THe Latell Report by Brian Latell
Raul’s Mounting Crises
“We knew you would come,” a Cuban woman exclaimed when Raul Castro arrived September 18th in flattened little Nueva Gerona on the Isle of Youth. He was there to survey the damage from the twin hurricanes, Gustav and Ike, in Cuba’s most devastated region. Granma quoted him uttering reassuring banalities and delivering greetings from Fidel, described by the newspaper as “the revolution’s leader” who had been “permanently following the ravages.” Raul, in contrast, had not been seen in public until this much delayed visit, about seventeen days after the first of the hurricanes blasted ashore on August 30.
Indeed it is Fidel who has attracted the most attention since then. Ten “reflections” have been issued over his signature since the end of August. He was more prolific during the last month than at any other time since he began communicating with the Cuban people this way following surgeries in the summer of 2006. He has also been more assertive, reiterating his adamant opposition to American offers of hurricane relief, while pugnaciously making clear he is back in the decision making process.
“I did not hesitate to express my point of view,” he wrote, about what he considered a “hypocritical” American offer of help. This suggested he had felt it imperative to weigh in during a policy dispute. Castro had not said or implied anything like that since transferring provisional power to his brother more than two years ago. Rather, until now he had gone out of his way to avoid the impression that he was playing an active leadership role. Delays and some confusion in Cuban government responses to sequential American offers of assistance suggest that some leaders –perhaps including Raul—advocated a more flexible stance.
Regardless of whether Fidel actually writes or dictates the reflections, substantially inspires them, or is being used by a cabal of hard-line sycophants, he has clearly reemerged at the center of the Cuban political arena. His familiar, angry voice resonates in these recent messages. Some of the most enduring and intransigent themes of his dictatorship, including venomous and absurd denunciations of the United States and capitalist enterprise, are being replayed.
On September 2, for example, he blandly claimed that years ago the United States provided the apartheid government of South Africa with seven nuclear bombs that might have been used against Cuban military forces in Angola. I don’t recall that he ever made that preposterous claim before, or anything resembling it. Its publication now only introduces new doubts about the bizarre process in which Castro’s reflections are crafted.
But his repeated criticisms of Cuban “opportunists” suggest that real conflicts have flared within the leadership. He first aired that thought on August 26, before the first hurricane struck, saying “these times demand ever-increasing dedication, steadiness, and conscience. It doesn’t matter if the opportunists and traitors also benefit without contributing anything to the safety and well being of our people.” The formulation was somewhat different on September 7 when he wrote about “softness and opportunism.” That was the same reflection in which he oddly compared hurricane Gustav’s impact in Cuba to the nuclear devastation of Hiroshima, leaving the false impression that he had personally witnessed it in 1945.
The renascent and erratic Fidel has not been specific about who he considers guilty of the transgressions he highlights. It is clear he means to condemn the many suffering Cubans who steal from their workplaces in order to subsist, others who claim “special privileges,” and speculators who use “genuine capitalist methods.” The last complaint refers to the most heinous of crimes in Fidel’s mind, the specter of some form of neo-capitalism emerging in Cuba. It is difficult, therefore, to avoid the supposition that the more pragmatic Raul and others in his circle are the true targets of Fidel’s wrath. The limited economic reforms they have championed to stimulate individual initiative threaten the foundations of the egalitarian, volunteeristic, and militant society that Fidel still advocates.
One lengthy but obscure passage published in a reflection on September 19 might even be meant to implicate the armed forces ministry, still under Raul’s indirect tutelage. Fidel denounced those who, “in their quest for revenues to manage resources . . . gain a reputation for efficiency and secure the willing support of their staffs.” It is the military—widely viewed as the most efficient institution on the island—where top officers and staffs manage for-profit enterprises on a large scale. Perhaps therefore, it was not an error when Granma, on September 25, described Fidel as the commander-in-chief, a title that Raul inherited definitively last February.
And, on September 19 Fidel played conspicuously to his one remaining institutional ace in the hole, the only title—First Secretary of the Communist Party—that he never surrendered. He sounded the trumpet in that reflection for party diligence and vigilance, even though in the past he never had much use for the party. “The battle is one to be waged fundamentally by our glorious party . . . we must now show what we are capable of.” Perhaps then it was an intentional slight when on September 10 Raul was mentioned in Granma as party second secretary. That is true enough, but rarely mentioned anymore.
The regime has been fairly candid about the unprecedented scope of the damage inflicted by the hurricanes as well as the many months or years that will pass before the country can recover. Problems of homelessness, severe shortages of food, electrical power, transportation, and other necessities, as well as the likelihood of public health crises, will persist. Popular anger, perhaps even new forms of lawlessness, are likely to grow.
But as Gustav and Ike confronted Raul with his first potentially transformational crisis, the apparent conflict with Fidel will be more difficult for him to handle. Raul’s acuity, fortitude, and ingenuity in managing national crises on his own have never before been tested, and in his numerous confrontations with Fidel he has rarely prevailed. Yet, it is too early to predict how he will fare this time.
I wish to acknowledge the valuable assistance provided by Javier Quintana, my University of Miami student research assistant, in the preparation of this report.
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.