13.10.2006
Cuba: The Final Act
№4 2006 October/ December

© «Russia
in Global Affairs». № 4, October
— December 2006

Carlos Alberto Montaner is a Cuban writer living in Spain, and
is president of the Liberal Union of Cuba.



In August 2006, Cuba was preparing
to celebrate Fidel Castro’s 80th birthday with much pomp and
splendor. After all, Castro has been in power for 47 years.
Official press releases about the forthcoming celebrations
announced the arrival of “thousands of guests from dozens of
countries from all over the world.” That anniversary was to become
the apotheosis (in the original, ancient meaning of the word, that
is, a ceremony of elevating a human being to divine status) of the
Cuban leader’s dramatic life. However, time has taken its toll on
Castro – his body reminded him that he was already a very old and
ailing man.

Whatever really happens behind the
walls of the heavily guarded CIMEQ elite hospital in Havana, at
least one thing is obvious: the Fidel epoch is coming to an end.
Cuba is in for a difficult transition to a new life.

ACT THREE

As in classic theater, Castroism
is a work structured in three acts. The first was relatively short
and lasted from Jan. 1, 1959, the day Batista fled and the
revolution began, to January 1964, barely 60 days after the
assassination of John F. Kennedy, when the newly ascended President
of the United States, Lyndon B. Johnson, signed an order that put
an end to the plans to overthrow the Communist government installed
in the island, barely 140 kilometers from U.S. shores.

From that time on, and until 1992,
with Castro ensconced comfortably in his easy chair, Act Two
unfolded, featuring the growing Sovietization of Cuba, a process
that accelerated beginning in 1970 after the island’s economic
collapse amid inflation and shortages, a mess wreaked by the
so-called “Guevara model” of the 1960s. Finally, after the
disappearance of the U.S.S.R. in 1992, and the concomitant loss of
the enormous Soviet subsidies granted for three decades to an
unproductive Castro regime (subsidies estimated at more than $100
billion by Russian historian Irina Zorina), came the third, final
and still unfinished act of this long and extravagant episode of
history that has been the installation of a Communist regime on the
idyllic beaches of the Caribbean.

In effect, we are at the end of
the mise-en-scène of the longest dictatorship in Latin
America’s history, although no one knows for sure when the regime’s
dismantling will begin. The Comandante himself has called this
stage the “special period.” To Castro, this period is “special” not
because it’s the last, but because during this long phase, which
already has lasted more than 15 years, he has had to resort to the
most outlandish tricks to keep the Communist model alive. Those
tricks include some minor concessions to his hated capitalist foes,
concessions that are tolerated in the economic field because in the
political field he has maintained his unbreakable Stalinist
controls firm and without cracks.

The 1990s, and even the years into
the 21st century, were times when certain private activities were
grudgingly encouraged: the shipment of remittances from exile, the
free circulation of the dollar, large-scale tourism and joint
ventures, the name given to the associations between unscrupulous
foreign businessmen and the government, intended to exploit the
manual labor – incredibly cheap and docile – of Cuban workers who
had no labor unions and could not protest against the confiscation
of up to 95 percent of their wages by means of a currency-exchange
flimflam: the foreign investors paid the government 400 dollars for
the services of each worker, while the government paid each worker
400 Cuban pesos. The official rate of exchange was approximately 25
to 1; the real salary, then, was 16 dollars a month.

But those minimal openings began
to close gradually beginning in 1999, when Castro felt that the
regime, after touching bottom, had begun to recover, even though
the levels of consumption still remained far below those in 1989.
The accounting was very simple: because the government had decreed
the most austere poverty, calling it a revolutionary virtue while
declaring that consumerism was a crime against humanity, everything
the Cubans supposedly needed to achieve total happiness was a
minimum of clothing and food, and that could be obtained with a
meager combination of the exports of nickel, the revenue raised by
tourism, the remittances from the exiles and other minutiae. The
revolutionary thing to do, then, was not to live comfortably but to
survive as best one could, a commandment that guaranteed the
government the existence of an apathetic citizenry bereft of
expectations and in the right state of mind to obey without
complaining.

THE CHÁVEZ FACTOR

Then came Hugo Chávez. Late
in 1998, the lieutenant colonel was elected president of the
Venezuelans and wasted no time in establishing the best commercial
relations possible with Castro. Right away, a sort of collaboration
began between the two countries, based on an exchange of goods for
services dreamed up to benefit Cuba economically and give a
political boost to a Venezuelan leader who needed to galvanize his
political clientele within the old populist tradition in Latin
America. Castro furnished doctors and health-care personnel to work
in the poor urban neighborhoods and in exchange received crude oil,
food and construction materials.

However, the relations between
Castro and Chávez were deeper than they seemed on the surface.
The Venezuelan arrived in Cuba at the express invitation of Fidel
Castro in December 1994 – after being amnestied by President Rafael
Caldera after his bloody attempt at a coup d’état in 1992 – to
deliver a speech at the University of Havana. At that moment,
Chávez was a confused former paratrooper under the ideological
influence of Norberto Ceresole, a fascist Argentine raised in
Peronism, and a supporter of the Libyan government, whose Arab
military leader used the army as the conveyor belt for his
unlimited authority. Ceresole, who died in 2003 at age 60, had
convinced the putschist lieutenant colonel of the extraordinary
wisdom contained in The Green Book, attributed to Qaddafi, which
Chávez pompously called “the third universal theory,” a
mishmash of sophisms, socialism, militarism and Islam.

In April 2002, however, something
happened that qualitatively modified the links between Castro and
Chávez: the strange military coup that put the Venezuelan
president in prison for 48 hours. In that brief period, when Castro
moved frantically behind the scenes to return his friend and
benefactor to power, Chávez understood that he needed more
than just doctors from Havana to remain as the chief tenant at
Miraflores Palace. He needed all of the repressive machinery, the
apparatus of intelligence and the propaganda techniques that would
maintain him in power without fear of his enemies evicting him from
Government House. In sum, he needed the technique to stay in
government that Castro, for his part, had learned from the Russians
since the 1960s and ‘70s, when thousands of advisers from the
U.S.S.R. and other Eastern bloc countries had totally reformed
Cuba’s bureaucracy, making it impervious to its enemies. Leninism,
after all, was just that: an implacable fist tightly clenched, an
ironclad form of government.

After Chávez miraculously
regained power – amid the greatest confusion, his enemies
graciously returned the presidency to him – he and Castro, who
shared messianic and narcissistic personalities, began to meet
frequently to mutually reinforce their most delirious convictions,
initiating a process of symbiosis between the two governments based
on an essential premise: the “revolution” (both the Venezuelan and
the Cuban version) could not be safe in a hostile world dominated
by the United States and “neoliberal” ideas. Like Russia in 1917,
which had to face the same dilemma – the dangers of socialism in a
single country – both men came to the conclusion that it was
necessary to create an international network of collectivist and
anti-imperialist states capable of confronting the “aggressive
Western regimes” led by Washington.

That point of departure led Castro
and Chávez to formulate a new vision of the fate of both
nations. Marxism-Leninism, which had been hit hard by the Soviets’
betrayal and the disappearance of Communism in almost all of
Europe, was in a phase of frank recovery. Of course, no longer
could Russia or the decadent Europe assume the task and glory of
being the standard-bearer of the revolutionary struggle. Cuba and
Venezuela, fists raised high and singing a salsa version of The
Internationale, had been called to replace pre-Gorbachev Moscow as
a beacon for humanity in the struggle against capitalism and in
defense of the world’s poor. And that task, naturally, began in
Latin America, a natural environment for expansion, from which the
battle-hardened Havana-Caracas axis would advance toward the
annihilation of its enemies.

This time, however, the strategy
would be very different from the one imagined by Marx in his days
and later perfected by Lenin. The humiliated and impoverished
workers, compelled by class consciousness and the certainty of
being the great engines of history, would not paralyze the
capitalist economy with a definitive strike that would liquidate
the bourgeois state. The epic campaigns of Mao and Castro, where a
rural guerrilla achieves power by staging an insurrection that
overwhelms the cities, would have to be reedited. The method
selected to achieve the same objectives was the one practiced by
Chávez in late 1998: democratic elections that would lead to a
new Constitution, after which the caudillo (elevated to president)
would dismantle the republican scaffolding, with its system of
checks and balances, until he held control of all the institutions.
Next to him, escorting the process, armies of Cuban doctors and
health givers, paid with Venezuelan petrodollars, would provide
free health care in the poorest barrios, to try to demonstrate that
“21st-century socialism” was just that: compassion for the
unprotected.

Evidently, Castro and Chávez
had all the elements for the revolutionary project. First, the
alleged need to protect the survival of their governments within an
authoritarian collectivist camp. Second, a messianic vision of
themselves and their countries replacing the U.S.S.R., a task that
would induce them to devote their lives and efforts to the
redemption of humanity within the framework of socialism. Third, a
methodology, already tested in Venezuela, to carry out that sacred
cause. Very soon, in late 2005, Castro and Chávez would gain
in Bolivia their first victory with the election of Evo Morales,
although a little later, in June 2006, Alan García’s triumph
over Ollanta Humala in Peru would rain on their parade. Meanwhile,
the indefatigable tribe of the leftist sympathizers, skillfully
orchestrated by the Cuban services and the well-known Institutes of
Friendship with the Peoples, applauded with delirious enthusiasm.
On the poker table lay a trio of aces: Fidel, Hugo and Evo. They
were the Three Glorious Stooges of the definitive
revolution.

WEAKNESSES AND
STRENGTHS 
OF THAT
ALLIANCE

Beginning in 2003, the
Castro-Chávez marriage cost Venezuelans a high economic price:
about 100,000 barrels per day of refined oil (for which Havana will
never pay, as the Russians learned to their chagrin), plus juicy
credits that, among other purposes, have the paradoxical (although
indirect) objective of funding Cuba’s importation of U.S. foods, an
outlay estimated at $500 million per year. Venezuela, then, not
only began to replace the extinct U.S.S.R. in its old role of
mother and headquarters of world revolution; it also took up the
former metropolis’ task of subsidizing, with suicidal largesse, a
tenaciously unproductive Cuban regime that can barely stand up
without the solidarity of foreign donors.

Nevertheless, those alms have a
hidden cost for Chávez. According to all surveys, Venezuelans
(Chavistas included) were tremendously irritated by those displays
of internationalist charity toward Cuba. Why should Venezuelans
have to bankroll a substantial part of the sky-high expenditures of
a government that was intent on maintaining a clearly inefficient
system? After all, 60 percent of Venezuelan society was classified
as poor or abjectly poor. It didn’t make much sense for Venezuelans
to contribute to alleviate the misery of Cubans in exchange for
cataract or appendix surgery while the people in their own back
yard lived in the starkest indigence. Venezuelans also were not
pleased by the preponderant arrogance of the Cuban advisers and
diplomats, who appeared much too often in Venezuela’s
communications media displaying an attitude of political
colonizers.

Curiously, from the Cuban
perspective, the accords between Castro and Chávez were not
appreciated either. Inside the island, people were just as
irritated by the forced emigration of thousands of doctors and
dentists to Venezuela as the immigration of tens of thousands of
Venezuelan and other patients who were treated infinitely better
than ordinary Cubans, who were used to being cared for in
dilapidated hospitals that lacked medicine and equipment. But the
irritation was not limited to the ordinary people. The statement
made by the Vice President of the Cuban Council of State, Carlos
Lage, in Caracas in December 2005, to the effect that Cuba had two
presidents, Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez, a veiled reference
to a hypothetical federation between the two countries, had annoyed
a lot of people within the ruling circles who thought the
Venezuelan paratrooper was a character neither serious nor
trustworthy who would never be accepted by the Cubans as their
leader.

Besides, the renewal, without
consultation, of the revolutionary vows by Fidel and Hugo at the
time they consummated their political marriage and swore to each
other ideological fidelity until death had dropped like a cold
shower on Gen. Raúl Castro, Minister of the Armed Forces,
Fidel’s younger brother and heir presumptive – even though he is a
cirrhotic 75-year-old geezer who gambles on cockfights and tells
vulgar jokes. To Raúl, to his brother-in-law, Lieut. Col. Luis
Alberto Rodríguez, and to generals Julio Casas Regueiro and
Abelardo Colomé Ibarra, once Fidel Castro were buried, the
nation’s economic and political power would be placed under the
authority of the Armed Forces they controlled so zealously.
Thereafter, reforms would be carried out – in the Chinese or
Vietnamese style – aimed at achieving higher levels of efficiency
and economic growth, abolishing any fevered project for planetary
conquest similar to those that impoverished and bloodied the
country in the first three decades of the revolution.

Castro-Chavismo, on the other hand, liquidated that likely
political evolution and returned them to the uncertainty of the
1960s and ’70s, when Fidel Castro used tens of thousands of
soldiers and all of the nation’s resources to conquer Angola,
Somalia, Ethiopia, Nicaragua and Bolivia, intent as he was on being
the spearhead of world revolution.

THE LEADERS
DIE, 
THE PARTY IS
IMMORTAL

Who will be in charge of carrying
out those revolutionary plans after Fidel’s death? Raúl Castro
himself, much to his regret, was obliged to reveal that information
in a speech he gave in June 2006 before the supreme staff of the
Army of the East, one of the nation’s three military bodies. On
that occasion – curiously protected by an obvious bulletproof vest
and matching cap, a strange precaution when one considers he was
talking to his comrades in arms – Raúl explained that no human
being can inherit Fidel’s unlimited authority. That task falls upon
the Communist Party of Cuba.

Actually, if
that does happen – if, after Castro’s burial, the CPC is given the
mission to govern and decide the fate of the Cubans – it will be
for the first time, because for almost half a century the role
Fidel had reserved for the Communists was as executors of his
multiple personal initiatives. They were a mere conveyor belt, and
he never consulted with them on any of the transcendental issues
that substantially affected the lives of Cubans, from the
emplacement of Soviet atomic missiles in the early 1960s, the
prolonged African wars of the 1970s, or the attacks on the
perestroika and the distancing of the U.S.S.R. during Gorbachev’s
government. That explains the minimal prestige of the Communist
Party among Cubans, the doctrinal weakness of its leading cadres
and even the apathy of those who militate in the country’s largest
mass association. All Cubans know that the leaders and members of
the CPC have not been the vanguard of the revolution but a docile
instrument in the hands of a caudillo who lacks any
scruples.

 

That explains
why, for a decade beginning in 1997, Castro has not bothered to
summon a Congress, even after he has expelled from the Central
Committee and the Political Bureau – the top governing institution
– two of the most conspicuous leaders, former Foreign Minister
Roberto Robaina and Juan Carlos Robinson, the youngest leader and
one of the few blacks named to the highest chamber of power, a fact
that didn’t prevent the leadership from sentencing him to 12 years’
imprisonment without giving a coherent explanation to his Party
comrades.

 

The lack of
effectiveness or prestige is not the only inconvenience facing the
CPC. During the entire time Fidel Castro has been at the head of
the government, he has exercised power through a never-ending
succession of artificially induced conflicts, both national and
international. To the old Comandante, to govern is to fight and
polemicize. He has done so unceasingly against the United States
but also, at various times, against Russia, China, the Organization
of American States, the United Nations and numerous Latin American
governments: presidents Vicente Fox of Mexico, Eduardo Duhalde of
Argentina, Francisco Flores of El Salvador, Mireya Moscoso of
Panama, and others. He has charged into the European Union,
José María Aznar, the World Bank, the International
Monetary Fund and the Catholic Church. The dynamics are always the
same. Castro airs a conflict (any conflict) from the speaker’s
rostrum and right away directs his propaganda apparatus to attack
and insult his adversaries. Finally, he drags the weary Cubans to
the street to stage massive demonstrations against the enemy of the
day, waving little flags and shouting revolutionary slogans, in the
belief (a bit naive) that those exercises will galvanize
revolutionary emotion.
  

Will mass meetings subside in the
country after Fidel Castro? Will his younger brother Raúl – or
another leader – be able to help the country out of its state of
permanent revolutionary upheaval? Paradoxically, Raúl Castro
is now the loneliest and most tragic person on the island. After an
official (albeit temporary) handover of powers from one brother to
the other, neither of them actually rules the country. Fidel is
unable to carry out his duties due to illness; meanwhile, Raul
cannot issue a single decree for fear it may conflict with the
leader’s will. Fidel’s brother is politically paralyzed, and this
is the only reason for his silence since he formally came to power;
he does not care about America’s reaction or what his own nation
thinks of him. The only thing he fears is his brother Fidel who has
scared him all his life. Should Raúl commit a mistake, the
Commandante, should he ever overcome his illness, will sack his
brother in a most humiliating way.

AFTER CASTRO

In any case, the foreseeable
scenario is that Castro will carry his regime to the grave, as
Spanish caudillo Francisco Franco did. Why? Because, in Marxist
parlance, all the objective and subjective factors are present for
the change. In the first place, the whole of society, especially
the young people, are tired of a system that doesn’t give them even
the slightest opportunity to excel. No matter what their talent or
their desire to work, the model of state created by Castro, a
collectivist and unproductive model, does not permit Cubans to
improve the material quality of their lives or build halfway
comfortable homes, even if they were provided a good college
education.

A system that in half a
century has not solved but even worsened the shortages of food,
clothing, housing, transportation, drinking water and electricity,
cannot be perceived with hope by someone who’s beginning life as an
adult and wishes to achieve a better existence than his or her
parents had to endure. Add to this imposed wretchedness the
impossibility of traveling and the desire of seeing the world,
typical of young people (who are not even given access to the
Internet), and you’ll understand why the dream of the majority is
to emigrate. Naturally, the moment that those youngsters can
contribute to changing the system, as happened in all the Communist
countries in Europe, they will give the first step in that
direction. 

This
pessimistic judgment on the nature of the system doesn’t even
exclude the cadres and the bases of the Communist Party. After half
a century of experimenting with a tropical variant of Stalinism,
most of the militants would probably be willing to propitiate some
sort of opening that will begin with an open debate within the
organization and, either slowly or rapidly, will drift toward a
political opening that will include other options by the opposition
until, despite the infinite difficulties typical of every
transition, a plural democracy and an economic system based on the
market and the existence of private property are installed in the
country. 
 

As happens in societies dominated
by almighty caudillos, very often the real loyalty of the militants
is not to the ideology or the institutions but to the person at the
apex of authority. Once that person disappears, partisan loyalty
disappears as well. When that time comes, a substantial part of the
Communist reformers will group in political formations very
different from the traditional CPC, although there will always
remain a small percentage of people who wax nostalgic about the old
political order introduced by Castro into the political life of the
nation.

Fortunately, among a majority of
the opposition democrats living inside Cuba seek a peaceful change
that does not exclude the search for a consensus with the official
tendencies willing to initiate the transformation of the
totalitarian society. That is evinced by some very wide-ranging and
generous proposals such as the “Varela Project” – so called in
homage to Félix Varela, an exiled priest who was the precursor
of Cuba’s independence in the first half of the 20th century – made
public by engineer Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas, winner of the
European Parliament’s Sakharov Award and a political leader who,
for several years now, has insistently propounded an electoral way
out of the crisis, a solution that guarantees political survival
and dignity to all sectors of society.

Payá, as most of the more
sensible and enlightened dissidents, is aware that the changes in
Eastern Europe, or in Spain after the death of dictator Franco,
were bolstered by an accord between the reformists within the
regime and the democrats in the opposition, who came to an
agreement on two basic extremes: first, the need to change a system
that has ostensibly failed for a long time and, second, to carry
out those changes by democratic means agreed to in Parliament, so
neither violence nor disorder may ensue.

What will the United States do at
that historic moment? No doubt, what best suits its interests,
which included those of the appreciable Cuban-American community, a
powerful minority that is part of the establishment and includes
several members of the House of Representatives, two Senators and
enough votes in Florida to swing the elections in one direction or
another. And the Americans’ interests are, clearly, of two
intimately related types. First, they don’t want a savage and
uncontrolled exodus from the island toward the United States.
Second, it is vital that a democratic regime be enthroned in Cuba,
an economically sensible and stable regime that is capable of
maintaining order and inducing prosperity in a permanent manner.
Only that would guarantee the United States a sort of permanent
quietude along its Caribbean border. In the past, Washington
collaborated with dictatorships that were supposedly friendly to
the United States and the results were ghastly. Batista opened the
door to Castro and, in Nicaragua, Somoza made way for the
Sandinistas. It’s unthinkable to fall again into the
counterproductive error of “yes, but he’s our son of a bitch.” In
the long run, that policy always turns out badly.

On the other hand, contrary to the
version disseminated by the regime, the exiles will be a factor of
moderation amid this process. It is not true that thousands of
people are eager to take revenge or retrieve their properties by
force. Over and again, the principal groups of the external
opposition have declared their willingness to not reclaim the
confiscated dwellings. I might add, in passing, that those seizures
happened more than 40 years ago, and the generation of property
owners who were adversely affected has practically disappeared. It
is true that they left children and other descendants, but almost
all of them are perfectly integrated into the middle- and
upper-class levels of U.S. society and surely will not be
particularly interested in trying to regain properties that are in
total disrepair thanks to the neglect of socialism. What is
probable is that, in the first few years of the transition, very
few exiles will want to return to the island to live there
permanently, although the desirable outcome would be for the Cubans
living abroad and the Cubans living on the island to develop
economic and social ties that are increasingly dense and
strong.

Lamentably, however, Fidel
Castro’s physical disappearance and the beginning of the transition
does not mean that the moral and material tracks of the Communist
era will be suddenly erased. For three generations, Cubans have had
to adapt their behavior to the arbitrariness, pressure and abuse of
a totalitarian dictatorship and, as with all the other countries
that have abandoned Communism, those conditions have created in
society some negative habits that will be very difficult to
eradicate. Among them are mutual distrust, the frequent recourse to
lies, misappropriation of property without a sense of guilt, and a
cynical indifference to civic responsibilities or the common good.
It will take time before the Cubans discover that life in freedom
is different.