After Fidel, Who?


Fidel Castro’s non-appearance at this year’s May Day rally confirms that, while the Cuban leader may have resumed some of his former duties, the ‘bearded one’ is still quite frail.

Even if, in the next few days, weeks or even months, Castro makes a return as Cuban Head of State, many observers agree that he will drastically reduce his responsibilities and take on the lifestyle of an emeritus professor.

Fidel Castro

Castro’s continuing stream of editorials indicate that, as long as his memory and body still respond to his will, the old rebel does not intend to move.

Indeed, many respected Cubanophiles believe that, although the post-Fidel era is now well underway (proving that the Cuban Revolution is bigger than just one man) the changes in the coming months are certainly not the ones that the Bush Administration and many in Miami have long yearned for.

Having lived under his brother’s colossal shadow, the younger Castro, Raúl, in recent months has spoken out against corruption and offered the US an olive branch as long as the ‘resolution is based on the principle of equality, reciprocity, non-interference and mutual respect’.

Traditionally viewed as a hardliner, Raúl Castro has recently developed a reputation as a pragmatist and leader who wants to take greater measures to improve Cubans’ lives. At the end of 2006, Marc Frank, in an article for Reuters, wrote that ‘Raúl Castro [has]expressed frustration with bureaucracy, demanded answers to declining food output, urged Cuba’s press to be more critical and authorised a study of socialist property relations’.

Whether Raúl is genuinely committed to these reforms remains to be seen, but even Brian Latell, a staunch critic of Havana and a former top Cuba analyst at the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), has conceded that the younger Castro has been proceeding in a much bolder manner than expected, encouraging debate throughout the country and requesting university students to ‘fearlessly’ discuss the island’s problems.

Other, even younger Castro blood may indeed take up the call. Daughter of Raúl and the legendary guerrilla Vilma Espín, Mariela Castro is the Director of the National Sex Education Centre (Cenesex) and is a figure to watch in the future, according to Latin American analyst Richard Gott.

Speaking to Tom Fawthrop for The Christian Science Monitor last December, Mariela Castro conceded that bigoted attitudes towards homosexuals still exist among police, a situation in which she has personally intervened. She also stated:

We have many contradictions in Cuba [but]we need to experiment and to test what really works, to make public ownership more effective, rather than simply adopting wholesale free-market reforms.

But, even though Mariela has caught the international media’s eye, it remains to be seen if she is appointed to a key position within a future (post-Fidel) Cuban Government.

Mariela Castro

One man who already holds much power is 55-year-old Carlos Lage. Noted for riding his bicycle to work, Lage, a trained paediatrician, is currently Executive Secretary of Cuba’s Council of Ministers and is often described as the island’s de facto Prime Minister. Having guided Cuba during the ‘special period’ when it lost up to 80 per cent of its trade with the former Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc countries, Lage is also credited as having successfully negotiated a trade deal with Caracas which sees Cuban doctors work in Venezuela’s slums in return for affordable oil.

For many Cubans, Lage is the preferred option for the leadership and is seen as a man who may also move Cuba towards being a more open society. While there is some diversity of opinion (and the situation is slowly improving), it is still a fact that there are ‘boundaries’ that are best not crossed by journalists, authors and artists. The absence of a diversified media in Cuba highlights the island’s serious need for reform. Watch an episode of Round Table — the top political program on Cuban TV — and you will hear views which only reinforce the status quo. (A more appropriate name for the program might be the Square Table.)

One man who has dared to step on a few toes is the country’s Minister for Culture, writer Abel Prieto. Pushing for further liberalisation of cultural expression, Abel is a rare example of a Cuban who has had the courage to question Castro’s judgment. After Prieto had been blamed for the large number of artists leaving the country, he defended himself against the charges, and ‘millions watched as their supreme leader accepted his error and apologised to Abel Prieto’, live on State television, according to Tom Fawthrop.

Prieto, according to Gott, is someone to watch in future years, as is the young Foreign Affairs Minister Felipe Pérez Roque. Compared to many older Government figures, some of whom are quite bland, Roque’s passion in attacking the US economic blockade against Cuba, and his sharp tongue at the United Nations, are refreshing.

The next generation of political leaders will clearly be important, but the key factor in the survival (or otherwise) of the Cuban Revolution after Fidel shuffles off the podium will depend on the Cuban people. Many young Cubans are frustrated with corrupt Communist Party bureaucrats, the lack of free speech, and the poverty of the island despite the fact that they have a much better deal than most in the slums of Latin America.

According to Julia Sweig in ‘Fidel’s Final Victory’, one of the best essays on Cuba published in the journal Foreign Affairs, what US policy has fundamentally failed to accept is that:

Cuba is far from a multi-Party democracy, but it is a functioning country with highly opinionated citizens where locally elected officials (albeit all from one Party) worry about issues such as garbage collection, public transportation, employment, education, health care, and safety. Although plagued by worsening corruption, Cuban institutions are staffed by an educated civil service, battle-tested military officers, a capable diplomatic corps, and a skilled work force. Cuban citizens are highly literate, cosmopolitan, endlessly entrepreneurial, and by global standards quite healthy.

The big question is can Cubans be optimistic about the future? From the perspective of Ignacio Ramonet Editor-in-chief of Le Monde diplomatique writing in the January/February 2007 issue of Foreign Policy, the answer is, ‘Yes’. Ramonet points to figures such as Cuba’s GDP growth roughly 5 per cent per annum during the last 10 years which is amongst the highest in Latin America.

Furthermore, as Gary Prevost — Professor of Political Science with St. John’s University — has recently argued in an edition of Commonweal magazine the China factor has also been crucial, with the Asian giant looking to make Cuba its platform into Latin American markets.

China’s projects range from investing in potential oil reserves in the Straits of Florida; a joint Havana-Beijing venture to produce Cuban bio-medical products in China; and plans to build two Chinese plants to manufacture household appliances for both Cuba and Latin America. As if that were not enough, Prevost notes that China has also chosen Cuba as ‘the place to send thousands of its young people to learn Spanish’ as part of its overall project to expand into South and Central America.

Of course, if the Cuban leadership goes too far in its opening of the economy and moves away form the country’s strong social policies, the island could very well become a place where corrupt bureaucrats, a business elite and a new (although, still small) middle class enjoy the benefits of a consumer society while most of the population are slapped in the face with socialist propaganda and market economics.

With such a Cuba, Washington would be more than happy to do business.

In future, one can only hope the Caribbean island will reinvent itself as a society where greater freedom of expression is allowed, further liberalisation of the economy takes place, and yet the fundamental aspects of the society — work, health care and education — are further bolstered.

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.