behind him waved small Cuban flags over their head to indicate when the audiences should applaud.
While Fidel seems a figure from the past in Cuba, he is very much alive in Latin America. Recent elections of socialist leaders in Venezuela, Brazil, Chile, and Bolivia have raised his stature. His government exports its most successful programs, namely literacy instruction and rural health care, and has teams of Cuban teachers and doctors working in several countries. Fidel was a featured speaker at last month’s gathering of presidents from Mercosur, the South American common market, in Córdoba, Argentina. He cited the usual statistics on Cuban development and mentioned his desire to pursue trade negotiations with Mercosur and to isolate the U.S. in the region. His visit to the nearby boyhood home of Ernesto “Che” Guevara generated much publicity.
Back home in Cuba, there are plenty of problems. For one thing, the socialist economy is not performing well. The state owns nearly everything—the hotels run by foreign (but not U.S.) hotel chains, the houses, the restaurants, the nightclubs, and most of the land. Cubans work hard but devote too much effort to government red tape. Workers who cannot be fired (except for political disloyalty) do not develop any ethic of service to customers. Cubans and occasionally foreign tourists wait in long lines while government travel agents, bank tellers, and store clerks chat among themselves, talk on phones, shuffle papers, and take long breaks.
Havana is the only Latin American capital city that has no traffic jams. The reason: almost no cars. The city’s automobiles consist of American models from the 1940s and 1950s, mixed in with Soviet Ladas of the 1970s, and Fiats and Toyotas of recent vintage. For most Cubans, urban transport consists of buses, some from the Soviet era, that produce a lot of smoke and noxious fumes.
The world knows Cuba for its old cars, and Cubans cherish them. The driver of a late-model Japanese taxi told me he still owned the 1954 Chevy his father had purchased new. “It runs very well,” he said, “pero come mucha gas” [but it eats a lot of gas].
Gas prices do not seem to be soaring in Cuba as they are in the United States and elsewhere. Fidel’s friend and admirer, President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, subsidizes Cuba’s petroleum needs. The government also works with foreign companies in developing fuel from sugar cane and in drilling into suspected offshore petroleum reserves, neither of which initiative has contributed yet to the economy.
In Castro’s Revolutionary Cuba, I did see poverty, homelessness, and even a glimpse (from a speeding bus) of a shantytown built over a garbage dump. The government denies that these exist. As a smiling Fidel says in one billboard near Havana’s Plaza de la Revolución, Vamos bien. (“We’re doing well.”) One Cuban told me of hating this slogan.
Housing is decrepit. Whole apartment buildings in Central Havana suffer from two generations’ lack of maintenance and have become dangerous to live in. Displaced residents of condemned government buildings have few options other than near homelessness. The demand for housing has given rise to slum developments (called solares) in between and behind the formerly impressive mansions of the hotel area of Vedado.
The homes of workers are not much better in other parts of the country. I had occasion to visit the home of a cobbler in Cuba’s second city, Santiago, on the eastern end of Cuba. The wall of the aged one story house did not connect with the tin roof, permitting (I am sure) a driving rain to fall on the bed of the shoemaker’s aged and blind father. Hanging sheets served as interior doors.
The food Cubans consume may be worse than the housing they live in. Since the fall of the Soviet Union and the economic crisis attendant on the withdrawal of Soviet subsidies to the Cuban economy, the government has had to tighten its citizens’ belts. Only the tourists can afford the beef, because Cuban peasants cannot raise enough cattle for the average workers. Quality tobaccos are for export. Tourism (without Americans) brings in substantial foreign exchange to support the Communist state structure.
Cubans are tired of their humdrum diets. They are tired of their substandard housing and of the long lines and rationed goods. They long for a new car and, yes, traffic jams. However, this longing doesn’t mean they want someone other than Raúl Castro as their next leader. The alternative, “U.S.-assisted transition to democracy,” contains too many dangers. Only look at Iraq.
Jonathan C. Brown is Professor of Latin American history at the University of Texas at Austin. He happened to be in Cuba last month when Fidel Castro was operated on.)