Cuba Contemplates Life Without Castro

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A Venezuelan girl wishes Fidel Castro a happy 75th birthday

Love Fidel Castro or hate him, there's no denying his momentous achievement Monday of turning 75 while still in power. After all, the most powerful nation on earth has spent four decades trying everything from exploding cigars to botched invasions to try and unseat the Cuban strongman and yet there he is, his signature olive drab fatigues complemented, these days, by a septuagenarian's white sneakers; still droning interminably for hours on end; still insisting that his tiny Caribbean island can elude the fate of communism most everywhere else; still cocking a snoot at the superpower 90 miles away and the latest of its ten presidents he has so far outlasted.

Cuba watchers will debate till the cows come home over why Castro has prevailed. Exiles and conservative critics will focus mostly on the power of his repressive apparatus, which has over the years made life hell for anyone daring to differ too openly with the revolution and its commander in chief. More liberal analysts would add that Castro's social policies have actually improved the lives of the majority of Cubans to a point where even the CIA believes that he commands the loyalty of a majority of people on the island, particularly in the event of a confrontation with the U.S. Even Secretary of State Colin Powell conceded in congressional testimony earlier this year that "he's done some good things for his people." But for his most implacable foes in Miami and Washington, the only good things Castro could do for his people would be to stop breathing.

The onset of mortality

On one point, however, all sides do agree — that Castro will, indeed, stop breathing sometime in the near future. And he might even relinquish his direct grip on power some time before that. Speculation over his longevity has mounted since Castro collapsed mid-speech in June. Still, most doctors would advise men far younger than Castro against speaking for three-hours under a blazing sun, hatless and in heavy fatigues. But it's the fact that the "maximum leader" has himself begun mentioning his own succession in public that has focused Cubans and Cuba-watchers on the question of life after Castro.

As much as Castro's foes love to personalize the matter, it's a safe bet that after Castro dies the one-party communist system he built will remain in place for some time. (That may be why, in the interests of stability and preventing bloodshed, the U.S. Coast Guard has reportedly made contingency plans to stop any flotilla of exiles trying to sail back to the island to reclaim property seized four decades ago.)

The succession according to Castro

Castro has in fact been planning his own succession for quite some time, not by grooming a single individual to step into his sneakers, but instead by moving an entirely new generation of leaders into top positions. Almost half of his current politburo are younger than 50, and much of the day-to-day running of government is in the hands of Vice President Carlos Lage (49), National Assembly President Ricardo Alarcon (64) and Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque (36). So while Castro has designated his younger brother Raul as the heir to his titles, the 70-year-old army chief who is a dour backroom politician with none of his brother's charisma will be at best a transitional figure. In fact, if Castro has learned lessons from the transition experiences of other communist countries, it is unlikely that he's expecting Raul to be anything more than a figurehead for a leadership collective including Alarcon, Lage and Perez Roque.

Like the Soviet Union after Stalin — who was replaced, initially, by the triumvirate of Malenkov, Beria and Kruschev before the latter prevailed —Castro's passing will be a time of great uncertainty. And because the political, economic and ideological course of Cuban communism after Castro remains unsettled, a collective leadership may be the only way to maintain political cohesion as the party enters uncharted waters without its authoritative "helmsman." The Chinese adopted a similar course after Deng Xiaoping.

Fidel as Deng?

The Chinese example may prompt Castro to make that change even before he is incapacitated by age, in order to play the same kingmaking role Deng played in relation to a communist leadership whose political differences were exacerbated by the uncertainty of the transition they were attempting.

Castro, always a fierce critic of Mikhail Gorbachev's attempts to democratize the Soviet Union, may also be tempted to take China as a partial role model for changing Cuba, in as far as the Chinese communists maintain strict political control as they begin to introduce a market economy. Still, there has been remarkably little economic reform in Cuba despite the hard times brought on by the collapse of its Soviet patron, and that could weaken the communists' ability to resist calls for more far-reaching changes once Castro goes. That scenario may see the Catholic Church play an increasingly important role, as it did in mediating Poland's peaceful transition to democracy. Of course, Cuba is quite different from Poland — there is no Solidarity-style opposition movement, for one thing — but the Church is playing an increasingly important role in fostering institutions of civil society outside of communist control. Yet it preaches reconciliation and engages in dialogue with the regime — most notably when the Pope visited Havana two years ago, much to the chagrin of the exile community.

Big trouble in Little Havana

Cuba's growing focus on life after Fidel leaves the exile community and the U.S. in a quandary over how to respond. Last week's mass resignation by some 20 members of the Cuban American National Foundation leadership, who protested that the organization was becoming too moderate, was the clearest sign of the political ferment in Miami's exile leadership. Following their setbacks in last year's Elian Gonzalez battle, the younger, U.S.-born leadership of the CANF has begun shifting to the center, and looking to ways of supporting democratic initiatives on the island itself. And to some of the old-guard warriors, that smacks too much of appeasement.

The ferment in Little Havana, of course, presages a larger crisis in U.S. Cuba policy. Washington remains committed to a four-decade-old embargo of Cuba that has had no discernible impact on Castro's grip on power, but effectively denies the U.S. any influence over events in a post-Castro scenario. (And that's just fine with the "maximum leader," of course.) Domestic political concerns have prompted successive U.S. administrations to defend an embargo that most of them privately concede is an albatross. Ask a Bush administration official to explain the sense of boycotting Cuba but trading with China, and watch them slip and slide — as did the Clintonites, before their departure from office let them off the hook.

Right now, Cuba is plotting its post-Castro future, and U.S. officials have little knowledge of, let alone relationship with some of the key players in that process. And that, to put it simply, is not good. Expect to see an acceleration of efforts in the near future to relax aspects of the embargo, and to see it quietly laid to rest when Castro hands over power, even if only to his brother.

But far more important than the identity of Cuba's post-Castro communist leaders is the question of their intentions. Like every other country in the developing world, Cuba's fortunes depend, in large part, on its position in the world economy. And the health and education systems that are the pride of the Fidelistas were, after all, financed largely through Soviet largesse. And so, as smug as Castro may feel about confounding ten successive U.S. presidents, his challenge remains preserving the legacy of his revolution — less against the machinations of his enemies in Miami and Washington, than against the unsentimental forces of globalization.