The top Cuban leadership today resembles nothing as much as the doddering gerontocracy that governed the Soviet Union in the first half of the 1980’s, that is, until the reformer Mikhail Gorbachev’s ascension in March 1985. In quick succession the rheumy Leonid Brezhnev was briefly succeeded by Yuri Andropov, and then Constantine Chernenko, all three by then in their seventies, infirm and incapable of leading their fading empire out of its terminal dysfunction.
Cuba’s leadership today may be inherently even more unstable. The Castro brothers’ unpredictable tag-team performance this year has created greater uncertainty in the nomenclatura than at any time since the Ochoa-de la Guardia purges twenty years ago. The announcement last week of the indefinite postponement of the long-awaited Sixth Communist Party Congress is surely the result of tensions and deep policy disagreements between the brothers, and broadly across the nomenclatura.
What appeared for some time to have been an irrevocable succession, or at least one in which Fidel would play only a passive emeritus role, has turned out to be anything but that. By all recent appearances the renascent Fidel has laid down prohibitions in domestic and foreign policy –lines in the sand—that no other leader dare cross. This year furthermore, he has been thoroughly engaged in the details of key foreign policy challenges, events in Honduras, the summit meetings of regional leaders in Venezuela and Trinidad, and perhaps most of all, relations with the United States.
He is again monitoring how scores of upper and middle ranking leaders behave. For a while –perhaps when he was critically infirm— he deferred to Raul. But the wrath and paranoia that characterized his rule in the past have been evident again in the recent humiliating dismissals of leaders who crossed him. As a result, ranking Cuban officials can’t be sure who is in charge from day to day. They don’t know who to obey or trust or how safely to maneuver around the Castro brothers, even as demands on them to improve economic performance are intensifying.
Raul, the nominal president, has performed inconsistently. That is not surprising given his continuing refusal to countermand his brother on any matter of transcending importance. After first raising popular expectations for change, he has been beating a disorderly retreat that has surely compromised his standing among civilian and military leaders impatient for reform and decisive leadership.
Raul’s speech on July 26th, Cuba’s most important revolutionary holiday, was an exercise in debility and obfuscation. Perhaps it also reflected a profound fatigue. In his two previous July 26 performances he was robust, presenting himself confidently as the country’s newly-found chief problem solver. He raised expectations that economic conditions would improve. He spoke at length and used the anniversary, as his brother often did, to deliver sweeping “state of the revolution” addresses.
In 2007 he made the landmark promise to bring about “structural and conceptual change.” In 2008, he promised to “continue to care for, prepare, and listen to our youth.” That reiterated in brief the seminal theme of a speech he delivered at the University of Havana some months earlier when he implored Cuban youth to debate the country’s problems fearlessly. With an eye on Cuba’s generational crisis, he reassured the students that “We must continue gradually opening the way for new generations.”
This year he was gruff and demanding in his only reference to the disenchanted youth. “Are you listening, youth leaders?” he demanded. If they were, and if they are to take his injunction seriously, they heard that they will be expected to work in the countryside planting trees in places where the soil or conditions are too poor to produce food crops. This change of priorities was already evident following the recent dismissals of the only officials –Felipe Perez Roque, in his mid-forties, and Carlos Lage, his mid-fifties— who stood a chance of appealing to Cuba’s apathetic youth and who seemed to rank high in the line of succession.
Raul has no illusions about the generational tensions that threaten prospects for regime continuity. But, perhaps at his brother’s insistence, he is no longer promoting open debate, not among the youth or with any other segments of the population beyond the governing elites. Even there policy disagreements will have to be aired by officials with great care, and the awareness that hidden microphones might capture every disrespectful word uttered about the Castros, every criticism, every joke about the elderly, intransigent men who control their destinies.
A photo at the dais where Raul spoke in Holguin on July 26th portrayed the stasis starkly. It showed the seventy-eight year-old Raul, seated next to the soon to be seventy-nine year-old Jose Ramon Machado Ventura, first in the line of succession. Next to them was the irrepressible Ramiro Valdes, seventy-seven years-old and apparently now the next most important figure in the leadership. If there is a Cuban Gorbachev biding his time somewhere in the upper reaches of the nomenclatura, he is wisely keeping a low profile.
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.