The news that Fidel Castro was having unspecified intestinal surgery that caused him to hand over formal power to his brother Raul (who is 75) was so fraught with hope that Cuban-Americans in Miami’s Little Havana turned out for a massive street party. That even a rumor of the 79-year-old dictator’s imminent demise would create a surge of joy among decent people is not surprising, but what might a change of power in Cuba really mean? Would there just be “a new boss, same as the old boss”?
Although he is little known outside Cuba — and apparently doesn’t have a high profile inside Cuba either — Raul Castro doesn’t seem a likely candidate to lead a movement toward freedom or democracy. He has been his brother’s right-hand man since the ouster of dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959. Far less charismatic than Fidel, he is reportedly ruthlessly competent. When Fidel deemed that executions, bloodshed and terrorizing latent opposition were deemed necessary to consolidate his power, Raul orchestrated it. In the old days he was viewed as a more ideologically committed communist than Fidel.
When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and cut off its $5 billion to $6 billion per year subsidy to the Cuban regime, the Castro brothers faced a potential crisis. They saw the Chinese experience — where the Communist Party retained absolute political power but allowed some market-oriented economic activity to reverse the economic stagnation socialism always brings — as a possible model. They allowed the formation of some small businesses and encouraged tourism — with the military owning and profiting from most of the tourist facilities. But they kept the quasi-private, commercial sector small and walled off from the rest of the economy.
Whether Fidel is eventually replaced by Raul or by an anonymous collective of gray generals, don’t expect dramatic changes. Mark Falcoff is author of the clear-eyed book, “Cuba, The Morning After: Confronting Castro’s Legacy.” He said when he visited a few years ago, even having pored over economic statistics, he was shocked at how pervasive the poverty was, especially outside Havana, and how the infrastructure has been allowed to crumble.
The most entrepreneurial Cubans have fled the country and those who remain have been indoctrinated for two generations in the evils of capitalism. Even with a freer system, there would not seem to be much willingness on which to build prosperity. One new influence, however, might be from Cubans in Miami. But that’s a long-shot.
Whatever happens, the U.S. government, which has put together a “transition to democracy” project, would do well to tread lightly. Beyond ending the economic embargo — which has been a boon to Castro all these years — our government should have learned that planting democracies in other countries is always more complicated and difficult in reality than it is on paper.