August 2, 2006
By Stephen Johnson
On Monday, July 31, Fidel Castro's secretary read a letter in
which the 79-year-old Cuban dictator temporarily purports to
delegate authority to his brother Raúl Castro, first vice
president of the Council of State and minister of the armed forces.
Apparently stress from the dictator's recent trip to Argentina for
a Southern Cone Common Market meeting resulted in intestinal
bleeding and an operation to stop it.
Cuban Americans in Miami, as well as democrats around the world,
hope the incident may hasten a change in power on the island
prison. However, it's probably too soon to break out the bubbly.
Fidel has already proven himself a survivor in his old age - having
overcome periods of incoherence and broken bones when he fell into
metal folding chairs. Plus his brother could be just as
What's certain about Cuba's future is that it's hard to predict.
The demise of one or both Castros could lead to a power struggle
among senior leaders, a collegial junta of generals ready to
sustain control over Cuba's major income-generating enterprises
(such as tourism), or a loss of control over the masses.
Twenty years ago, U.S. policymakers thought change depended on an
end to $5 billion-a-year Soviet subsidies. When the Soviet Union
collapsed in 1991, cash-starved Cuba weathered the crisis through
tourism and by allowing limited self-employment to citizens for
whom the state couldn't provide jobs.
In case of death, Raúl, the 79-year-old dictator's younger
brother by four years, is the designated successor. He is
reportedly melancholy, uncharismatic, and in questionable health
himself. Moreover, he is believed to admire China's slow transition
toward capitalism, leading some analysts to think he might be a
malleable, temporary figure.
Yet, Raúl has always been Fidel's dour enforcer, arranging
for killings and imprisonments. He is the architect of the current
Cuban Communist party and organs of civilian government. As long as
Fidel is living, he is unlikely to make any changes. And even if
Fidel goes to eternal justice soon, Raúl may be expected to
extend the regime's iron rule for some time with support from the
Cuban Revolutionary Armed Forces.
With the death of either brother, a growing number of dissidents
and human-rights activists on the island may feel emboldened to
press for political freedoms. In 2002, Oswaldo Payá's Varela
Project petitioned the regime to reject socialism. A year later,
Payá unveiled a Plan for a National Dialogue - a roadmap to
elections and a mixed economy. Last year, an unprecedented
dissident assembly took place in Havana. However, these activists
penetrated by state spies and weakened by an apathetic population
accustomed to harsh rule.
Since Castro came to power in 1959, the United States has had few
cards to play. Short of military action, no U.S. policy would (or
will) force change. Such policies must tread a thin line between
gaining influence by dealing with the regime on its terms and being
true to Cuban citizens pressing for freedom. Still, there are ways
to influence the decline of Castro's revolution, but they depend on
timing and patience.
Some useful analysis has already been done. The Bush
Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba last year produced a
comprehensive 400-page report on what Cuba's economy,
infrastructure, and society would need in the event of a transition
toward democracy. This year's report builds on that database.
But hastening a transition is the hard part. Partial trade
sanctions exist alongside aid to dissidents such as independent
journalists, librarians, and human-rights activists. What's missing
is a simple, clear set of incentives for a post-Castro government
to adopt democratic and free-market reforms and one which
encourages follow-on leaders and the Cuban people to put
non-Communists into the government.
The current message to Cuban leaders is: No normal ties until the
Castros are gone and there is democracy and free markets. Not
easily done from one day to the next. Incentives should be more
detailed and recognize baby steps: basic trade relations when
ordinary Cubans may establish and run their own businesses,
diplomatic ties when Cuba celebrates competitive elections and
guarantees certain civil liberties, and no more travel restrictions
when Cubans may travel freely and work where they wish. Such
principles should be communicated to Cuba's leaders, and frequently
broadcast to its citizens over U.S.-sponsored
Radio and TV Martí.
For now, does Castro's latest health crisis signal springtime for
Cuba? Maybe. But even if it is the dictator's last gasp, there's
still a bumpy road ahead. And if the old bully hangs on, you can
bet he loves all the attention.
is senior policy analyst for Latin America in the Davis Institute
for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation.
First Appeared in the National Review Online
On Monday, July 31, Fidel Castro's secretary read a letter in which the 79-year-old Cuban dictator temporarily purports to delegate authority to his brother Raúl Castro, first vice president of the Council of State and minister of the armed forces.
Senior Policy Analyst
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