Since Fidel Castro’s brief fainting spell during a speech in June 2001, Miami, Havana and Washington have been caldrons of feverish speculation on his succession and the politics of a post-Castro Cuba. Castro’s designated successor is his 73-year-old brother Raul, who, Miami hard-liners scoff, would not last a day in power. The British journalist Richard Gott makes the case in Cuba: A New History that the younger Castro, whose official roles include being first Vice President of Cuba and its Minister of Defense, would nimbly survive the transition to power. Among his advantages is the fact that it is his army, the Revolutionary Armed Forces (FAR), that carries out much of the day-to-day business in Cuba, even running the farmers’ markets and tourism through its company, Gaviota. Gott doesn’t mention it, but the chief of Gaviota, Luis Alberto Rodríguez, is married to Débora Castro Espín, Raul’s daughter. Earlier this year, another son-in-law was named to head the Ministry of Tourism, giving Raul Castro’s inner circle total control of tourism, the number-one source of revenue for the island.
A coup is unlikely, as the Castro brothers have already assiduously weeded out any suspected dissident elements from the military, and only Raul has been entrusted with the succession plan. In the event of a sudden illness or the death of Fidel Castro, according to one former official, all members of the Politburo have been instructed to report immediately to their homes, where they are to remain until contacted by Raul Castro with further instructions. Should Raul decide to use brute force to maintain the status quo, he is well positioned to do so.
Gott is correct in his claim that the younger Castro’s clout does not stem solely from his military might. Contrary to popular opinion, Raul Castro has been an advocate of freer markets and economic reforms within the government. Once a Communist zealot, he has leavened his philosophy with pragmatism in the past decade; but he has his own health problems, stemming from periodic alcoholism–and possibly, according to “Radio Bemba,” Havana’s efficient word-of-mouth information system, from a bout with colon cancer.
Early in his book, Gott tells us he first visited Havana in 1963 armed with letters of introduction from historian Hugh Thomas, who wrote his groundbreaking 1,700-page opus on the history of Cuba in 1971, updated in 2001. Which immediately raises the question: Do we need another history of the same Caribbean island that garners as much ink as all the countries in the Southern Hemisphere combined? The short answer is no, but Gott does bring some new things to the table, including new source materials, and he offers a more compact and arguably more accessible history than Thomas’s. His work has also benefited from the friendly cooperation of many Cuban officials.
Unfortunately, Gott’s soft spot for leftist Latin American caudillos (most recently Hugo Chávez, the subject of his previous book, a wide-eyed account of the Venezuelan revolution) is in evidence by page 3, when the author encounters Che Guevara at the Soviet Embassy in Havana. “Guevara strode in after midnight, accompanied by a small coterie of friends, bodyguards and hangers-on, wearing his trademark black beret, and with his shirt open to the waist. He was unbelievably beautiful …[and] had the unmistakable aura of a rock star.” No one denies Guevara’s good looks and charisma, but he was also responsible for some of the worst excesses of the Cuban Revolution, including scores of summary executions. Che’s brutality merits only one sentence–much later–in the text. This fairly consistent bias marks most of the chapters dealing with Castro and his revolution. Sometimes Gott is spot on, but too often one cringes, as when he lauds Castro’s hand-groomed foreign minister, Felipe Perez Roque, who is as unpopular as he is sycophantic. Perez Roque, writes Gott, is a “sure hand at foreign affairs, sustaining Cuba’s extraordinary worldwide support.” What international support could he be referring to? Cuba has endured repeated condemnations in the United Nations, has been barred from the Organization of American States for decades and these days has barely been on speaking terms with Mexico, its longtime historic ally.