The Day After Fidel

The Day After Fidel

Most authoritarians leave office in a coup or a coffin. Fidel Castro is leaving on his own terms.


It is too soon to write Fidel Castro’s political obituary. “I am not saying goodbye to you,” he wrote in his February 19 resignation letter to fellow Cubans. “I wish only to fight as a soldier of ideas,” meaning that even as he formally steps aside as maximum leader, he will pursue his retirement career as the world’s most famous opinion-page columnist. Still, it is clear that the post-Fidel era in Cuba is now beginning.

As Cubans approach a National Assembly meeting February 24 to name Fidel’s replacement, his announcement clears the way for the country to look forward, not backward. All expectations are that Raul Castro will be ratified as president of Cuba–although Fidel omitted any direct reference to his brother and designated heir in his letter, raising the possibility that younger disciples from what he calls “the intermediate generation” could emerge. Whoever steps up to the podium on Sunday in Havana will lead the Cuban revolution into its next phase.

Already, over the past nineteen months, Raul has raised expectations that post-Fidel economic changes will address the serious hardships in the daily lives of Cubans: housing shortages, transportation problems, low wages and few jobs. Known as a manager rather than a speechmaker, Raul has called on Cubans at all levels to engage in a fuller debate over the solutions to Cuba’s many problems. While the political orientation of the regime seems immutable, many Cubans now harbor hope that the tight socialist reins on the economy will soon be loosened. The challenge for Cuba’s new leadership, having created widespread expectations, will be to actually meet them.

While most authoritarians only leave power in a coffin or a coup, Fidel Castro is leaving on his own terms. Fidel has survived long enough to see the revolution he led so institutionalized that it will endure without him. He has been in power long enough to transform his country from a small Caribbean island into a major player on the international stage. He has lasted long enough to watch other major nations in Latin America move closer to his worldview, so that Cuba is no longer isolated in the region. And he has outlasted those who tried to isolate and destroy him–no fewer than ten US Presidents who, through paramilitary assaults, assassination attempts, economic embargoes and diplomatic pressures, have embraced a policy that seeks to overthrow Castro and roll back his revolution.

The seamless shift in power completed by Fidel’s resignation marks the latest failure in five decades of US policy toward Cuba. The Bush Administration’s special Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba explicitly called for “transition not succession”–only three weeks before Fidel ceded power to his brother on July 31, 2006, as he fell ill with intestinal disease. Only last November, Bush issued a call on the Cuban people to rise up–and warned the Cuban military not to shoot them if they did–as if Cuba were ready to throw off the shackles of Communist Party rule, which is clearly deeply entrenched. Even with Fidel on the sidelines, there is no indication that his revolution will miss its fiftieth anniversary at the end of this year.

That anniversary will coincide with the inauguration of a new President of the United States, who will have a golden opportunity to bring an end to fifty years of perpetual–and futile–antagonism in Washington’s posture toward Havana. To be sure, at word of Fidel’s resignation, the candidates fell all over themselves to declare that the United States should redress its hostile position only if, as Barack Obama stated, “the Cuban leadership begins opening Cuba to meaningful democratic change.” But the worldview of an aspirant with an eye on the swing state of Florida in November is different from that of a President sitting in the Oval Office.

From that vantage point, the next President will face the stark realities of Cuba policy, which has failed for fifty years to meet its goals. It has given hard-liners in Castro’s circle a real threat around which to rally state security forces; isolated Washington among its allies far more than it has isolated Cuba among its enemies; undermined US national interests on trade, environment, immigration and counternarcotics collaboration in the Caribbean; and diverted resources from the fight against terrorism into violating the constitutional rights of US citizens to travel abroad freely. “Our policy leaves us without influence at this critical moment, and this serves neither U.S. national interest nor average Cubans, the intended beneficiaries of our policy,” more than 100 bipartisan members of Congress wrote to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, urging a major review of sanctions against Cuba now that Fidel has departed. “After fifty years it is time for us to think and act anew.”

Whether Fidel will live long enough to see the end of the US embargo, and the recognition from his arch-enemy to the north that would come with normalized bilateral relations, remains to be seen. But he retreats from the political scene confident that his ideas and actions have left a legendary mark on his country, the Third World and US relations with both. “Our enemies should not delude themselves,” Castro states in “After Fidel: What?” the appropriately titled last chapter of his recently published memoir, Fidel Castro: My Life. “I die tomorrow and my influence may actually increase. I said once that the day I really die, nobody’s going to believe it. I may be carried around like El Cid–even after he was dead his men carried him around on his horse, winning battles.”

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