Raúl Castro and Cuba: reading the changes

Antoni Kapcia
22 April 2009

The influence of Cuba on the political agenda of its neighbours has been much in evidence in April 2009. The easing of restrictions on travel, telecommunications and remittances between the United States and Cuba declared by Barack Obama on 13 April - largely reversing the special measures imposed by his predecessor in 2004 - fall far short of a lifting of the long-term trade embargo, though it is a notable shift of policy by Washington at this early stage of the new presidency. The discussions around the fifth Summit of the Americas in Trinidad & Tobago on 17-19 April 2009 also showed that even in its absence, Cuba is regarded as integral to the future of the region. Antoni Kapcia is professor and head of the Centre for Research on Cuba, University of Nottingham, England. He is the author of Cuba in Revolution: A History Since the Fifties (Reaktion, 2009)

Also by Antoni Kapcia in openDemocracy:

"Cuba after Fidel: stability, movement, reform" (22 May 2008)

"Cuba's revolution: survival, loyalty, change" (15 January 2009)

But events in Cuba in the previous month are a healthy reminder that internal political developments in the country often overturn outsiders' expectations, in ways that require some reflection and analysis. Whatever the effects of a changing regional environment on Cuba, the country's political leadership will be an active player in seeking to mediate and manage them. So much is clear from the startling changes in senior personnel announced in Havana on 2 March 2009.

The long wait

Since Raúl Castro took over from his ailing brother Fidel - temporarily in August 2006 and permanently in February 2008 - two developments had been universally expected: government changes (promised in 2008) or a clearer raulista stamp, with the latter being seen either as retrenchment or as the start of a process of economic (if not political) reform.

As these developments failed to materialise, observers attributed the delay to various factors: Raúl's need to balance factions, Fidel's continuing influence (or Raúl's need to respect Fidel's sensitivities), popular fears and expectations, and (most convincingly) the impact of 2008's three hurricanes and the world recession. Another explanation is more prosaic and "institutional": that, until the much-postponed Communist Party congress (due in late 2009), Raúl has no formal mandate for reform. 

But when the two long-awaited developments actually did occur in advance of the landmark congress, their character was as much a shock as their timing: for they included the demotion of two prominent politicians long seen as longer-term successors to the Castro brothers - Carlos Lage (secretary to the council of state, overseer of the post-1992 economic reforms which saved the revolution, and often described as Cuba's de facto prime minister) and Felipe Pérez Roque (the youthful foreign minister, once in Fidel's Grupo de Apoyo (support group) and always seen as "close to Fidel").

The changes also saw the removal of José Luis Rodríguez (the economy minister, and the economist who designed the 1990s reforms) and confirmed the demotion of Otto Rivero (the vice-president, also "close to Fidel", a former leader of the young communists (UJC) and since 2005 responsible for the "battle of ideas" campaign initiated by Fidel in 2000). 

These changes - and the simultaneous promotions (many associated with Cuba's Revolutionary Armed Forces [FAR]) - were predictably seen by many foreign observers as having been driven by Raúl's need to impose his authority by removing "Fidel's people". This revealed the automatic operation of a five-decade-old "Fidel-centrist" media tendency: namely, that the revolution has always been determined by Fidel's skills, megalomania, loyalties, and charisma - except that now its controls had been reformatted to produce a newly "Raúl-centric" focus on personalism. 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)

Many others similarly read the reshuffle in terms of familiar, formulaic patterns: Raúl Castro as the revolution's "ideologue", the rising presence of FAR people in government and the removal of known "reformers" presaging the imposition of a hard line, the division of Cuban politics according to "reformist" and "old guard" factions. The last frame was often applied outside Cuba to view Carlos Lage in particular as the would-be Mikhail Gorbachev, whose desire for a social-democratic Cuba was restrained by "old guard" resistance.

A singular and very different reading of the personnel changes was proposed by Jorge Castañeda, Mexico's former foreign minister and now an academic at New York University: that the demotions pre-empted a coup by loyalists (specifically Lage and Pérez Roque) supported by Hugo Chávez, who feared that Raúl's reforms would "betray" the revolution (see Jorge Castañeda, "The Plot Against the Castros", Newsweek, 14 March 2009).

A variation that combines elements of these readings has also occasionally seen Raúl himself as a quasi-reformer - seeking a "Chinese model" of political control and state-backed economic liberalisation, but restrained by Fidel (or by the "old guard") whom he is obliged to retain in government.

The limits of formula

These diverse interpretations evidently are inconsistent with one another in several respects, as well as embodying assumptions that limit their capacity to explain anything. Indeed, a scrutiny of two predominant assumptions is one way to approach the complexity of the Cuban reality and offer some more plausible and consistent explanations. 

The flaws in the first assumption, that of personalism, are clear enough. A reading of this kind is logical enough in journalistic shorthand or in the polemics surrounding Cuban politics, but it casts little useful light on Cuban realities or the loyalties within the Cuban system. The internal arguments and tensions of this system are far better understood as the ebb and flow of an essentially collective rather than one-dimensionally personalist leadership.

That is not to deny the historically dominating presence of, and loyalty to, Fidel Castro. But it does entail moving beyond the obvious to the roles played by others: Raúl himself (more decisive than most have imagined and not, as often suggested, simply Fidel's loyal or resentful younger brother), but also other key players of the past (Che Guevara, Carlos Rafael Rodríguez, Raúl Roa, Osvaldo Dorticós, Armando Hart) and the present. It is easy to construct a credible picture of fifty years of debate among a remarkably solid leadership composed of players who, far from being ciphers, have been vociferous decision-makers within their respective fields of competence.  

The second assumption, of the decisive influence of factions in the Cuban system, enters here. It arises mostly from older paradigms (of closed regimes whose behind-closed-doors politics led to speculation about internal tensions), but also draws on the known battles inside the Cuba of the 1960s (principally between "old communists" loyal to Moscow, and the unorthodox former guerrillas).

What this perspective misses, however, is that groupings around one issue are rarely replicated with consistency on others. For example, the fact that opposition in Cuba in the late 1980s to Gorbachev's reform programme had several sources (fear of a weakened united front against "imperialism", nationalist resentment, a glimpse of the seeds of later "Yeltsinism") meant that what came later - the campaign of "rectification" - was always more than the conservative opposition to change it was caricatured as. Equally, a "factionalist" reading of the March 2009 reshuffle is undermined by the inability to fit Rodríguez into a fidelista "faction" or Pérez Roque or Rivero into a "reformist" one. 

Raul Castro Speech C/O JAVIER GALEANO/AP

Moreover, factionalist readings never work because they over-simplify the scope and purpose of internal debates inside a system which has almost always encouraged open disagreement "within the revolution" (i.e. behind closed doors or within limited circles or periods), and which has thereafter seldom castigated those who lose the argument. Ramiro Valdés is a case in point; a former guerrilla and interior minister, he was removed from the leadership in the 1980s but remained to be "rehabilitated" after 2005, becoming a minister and most recently vice-president, taking over the "battle of ideas" from Rivero. 

True, the precise nature of "within" has differed over the decades - from the open academic debates of the "great debate" of the 1960s (over Cuba's economic future) to the limited leadership debates after the disastrous harvest of 1970. But it has generally been evident before party congresses, in mass organisations during consultations, or in academic "think-tanks". By the same token, the alternative ("against") has always been deemed unacceptable, though also variously defined by the scale of the current problem or external pressures. 

The main reason why such traditional interpretations miss their target is that the focus on "reform" assumes the term's homogeneity and thus of those espousing it. Since 1989, "reform" has in the west become synonymous with "transition" (to capitalism); in Cuba, however, it has meant very different things to different actors.

Some might have advocated Gorbachev-style reforms in the 1980s, others might have admired the "Chinese model" - but few Cuban politicians shared either perspective, for the majority was aware that full liberalisation would mean Cuba being swamped by foreign imports and capital, and that a Chinese-style model might mean unacceptable inequality and corruption. In the Cuban context, "reform" in the early 1970s had meant following Soviet models of decentralisation and incentives; in the 1980s, it meant moving towards greater efficiency; after 1990 it meant whatever was necessary to save the revolution (including "dollarisation", self-employment, and tourism).

Much of this is missed by outsiders, whose search for "reformers" is associated with the assumption of a non-existent desire for "transition". The mismatch of perceptions was evident during Raúl's takeover in 2006-08; outsiders still saw him as a "hardliner", whereas most Cubans - based on his record within the FAR and then on his oversight of the 1990s reforms - saw him as (in Cuban terms, the ones that make sense of what is happening) an economic "reformer". In the former case what was consistent was his desire for efficiency; in the latter, the motives were clear and shared by Fidel. 

The lessons of revolution

These considerations help to clear the way for a more realistic understanding of the political changes in Cuba. It is clear that any idea that Raúl might be planning a significantly different policy can be discarded: both brothers are cut from the same ideological cloth, and are equally determined to defend and further "the revolution" (see Cuba in Revolution: A History Since the Fifties [Reaktion, 2009]). Where they differ is in tactics and style. Among openDemocracy's recent articles on the Americas:

Celia Szusterman, "Argentina: celebrating democracy" (19 December 2008)

John Crabtree, "Bolivia: after the vote" (2 February 2009)

Sergio Aguayo Quezada, "Mexico: a state of failure" (17 February 2009)

George Philip, "Hugo Chávez, oil, and Venezuela" (20 February 2009)

Julia Buxton, "Hugo Chávez: tides of victory" (20 February 2009)

Adam Isacson, "Colombia's imperilled democracy" (6 March 2009)

Victor Valle, "El Salvador's long march" (20 March 2009)

Kelly Phenicie & Lisa J Laplante, "Peru: the struggle for memory" (8 April 2009)

Juan Gabriel Tokatlian, "Barack Obama's drug policy: time for change" (15 April 2009)

Ivan Briscoe, "The Americas and Washington: moving on" (17 April 2009)

Fidel has, broadly, always preferred to lead Cubans by mobilising through campaigns, rallies and "direct democracy", using his charisma, reputation and the reservoir of personal loyalty. Even when he employed stable structures to channel that support (the Communist Party and the mass organisations), he was generally suspicious of them - though not necessarily because they might constrain his freedom, power or authority.

The reasons were, rather, rooted in experience: the 1960s had taught him that institutionalised structures could be used by groups to try to take over the revolution or to change policy, while a decade of institutionalisation (1975-85) with its mix of consumerism and an enlarged party had created conditions for privilege and corruption. Thus, when, in 2000, the Elián González campaign transmogrified into the "battle of ideas" - promising to reinvigorate demoralised activists and incorporate a new generation of loyalists - mobilisation took precedence over structures, leading to the postponement of the party congress set for 2002.

Raúl, by contrast, has always preferred to govern through those same structures - though not because (as commonly assumed abroad) he is either a Stalinist or a boring bureaucrat.

The reason is, rather, rooted in his awareness that mobilisation, while often necessary to strengthen ideological resolve, contains two dangers: a lack of accountability and a tendency towards inefficiency. For him, structures (properly invigilated and motivated) can be more accountable, more effectively democratic, more efficient and less susceptible to ad hoc corruption. 

All this is in the context of what is for Raúl the critical priority: to defend, sustain and enhance the revolution. Fidel might have seen the means to that end being ideological enhancement through mobilisation, but Raúl knows that his options are different: instead of "direct democracy" or campaigns, he has to earn Cubans' active commitment (even if he shares Fidel's historical legitimacy) by delivering tangible economic improvement. Some might argue that this is only possible though a transition towards capitalism, involving the privatisation of the heavily state-run structures and liberalisation of commerce; Raúl's preference is clearly to achieve it through the greater efficiency of the same structures. 

What "efficiency" means in practice is a vexed question. For Raúl (as for Che Guevara in the ministry of industry in the early 1960s), inefficiency is inherently anti-revolutionary and produces corrosive corruption. The vexation comes because this "corruption" is not the high-level, headline-grabbing kind that sees ministers sacked or generals executed, but rather the low-level pilfering and diversion of resources of the kind that existed before 1989 and was exacerbated after the 1990s crisis, becoming almost standard means of survival for many and of enrichment for some.

For Raúl, both effects undermine the revolution's legitimacy: if ordinary citizens are obliged to steal public goods to survive, that undermines both their respect for, and active commitment to, revolution, while those who thus enrich themselves are parasites on their fellow citizens. Neither is acceptable. 

In this larger context, the political demotions and promotions of March 2009 are part of a wider and longer-term strategy. There is a broad link with the post-2006 campaign against lax labour practices (such as ad hoc absenteeism and inadequate fulfilment of quotas), one that has generated stubborn resistance, trade-union objections and delayed legislation. 

The constraint of ambition

There is need for a caveat, however: the need to avoid reading single motivations into unrelated developments. The fact that the demoted politicians shared little with each other makes it more than likely that Raúl also seized the opportunity to make changes for very different reasons.

Thus for example, corruption seemingly played no role in the demotions of Carlos Lage and Felipe Pérez Roque; but it was implicit in the case of Otto Rivero, not (at this stage at least) for any personal involvement but for having failed to prevent corruption at lower levels. If the loose structures and lack of accountability in the "battle of ideas" allowed opportunities for local corruption, this will have confirmed Raúl's suspicions about unstructured mobilisations.

In the cases of Lage and Pérez Roque (the reasons for the removal of José Luis Rodríguez are still unclear) another factor came into play: the system's inherent vigilance towards emerging "politicians". This refers to a consistent suspicion - predating Raúl's mandate - of politicians who, having risen through the ranks, have begun to act in their own right, outside the existing structures.

This happened with "rising stars" in the past, most notably Carlos Aldana in the early 1990s and Roberto Robaina in the late 1990s; both were identified abroad as potential successors to Fidel (and Raúl), and were removed partly because - as if persuaded by the label - they began to act accordingly. The public statements about Lage and Pérez Roque contain more than a hint of these precedents.

The leadership's reaction to such ostensible aspirants thus has a long and consistent history. But there is another factor: Raúl's own preference for "managers" over "politicians": the former are relied upon to deliver required results efficiently, the latter being less reliable and more likely to develop a personal base and approach. 

Raúl Castro's "night of the long knives" may best be considered a characteristically raulista step in the defence, shaping and development of his main concern: "the revolution". An awareness of this core strategic and political calculation might be useful when the measures announced by Washington a month later begin to reach Cuba's shores and Cubans' pockets.


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