As North America awoke this morning, it was confronted with the news that Fidel Castro has decided that he will “neither aspire to nor accept the positions of President of the State Council and Commander in Chief.” In essence, the elder Castro is stepping aside officially in favor of the 76-year-old dauphin, his brother Raul.
What does this mean for the people of Cuba? In the short run, nothing. The elder Castro has been out of commission since his health failed him in July 2006. The nature of the illness is a state secret, but it’s apparent to any observer that Fidel has not wielded the reigns of power in Cuba since that time.
What has occurred in the interim is paradoxical. While Fidel’s prolonged illness has been useful to Raul (by allowing him to consolidate his power and get the Cuban people comfortable with the idea of life without the Maximum Leader), it has also served to create mounting expectations of change — and not just among everyday Cubans but also those in the upper echelons of power.
Self-proclaimed “Cubanologists” in the United States have made it fashionable to refer to Raul as “the pragmatic one” and “the reformer.” Of course, in contrast to Fidel who was notoriously capricious, arbitrary, egomaniacal, and stubborn, anyone short of Stalin could be legitimately labeled as pragmatic. Even Raul, who as Fidel’s right-hand man since the days of the rebel insurgency and head of Cuba’s armed forces, has just as much blood on his hands — if not more.
What Raul wants is for the world to see his succession to the throne of the house of Castro as legitimate. That’s why the regime went to such great lengths to stage its kabuki production of parliamentary “elections.” If the world accepts the succession without objection, then Raul would have accomplished the primary goal of keeping international pressure off, at least temporarily. And that’s what this has always been about: buying time.
In Spanish there’s a saying “no hay mal que dure cien años,” which means “there’s no evil that can last one hundred years.” Raul recognizes the inherent truth in this saying, but he doesn’t need this evil regime to last one hundred years. Only a few more years will suffice. Then, like his brother probably will, he can die peacefully in his sleep. It should be obvious to anyone that a Marxist state cannot be indefinitely viable. This one is reaching the inevitable end of its life. The only question is when.
Fidel famously warned Mikhail Gorbachev that glasnost and perestroika would spell the end of the Soviet Union. He, of course, was right. But the collapse of the USSR was just as inevitable as the collapse of Cuba is.
Fidel, through his force of will and a lot of intimidation, was able to keep things together and make people accept the fact that Cuba would liberalize its economy and political system over his dead body. It’s universally accepted that Raul is somehow more closely in tune with the attitudes of everyday Cubans. In a certain sense, his survival is going to have to depend on this trait, whether he currently possesses it or not. The dictator of Cuba has to walk a fine line: keep the people hungry enough that they spend most of their time looking for food, but not so hungry that it creates a social explosion. In other words, portray the illusion that incremental changes for the better are being undertaken, while changing as little as possible.
Raul’s “pragmatism” can be seen in how the political opposition in Cuba is currently treated. Today, by and large, dissidents and demonstrators are picked up by police, worked over either psychologically or physically, and then released. This is the kinder, gentler form of revolutionary repression under Raul the reformer. The regime has also continued to release a trickle of political prisoners, mainly into exile. It would be unbearable for the regime to buckle under international pressure and release a prisoner like