Cuba after Fidel: stability, movement, reform

Antoni Kapcia
25 May 2008

Fidel Castro's formal retirement from the Cuban presidency (after thirty-two years) and from leadership of the Cuban revolution (after forty-nine years) came on 19 February 2008, when he withdrew his name from the deliberations of the newly elected national assembly; but informally it had arrived on 31 July 2006, when he had transferred power - temporarily, pending surgery - to his brother Raúl. In any event, the later move was surprising only in its timing and manner. It may have shaken the world's media, and wrong-footed many in the United States; but the decision itself, the precise succession and the calm domestic response were in fact predictable. Fidel's illness had merely brought the inevitable forward.

Antoni Kapcia is professor and head of the Centre for Research on Cuba, University of Nottingham

If the political dynamics of Cuba's political transition are to be understood, the three aspects of by Fidel's withdrawal from the leadership - retirement, succession and acceptance - merit examination.

A period of suspension

A world persuaded of the notion of Fidel Castro as a power-hungry despot surrounded by an essentially fidelista apparatus naturally found the idea of his retirement unthinkable. But the Cuban system was always more complex than this caricature, and indeed it had seemed likely from about 2000 that he might well stand down at some point during the decade - probably in 2009, the moment of the revolution's fiftieth anniversary, the end of his leadership of the non-aligned movement, and the anticipated start of a post-George W Bush era.

Also on Cuba's politics and leadership in openDemocracy:

Bella Thomas, "Paradox regained: a conversation with an old comandante in Cuba" (20 August 2003)

Bella Thomas, "Living with Castro" (13 August 2006)

Fred Halliday, "Fidel Castro's legacy: Cuban conversations" (24 August 2006)

Richard Gott, "Fidel remembered: a view of the Cuban revolution" (20 February 2008)

This expectation arose in part from public evidence of Fidel's declining health and ability, but even more from the reality that (as his own acute sense of history would confirm) he could not afford to risk the whole post-1953 revolutionary project because he had stayed too long (see Richard Gott, "Fidel remembered: a view of the Cuban revolution", 20 February 2008). Indeed, by 2005 frustrations were beginning to be expressed on the ground, even among members of the ruling Communist Party, not least with the slow pace and paucity of economic improvement at the grassroots. Even during his post-July 2006 convalescence, everyday Cubans mixed genuine affection and concern for him as a person with a larger impatience; they both worried that the unresolved leadership question would prolong indecision and drift, and cautiously believed that Raúl might offer a realistic hope of necessary economic reform.

Raúl Castro's moment

The question of who would inherit the Cuban leadership was also simplified from abroad, in particular a Fidel-focused tendency to see "succession" as critical to the revolution's future. In fact, there was never any doubt about it, for two main reasons. First, the constitutional successor was, since the revolution's first elections in 1976, bound to be Raúl; hence, only if he too were to refuse when the moment came in 2008 would anyone else be chosen. Second, Raúl's succession was inevitable because of his own historic place in the revolution.

From 26 July 1953, when a group of young rebels led by Fidel attacked the Moncada barracks in Santiago, Raúl accompanied him in everything (the planning and execution of the assault, followed by imprisonment and exile). In the Granma expedition of 1956 that launched the insurrection and the two-year Sierra Maestra guerrilla campaign, Raúl led his own column; after the victory in 1959, he remained a key member of the "inner circle", central to all major decisions and reforms, and especially leading the new Revolutionary Armed Forces (FAR). Throughout, there was never any question of ideological difference with Fidel. The only other leader as close to Fidel, and as influential on him, was Che Guevara. Thus, by 2006, Raúl was after Fidel unquestionably the figure in the leadership with the greatest historical legitimacy.

Moreover, Raúl had a unique base for that legitimacy: the FAR itself. The forces' decades of effective defence, military success in helping its African allies repel South Africa's apartheid-era invasions, and an unparalleled reputation for incorruptibility and economic efficiency gave it a unique status in Cuba - and , distinguished it too from other Latin American militaries. Moreover, Raúl clearly enjoys the FAR's loyalty, making him even more critical in any state crisis.

Among openDemocracy recent articles on Latin American politics:

John Crabtree, "Bolivia's controversial constitution" (10 December 2007)

Ivan Briscoe, "Latin America's dynamic: politics after charisma" (19 December 2007)

Guy Hedgecoe, "Ecuador's politics of expectation" (1 February 2008)

Catalina Holguín, "Colombia: networks of dissent and power" (4 February 2008)

Sergio Aguayo Quezada, "The next American revolution" (2 April 2008)

Jenny Pearce, "Colombia: the near enemies" (9 April 2008)

Andrew Nickson, "Paraguay's historic election" (22 April 2008)

John Crabtree, "Santa Cruz's referendum, Bolivia's choice" (30 April 2008)

Sue Branford, "Brazil's Amazonian choice" (19 May 2008)

That same military association also contributed to Raúl's image outside Cuba as a "hardliner" and "ideologue" - though the portrait had three other ingredients. First, Raúl had (in 1953) belonged to the Socialist Youth wing of the (de facto communist) People's Socialist Party, and had travelled once to eastern Europe as a student; even when Fidel's own "communism" was unclear, this fact helped both brand Raúl as a dangerous "red" and "explain" the revolution's leftward shift. Second, as a guerrilla and then as head of the FAR, Raúl showed ruthlessness when political necessity demanded it. Third, he had in 1959-61 been prominent in developing contacts and favouring close ties with the Soviet Union; a relationship that increased as the FAR came to rely on Soviet arms and training.

In reality, however, Raúl was also known as a flexible and reform-minded politician. In the 1980s, for example, he streamlined the FAR structures using Japanese management experts; and in 1990-95, he spearheaded the unprecedented reforms that rescued a seemingly doomed revolution (introducing the United States dollar, self-employment, cooperative agriculture, and banking reform, and encouraging tourism to replace sugar). His purpose was clear: to protect the revolution, for which he was prepared to try almost anything. Raúl had long been commited to efficiency and knew that the Cuban economy desperately needed this quality. Hence in 2006 many Cubans saw him as the one to straighten the economy with reforms which Fidel, perhaps, would not contemplate (see Bella Thomas, "Living with Castro", 13 August 2006).

Raúl, though, also believes in structure, organisation and effectiveness, with a strong and flexible party at its core. Some critics have interpreted this quality in terms of a character that is "bureaucratic" and shuns the limelight; but the belief also clearly arises from his awareness that Cuba's economic and social advances have been achieved best not via the revolution's characteristic mobilisation and "campaigning" style but when a more stable institutionalised structure could provide the accountability and the channels of two-way communication that constant mobilisation cannot deliver.

Mobilisation vs structure

This point is important because an alternation can be detected in the entire post-1959 period between what might be called "participation through passionate mobilisation" and "participation through structure". This is usually seen as the result of personal preferences, factional struggle or external pressures; but it is best read as a conscious decision each time by leaders aware of the need to balance periodic ideological reinvigoration (especially to combat crisis or low morale, or to build on nationalist energy) with periods of stability and materialism - while one satisfies the soul, the other satisfies the body, but neither can be pursued for long without a cost.

The cost of excessive mobilisation has often been a tendency to ad hoc decisions that subordinate efficiency to politics and exhaust the faithful; while the cost of stability has been a self-perpetuating bureaucratic inertia (leading even to privilege and low-level corruption) and the loss of political fervour. While Fidel may have preferred "mobilisation" and Raúl "structure", this is to over-simplify it, since both have taken the decisions to opt one way or the other.

Nonetheless, by 2005 it was clear that Cuba's experience since 1990 pointed in that direction of the need for "stability". For the context of all these changes is a vital reference-point: the pressures, challenges and discussions since the socialist bloc and then the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989-91, plunging Cuba into a crisis that should have been terminal for the already besieged political system.

What followed 1990 was a simple survival strategy, focusing on urgent economic reforms. By 1994, these were all in place and starting to take effect; from 1995 they generated steady economic growth, saving "the system" from the feared Armageddon. The next five years essentially saw internal debate - at top and bottom, and in all the revolution's organisations - about that "system", identifying those elements of the revolution which should be preserved and those that were more dispensable. That debate eventually arrived at a degree of consensus - a state-directed (but not necessarily state-run) economy, a commitment to social welfare, and a more nationalistic focus; but as it did so, two convulsive experiences catapulted Cuba towards another cycle of the familiar "participation through mobilisation". The first was Pope John Paul II's visit in January 1998, which was celebrated both as signalling the end of isolation and the "rescue" of the revolution, and as a great moment of national unity. The second was the astonishing and unrelenting mass mobilisation in the seven-month campaign in 1999-2000 for the return from the United States of 6-year old Elián González.

The latter experience launched the period known as the "battle of ideas", which (through youth-led mobilisations, revitalised youth organisations, and the involvement of thousands in a new "educational revolution") had the effect of recruiting a potential new generation into the ranks of the faithful. The campaign emphasised ideological reinforcement - through both "ideas" and collective action - that would arm the young to resist the post-1990 corrosion of values, the threat of capitalism and individualism, and the challenge of globalisation.

The "battle" had remarkable achievements to its name - among them new emergency schools, thousands trained as teachers, social workers, and nurses; a consolidation of the new alliance with Hugo Chávez's Venezuela; and a resurrection of the old aid-driven "internationalism". But it also took a toll. In particular, by both relying on and exhausting the commitment and energy of the same party activists who had kept the faith throughout the 1990s, the constant mobilisation also meant a neglect of the party itself (entailing, among other things, the failure to convene the planned 2002 congress). Thus, while ideological batteries were recharged and new energies found, the "system" stagnated. This had dangerous implications for communication, for the desired sense of "stable togetherness" (unlike the "energetic togetherness" which collective campaigning sought to engender), and for the delivery of much-needed comforts.

The system's life

Hence, whoever was president, a period of "stabilisation" beckoned; Raúl's post-July 2006 leadership simply affected its form and pace. As a result, even before February 2008 the party was being strengthened in personnel and structure (its postponed congress is now scheduled for late 2009); there was a renewed emphasis on a culture of discipline (in the party, in commitment, in labour practices, and in the fight against crime and corruption); and reforms were emerging.

These reforms, as could be expected, are not "liberalising" Cuba towards widespread privatisation or capitalism, but are at the economic margins (access to goods, flexibility in housing, higher salaries and pensions, access to comforts) - though they do include include deeper reforms to food production, and thus to agricultural tenure and market mechanisms.

Raúl Castro is well aware that a post-Fidel government relies on the delivery of goods and a rapid visible improvement of grassroots economic wellbeing; there is still no conclusive evidence of a groundswell of popular demand for political change (too many factors militate against that), but if dissatisfaction continues with economic performance at the base (where it matters to most Cubans) it could turn against the government.

Reform is thus urgent, with Raúl referring (for example) to food production as a matter of "national security". If economic changes meet consumer demands, and if the consultations which began in September 2007 continue in the approach to the 2009 congress, then the system may show itself to have plenty of life left in it. The remaining months of 2009 will be decisive, and fascinating to watch, for the future of the familiar and singular Cuban "system"

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