by Philip Brenner
I answered many questions for reporters on February 19th about Fidel Castro’s statement that he will not be a candidate when the Cuban National Assembly chooses Cuba's president on Sunday. Readers of Rowman and Littlefield’s blog -– and of its recently published anthology, A Contemporary Cuba Reader, of which I am a co-editor –- also deserve to know the answers to these questions. So here are a few of the Frequently Asked Questions about Castro, and my answers.
Question: Is Fidel Castro finally stepping down from power?
Answer: Not quite. He holds three key offices: President, First Secretary of the Communist
Party of Cuba, and Commander-in-Chief. When he became gravely ill on July 31, 2006, he temporarily turned over these
positions to his brother, Raúl Castro. It appears that he may continue to hold
the titles of First Secretary and Commander-in-Chief. Those are not at issue in Sunday’s
election. Raúl Castro is the Minister of
the Armed Forces, and in effect heads the military. If Fidel Castro remains as First Secretary of
the Communist Party, it is likely that he will essentially serve as Cuba’s titular
leader. Raúl Castro, if he is elected President on Sunday, will be the official
head of state and operational head of the government.
Question: Well, this still seems like a pretty big change. What kind of transformation in Cuba can we expect from this?
Answer: The transition in Cuba has been underway already for
more than 18 months. Contrary to
expectations in Washington,
there was not a huge explosion when Fidel Castro gave up the reigns of power in
2006. Instead, there was extraordinary calm, and daily life for Cubans
continued without a blip. Fidel Castro
actually had stopped running the daily affairs of the Cuban government several
years earlier, and the people he designated as the collective leadership in his
absence had been the very people who were already doing those jobs. And so, we have a fairly good picture of what
is likely to happen in the near future. Raúl Castro tends to prefer working in a team, and to delegate
considerable responsibility to others. The values of the group of men in the collective leadership – which includes
Vice President Carlos Lagé, Foreign Minister Felipe Pérez Roque, Central Bank
President Francisco Soberon Valdés – very much resemble those of Fidel
Castro. These officials are determined
to maintain as much social equity as possible in the country, and to avoid
plans that will increase inequality. They are also very wary about economic or political reforms that they
believe will make Cuba more vulnerable.
Question: So, does this mean that there will be very little political change in Cuba?
Answer: No, and yes. There already has been some change. Notably, Raúl Castro’s daughter initiated a round of criticism about the government in a public statement that was printed one of Cuba’s major papers. Raúl himself has attacked corruption and poor services. Recently, the president of Cuba’s national assembly, Ricardo Alarcon, had an open meeting with university students in which he discussed some very harsh critiques they made about current affairs. Last week, several dissidents were released from prison, well short of their full sentences. There may well be some relaxation of the stringent requirements imposed on those who want to open small businesses. The number of such operations has declined 50% in the last 10 years, but there is a great clamor for more to open. On the other hand, there is not likely to be a major restructuring of the economy that would permit Cubans to invest in large enterprises, that would allow foreign capitalists to operate without much restraint, or that would establish political liberalization – with a free press and elections. Apart from concerns about equality, the Cuban leaders fear that the United States would seize the opportunity that such openings provide, to intervene covertly, in order to destabilize the regime.
Question: Aren’t such paranoid rantings simply a show -– do Cubans really believe the stuff they say about the United States?
Answer: They do believe it, and not without reason. The official U.S. policy calls for regime change in Cuba. The main law governing the U.S. embargo against Cuba–- the Helms-Burton law –- stipulates in its first paragraph that the law’s purpose is to bring about regime change in Cuba. The United States government has spent more than $100 million in the last four years to support opponents of the Cuban government, to fund studies on how to bring about a change in the Cuban regime, and even to fund an office in the State Department for a U.S. government official named the Cuban Transition Coordinator – much like the position Paul Bremer held as transition coordinator in Iraq after the U.S. occupation there. Moreover, the United States has a sorry history of abusing democratic processes in countries where it disapproves of the policies. Latin Americans readily recall, for example, how the Central Intelligence Agency paid newspapers in Chile, Jamaica, and Nicaragua, to print lies that discredited leftist governments. Cubans are astounded that the United States has not prosecuted Luis Posada Carriles, an acknowledged international terrorist who entered the United States openly and remains free. He was convicted in Venezuela –- well before Hugo Chavez became president –- of planning the bombing of a Cuban civilian airliner that killed 73 people in 1976.
Question: But now that Fidel Castro will no longer be Cuba’s president, and George W. Bush will soon be out of the White House, isn’t it likely that relations between Cuba and the United States could improve?
Answer: Sadly, no. Cubans view the three remaining U.S. presidential candidates as having essentially similar policies towards Cuba. John McCain has called for toughening the already draconian economic sanctions against Cuba. Hillary Clinton has said that she favors continuing the policy of the Bush Administration. Barack Obama advocates relaxing the embargo so that Cuban-Americans would be able to travel to Cuba without restrictions. (In 2004 the Bush Administration tightened regulations so that Cuban-Americans are now permitted to visit immediate family members, for emergencies, only once in three years.) Sen. Obama also has said he would be willing to meet with Cuban leaders during his first year in office. But unless the United States is willing to renounce its ambition to overthrow the Cuban government, negotiations are not likely to accomplish much. In fact, unless the Helm-Burton law were changed, the next U.S. president would not be permitted to have normal relations with Cuba Helms-Burton stipulates that its sanctions can be lifted only if the Cuban government "does not include Fidel Castro or Raúl Castro." Moreover, Cuba has much more self-confidence now that it did sixteen years ago, when the Cold War ended and its economy went into a free fall without Soviet support. It needs the United States much less than it once did. The U.S. embargo was intended to strangle Cuba and isolate it. Instead it has isolated the United States. The U.N. General Assembly, by a vote in November of 184 - 4, condemned the U.S. embargo for the sixteenth year in a row. In January, Brazil and Cuba negotiated a major agreement under which the South American giant will explore Cuba’s coastal waters for oil, where there may be vast reserves. China is modernizing Cuba's nickel mines, which hold the third largest reserves in the world of that critical metal. And throughout Latin America, as the presidents of Brazil, Venezuela, Chile, Argentina, Ecuador, Uruguay, and Nicaragua attempt to chart new directions that depart from the dictates of the United States, they appreciate that they are the children of Fidel Castro. They are taking a path that is different from the one on which he led Cuba. But they believe that his success has made their dreams attainable.
Philip Brenner is professor of international relations and director of the Inter-Disciplinary Council on Latin America at American University. He is co-editor of A Contemporary Cuba Reader: Reinventing the Revolution with Marguerite Rose Jiménez, John M. Kirk, William M. LeoGrande, and Sad and Luminous Days: Cuba's Struggle with the Superpowers after the Missile Crisis with James G. Blight.