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    Cuba after Fidel: stability, movement, reform

    Cuba after Fidel: stability, movement, reform
    Antoni Kapcia
    Where is Raúl Castro taking Cuba after his brother Fidel's retirement,
    and how will the Cuban "system" as well its people respond? Antoni
    Kapcia assesses the prospects in light of the fifty-year history of the
    22 – 05 – 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.

    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

    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

    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.

    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

    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
    eological 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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