The Changing of the Guard

The Changing of the Guard

A panel of experts explores the view from Havana.


What has happened in Cuba since Fidel Castro yielded power to his brother Raul? How do Cuban authorities see the changing international arena, particularly the trend to the left in Latin America? And what, almost fifty years after the Cuban Revolution, does the Castro government want in its relations with the United States? To address these questions, The Nation convened a forum of veteran Cuba analysts and a longtime Cuban diplomat, moderated by guest editor Peter Kornbluh.

The Nation:

Since Fidel Castro surprised the world last July by transferring his duties to his brother, Defense Minister Raul Castro, Cuba has experienced nine months of a semi-succession of power. How do you evaluate this unprecedented period?

William LeoGrande:

What’s noteworthy is what has not happened. There have been no demonstrations, no rush of rafters setting sail for Miami, no noticeable difference at all in how the leadership team has governed the island. Fidel must be pleased. The succession machinery he carefully constructed over the past decade is working as planned. His illness lets him watch from the sidelines to see how well his successors manage without him, and they seem to be doing just fine. We all like to think we’re indispensable, and no one has been more indispensable to the Cuban Revolution than Fidel Castro. But the last nine months have shown that people in Miami and Washington who expect the Cuban government to collapse the instant Castro dies are going to be disappointed.

Ramón Sánchez-Parodi:

I agree. What we have experienced in Cuba has been a kind of rehearsal, a foreshadowing of what will take place in the event Fidel exits from political life–which could happen for biological reasons. Much to the surprise of those who predicted dire straits for Cuba–exodus, uprising, mass protests against the Revolution, infighting–life goes on as usual.

Saul Landau:

And the people who started the Revolution in 1953, Fidel and Raul, still prevail.

Alberto Coll:

It was as if you did a major emergency fire drill and everything functioned the way it was supposed to–even if it turns out to be only a drill instead of the real thing. Its relative success can only serve to emphasize the massive failure of the US policy of isolation, which has served only to isolate Washington and deny the United States any kind of influence over the people currently running the country.

Philip Peters:

All who watch Cuba have had a question in the back of their minds: Is it a one-man show that dissolves when Fidel Castro leaves the scene, or is it a political system that carries on? These nine months have answered that question pretty clearly. This is a stable government, though one cannot minimize the challenges a successor government will eventually face.

Have you seen any indications under Raul Castro’s leadership of a move toward economic reforms or political change?


It all depends on how you define “reforms.” In Cuba there are no reforms taking place, at least not in the sense that they are interpreted abroad by those who would like to witness a return to capitalism.

The changes that you see now in Cuba are aimed at upgrading the performance of its institutions and improving quality of life for Cuban families. The demands of the population focus on three basic areas: nutrition, housing and transportation. In addition waste, inefficiency and misuse of resources have created dissatisfaction and unjustifiably limited the well-being of individuals and the society as a whole. But addressing those issues has no bearing on the country’s social, economic and political organization.


Raul’s reputation as an economic pragmatist comes from his experiments with Western business management techniques in the defense industry during the 1980s and his support for reintroducing farmers’ markets during the depths of the economic crisis in the 1990s, even though Fidel opposed them. Raul finally convinced Fidel that nothing was more important than providing people with enough food and that farmers’ markets would boost agricultural production–which they did. As minister of the armed forces, Raul also gained a reputation as a good manager who gets results.

In October the newspaper Juventud Rebelde ran a series of investigative stories exposing corruption in the state sector of the economy. The government then appointed a committee of scholars to examine socialist property in Cuba for sources of corruption and inefficiency. At the same time, academic economists are openly debating alternative development strategies and candidly discussing Cuba’s macroeconomic problems. Anticorruption campaigns are not new, but acknowledging that these problems may be rooted in how the economy is organized–that’s new.

On the political front, however, Raul has not shown any indication of being more tolerant of dissent than Fidel. In fact, Raul has often been central to past government crackdowns on dissidents. In early 1996, it was Raul who gave a tough speech to the Central Committee of the Communist Party criticizing Cuban academics for becoming too involved with their counterparts overseas and letting themselves be swayed by enemy ideology. With Fidel on the sidelines and the United States promising to disrupt the succession, the rest of the leadership will be especially sensitive about the risks posed by internal opposition.


Several things have been most striking about Raul during his short tenure as acting president. First, he has made it clear he wants to shake things up by encouraging more debate and criticism. The articles in Juventud Rebelde were remarkable.

The Cuban system is well-known for tolerating very little public dissent, enforcing conformity, looking with disfavor upon criticism and shoving open discussion of problems under the rug. This makes Raul’s actions even more interesting because he has insisted that in order for the country to address its serious challenges it needs to adopt a public culture that is more critical and open. While it’s difficult to gauge how far Raul’s change in style will translate into a change in substance, I see this as a fresh development that may indicate the start of something new. In politics, big changes often start from little acorns such as these.

Most important, Raul has made it legitimate and even fashionable to start discussing the country’s myriad everyday practical problems instead of staying focused on the more abstract themes of international relations, of which his older brother is so fond. There is hardly anyone in Cuba today who does not believe that there is an urgent need for substantial economic reforms that will begin to address the kinds of serious structural problems the country faces. As a very senior former government official who also describes himself as a Marxist put it to me recently, “The first thing this country needs is a lot more private property, more entrepreneurs, more decentralization, more small and medium-sized businesses.” People like him are the rule, not the exception, and they fill the ranks of the party and the government. Their fear is that unless change comes soon, it will not be possible later on to manage it in an orderly fashion.


There is no doubt that Raul Castro has different ideas about the economy, although no one can tell how fast or how far he will carry reforms once he’s in charge. My strong hunch is that Cubans would overwhelmingly welcome economic reforms that allow them to engage in enterprise, earn better wages and live in an economy with a single currency and affordable prices for their basic needs. But none of those changes would affect freedom to engage in dissent, free speech and free association. Human rights are in a different box, and I don’t see any sign that Cuban authorities are considering improvements in that area.

And when Fidel comes back, as he has begun to do?


You know, it’s wrong to paint this entirely as a Raul versus Fidel issue. Even before Fidel’s illness, he and others started discussing some chronic problems–the young generation’s lack of connection to the revolutionary project, the economic system that drives people into black-market activity–that threaten their ability to carry socialism into the next generation. Given a free hand, I think Fidel would respond with ideological exhortations and greater law enforcement, while Raul would look to fixing the system itself.


I actually think that none of the needed changes will happen as long as Fidel is alive or even actively involved in the management of the government.


Although he delegated the exercise of his official functions, Fidel Castro has maintained his moral and political authority. When he resumes his official functions–which, incidentally, could take place in a few weeks–it will mean that he has made an extraordinary comeback.

Of course, we all realize that he will not be able to work endless hours or deliver six-hour speeches or micromanage every single important project, as was the case before. But the institutions created by the Revolution–the Communist Party, the People’s Power Assemblies–have proven in this period to be capable of playing their roles in a new environment in which the leadership has to be more collective. In the future, as the historical leadership of the Revolution inevitably fades away, Cuba will see the kind of leadership that has functioned over the last eight months.

How does the Cuban government see the political changes in the Latin America region? What does the trend toward the populist left in the region mean for Cuba?


Cuban leaders see the election results in Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua and Ecuador as confirming of their critique of capitalism and imperialism. Add to this the elections in Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil and Chile and you have what they feel is a confirmation that Fidel was right. They were patient, refused to get intimidated and now the old leaders are following events with renewed optimism.


Certainly, the Cubans see the rise of the new left in Latin America as vindication of their longstanding argument that neoliberal economics is a dead-end development strategy. In decades past, Cuba has occasionally had ideological friends in the region–Allende in Chile, Manley in Jamaica, the Sandinistas in Nicaragua–but these allies were isolated and their governments were short-lived. The difference today is that socialist and left-populist governments are the dominant bloc in Latin America.


Economically, it means support from Venezuela and not a whole lot else. Politically, it makes for a less hostile, if not friendlier, neighborhood. It makes it impossible for the United States to organize a united hemispheric front against Castro, and when Castro goes it insures the same thing.


Not only does Cuba have very good relations with all of the new leftist governments in the region, including those on the so-called moderate left like Chile and Brazil. It also has excellent relations with such stalwart US allies as Colombia and Honduras. [Colombian] President [Álvaro] Uribe, Washington’s strongest ally in the region, pointedly has turned to Castro several times for help in negotiating with some of the Colombian guerrilla groups and in lessening tensions with [Hugo] Chávez’s Venezuela. And just a few weeks ago, Honduras, one of the United States’ closest friends in Central America, decided to send an ambassador to Cuba for the first time since 1962. For the past several years, UN resolutions condemning the US embargo against Cuba have received the largest number of affirmative votes ever in favor of Cuba–with many of those votes coming from Latin America. And when Castro became ill last July the Latin Americans made it clear to Washington that they would not join any efforts at regime change.


I believe that Latin America is experiencing important changes: The traditional political parties that defend the status quo have lost their influence and political power; the leaders of the military institutions have lost their capability to establish repressive regimes; the influence of the United States has deteriorated in the political arena as in the economic and trade areas because of its insistence on neoliberal schemes and, above all, popular organizations have increased their ability to mobilize people and have proven able to take power through elections. What we are witnessing in Latin America are revolutionary changes by different means–and an apogee of the relations between Cuba and the rest of Latin America and the Caribbean, both at the official and the popular levels.

How do you see Cuba’s ties to Venezuela?


In Venezuela a revolution is going on. No doubt about that. Chávez gained power in a different manner than Fidel, but the Cuban Revolution and the Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela have the same strategic and historical goals.

Relations between Venezuela and Cuba go beyond mere political rhetoric. There is an important economic dimension, as determined by the Cuba-Venezuela Intergovernmental Commission in February. We reached agreements to develop 355 bilateral projects–totaling $1.5 billion.


Chávez certainly seems to regard Fidel as having blazed the trail for socialist development in Latin America.


Hugo Chávez is one of Fidel’s sons. He, like Fidel, sees himself in the long line of revolutionaries beginning with Bolívar. The alliance is between two nations whose people are somewhat similar, especially those who descended from African slaves and colonizers. Cuban doctors and other medical professionals have served needs in Venezuela, and Chávez’s investment in Cuba has helped the Cuban economy. It augurs well for Cuba’s future, as does Chinese investment, which is relatively new.


Venezuela’s support ended Cuba’s foreign exchange crisis. There are other factors–tourism has recovered, nickel prices tripled last year–but Venezuelan oil is the most important. In Cuba, the result is fewer blackouts and some public investment in clinics and hospitals. But it’s not clear that the Cuban public appreciates it; many family doctors have been uprooted for international missions, and Venezuela gets the blame.


Obviously, Venezuela plays a critical role in the Cuban economy today, not only through its oil sales but through its investments in the Cuban energy sector and purchases of Cuban services, all of which have contributed enormously to Cuba’s strong economic performance over the last two years. It should be noted that while for Chávez this is an alliance of ideology, for the Cubans it is an alliance first of convenience. Many Cubans cannot help but suspect that the Chávez story will end up badly. This is one reason Cuba has brought in China, India, Norway and Spain to help it find oil in the Gulf of Mexico. This seems to them a wiser course than counting on Venezuela’s largesse to continue forever.

Given the changes in the region, Cuba seems to have a new confidence in its perspective toward the United States. What does the Cuban government want from the United States, if anything?


What Cuba wants in its relations with the United States is simple and straightforward: the requisite respect for our independence as a nation, our territorial integrity and the sovereign will of the Cuban people to decide on their own political, economic and social system. We see no other viable option but the normalization of official relations between both nations.

But it would require the United States to cease a number of hostile activities in which it is currently engaged: to stop encouraging, financing and organizing the so-called “dissidents” on the island and to put a stop to those in the exile community who continue to plan terrorist actions against Cuba. In the cause of countering terrorism, Cuba would welcome the release of the five Cubans jailed in the United States because of their vigilant investigation of those very exile groups in Florida that have supported campaigns of terror against the Cuban people [see Peter Kornbluh, “Terror and the Counterterrorists,” page 20].

There are many areas of bilateral collaboration that could benefit both of our countries: The fight against drug traffickers, which is currently limited to ad hoc actions because of Washington’s refusal to establish a permanent agreement with Cuba; ending the illegal trafficking of human beings, which is actually promoted by the Cuban Adjustment Act (which should be repealed), and the policy of accepting Cubans if they reach US shores (which should also be eliminated); increased contact between family members living in one or the other country, who are affected by visa difficulties and obstacles to communication; allowing for unrestricted scientific, cultural and sports exchanges, virtually nonexistent today as a result of travel restrictions imposed by Washington.


I agree with Ramón: What Cuba wants from the United States today is what Cuba has wanted from the United States since January 1, 1959–a relationship of equality based on respect for Cuba’s national sovereignty and independence, not a restoration of Washington’s neocolonial dominance. Normal relations with the United States would benefit the Cuban economy tremendously, of course, and Raul Castro has said several times in recent months, most recently in a speech on December 2, that Cuba is willing to talk with Washington about improving relations. But Cuba has survived almost half a century in the face of US hostility, and as Fidel has often said, it can survive for decades more if necessary.


A few years ago, Cuba decided it had bigger fish to fry. From Cuba’s point of view, the Bush Administration’s position was clear, and Congress was not able to force a change in policy. So why not pay attention to relationships that pay political and economic dividends: China, Venezuela, the nonaligned movement, Cuba’s worldwide medical diplomacy and so on.


Of course, Cuban officials would like to see the economic sanctions dropped, but they understand the US political system well enough to know that as long as Fidel is alive this is unlikely to happen, for reasons having to do not with the US national interest but with US domestic politics, mainly, the key place of Florida in presidential elections and the vital role still played in that state by the exile hard-liners. The Cubans, of course, continue to work for a lifting of the embargo, but they do this not because they expect the United States will respond positively but because in doing so they embarrass the Administration at the international level. And in the meantime, they are hoping, fairly confidently, that with the new investment from China and Venezuela and some success in oil exploration over the next three years, they will manage to do fine, or at least well enough to outlast yet another US Administration.


In many conversations I have had with Fidel since the 1970s, he has had the approach of “look at the map.” The two countries are geographically fated. So, yes, the majority of the Central Committee sees an inevitable relationship. But Cuba has learned painfully that it can’t give anything away. Reciprocity is the key to its diplomacy. Need is not the question after forty-eight-plus years of survival without US relations.

In 1960 I was at a forum in Havana where a US student posed this question to Che Guevara: “What would you like the US to do in your fondest dreams?”

“Disappear,” said Che.

The student looked hurt.

“Hey,” said Che. “I’m kidding!”

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