Change by Attrition: The Revolution Dies Hard
Five years ago, hopes were high among Cuba watchers when Raúl Castro officially succeeded Fidel. There was particularly intense speculation about who would be named the next first vice president of the Council of State. Bets focused on two candidates: Carlos Lage Dávila, a bureaucrat in his late fifties, and José Ramón Machado Ventura, an apparatchik in his late seventies who had been a captain in the guerrilla war that brought the revolution to power in 1958. Which of the two men was chosen, observers theorized, would suggest Raúl Castro’s orientation over the next five years and give a clue about whether Cuba’s course would be Raulista (reformist) or Fidelista (status quo).
The answer came when Lage and his friend Felipe Pérez Roque were ousted along with other senior officials. Despite his substantial portfolio—he had initiated a series of reforms that gave standing to small private businesses and had negotiated a supply of subsidized oil from Venezuela—Lage was stigmatized for deviation from communist principles and especially for trying to consolidate a base of personal power. It later emerged that on several occasions he and Roque had mocked the Castros as dinosaurs of a prior age.
In 2008, the international context was different from what it is today. Raúl Castro was attempting a modest rebranding of the Cuban government with the signing of the United Nations human rights covenants in New York. Hugo Chávez had become an inexhaustible source of resources and support for the disastrous economy Fidel had bequeathed to his brother. Barack Obama was emerging as the probable next president of the United States whose election would, according to Raúl’s calculations, increase the chances of ending, or at least relaxing, bilateral differences with the US without requiring that too much would have to be given up. The stakes were raised that same year when three hurricanes lashed the Cuban island, depressing its precarious economy even further.
Still, despite diplomatic encouragement by the new US administration, the Cuban government gave little evidence that it actually wanted a new dynamic. Clinging to a society totally controlled by State Security and a huge army of informers, the Raulistas instead sent a signal of their own in 2009 by arresting American Alan Gross, a subcontractor for the US Agency for International Development, for allegedly passing satellite phones and computers to members of Cuba’s Jewish community.
As the status quo regained its critical mass, Cuba’s democratic opposition increased its activities. Guillermo Fariñas’s hunger strike, activism by the photogenic Ladies in White, and the death of Orlando Zapata Tamayo after his own prolonged hunger strike all combined to create strong internal and external pressure on Raúl’s regime on the issue of political prisoners. A recognition that the situation must be dealt with led the government to enlist the intervention of the Catholic Church as liaison between the regime and the pro-democracy forces.
All during these crises, the government maintained that its “reforms of the economic model,” supported by Venezuelan subsidies, would bring about neo-Castroism at an “adequate” pace, without creating social tensions or breaking continuity with the founding principles of the revolution.
However, the much-publicized transformations of the economy never happened. Foreign investors have not queued up to invest in the Cuban future. First abject economic dependence on Venezuela (an echo of an earlier dependence on the USSR) and then the death of Hugo Chávez, “the brother from the Bolivarian country,” have upset all the nomenklatura’s rosy scenarios for transition without change.
As it confronts what is likely to be a bleak future without the support of Venezuela, which must now turn inward to deal with its own soaring inflation and the legitimacy crisis of Chávez’s successor, Nicolás Maduro, Cuba needs to look once again and more realistically to the US and to what it would take to get a relaxation of economic sanctions. The release of Alan Gross would be a sign of weakness, but it would at least remove one key obstacle in the way of dialogue.
But the regime’s room for effective maneuvers—maneuvers that would give hope for recovery without causing a crisis of legitimacy for the Communists—has narrowed. As all the early expectations created by Raúl Castro fade to black, the government looks for steps it might take to allow Cubans to breathe a little more freely and lower their demands. Relaxing the controls of the iron-fisted travel and migration policy, in hopes of easing the growing shortages suffered by Cubans, is one of the “audacious” steps the regime has taken.
It is also naming “new” figures to fill the senior government posts who are actually part of the ancien régime. One of these, Esteban Lazo, was named president of the National Assembly. Symbolizing everything about the system that is old and unworkable, he will take the reins of an assembly that has never had a contested vote, not even on the very trivial issues which that body is allowed to discuss. Lazo is part of a retaining wall to block any initiative that might arise or come to this governing body.
Substituting Miguel Díaz-Canel for José Ramón Machado Ventura—as first vice president, and presumptive heir—is an attempt to provide a Potemkin succession. Díaz-Canel, younger, obedient, lacking in charisma, and without his own power base, will depend entirely on the consent of an entrenched military apparatus to keep his post. As in the case of Lazo, his appointment is another indication that the old dynamic has not been discarded but merely given a face-lift. Both men will improve the image of the ruling elite but in no way diminish its power or control.
Given the likely governmental schizophrenia that lies ahead—trying to create a narrow opening to the US while also making sure that any change in the upper echelons of government is only cosmetic—the opposition inside Cuba could begin to play a more crucial role. The collaboration among different opposition groups is more cohesive than in the past. The emphasis in recent months has been woven into a campaign called “For Another Cuba,” which demands the ratification and implementation of the United Nations covenants on human rights as the first step in a transition to democracy.
How the opposition plays its cards could influence the form the government’s Plan B ultimately takes when all else fails, as it certainly will. In the near term, however, it can be assumed that the government, looking ahead to the end of the Castros, will continue to assign key positions to its most reliable cadres, people who will guarantee that “neo-Castroism” is the only alternative. It will also try to create the illusion that the faces it presents to the world as its new government are not actually Castroistas in sheep’s clothing.
This narrative of rejuvenation will, however, require an economy that can afford it. And that is the sticking point: How can a completely disjointed and broken economy be repaired without fundamental change? It is hard to see how such a rescue operation could take place without a huge injection of capital, an injection that today could come only from Cuba’s northern neighbor.
The US embargo and the EU’s Common Position are key pieces in the political chess game now taking place behind closed doors in Havana. If the government manages to pull off the magic act of getting the embargo dropped and securing an infusion of resources without first installing the basic reforms that would in effect toss the old regime on the ash heap of history, it would be able to keep its repressive apparatus intact—and we could say goodbye to any dreams of democracy. When I hear several pro-democracy figures advocate an immediate and unconditional end to the US embargo, therefore, I wonder at their naïveté.
If on the other hand the international democratic community signals to the totalitarians in Cuba that ratification and implementation of the fundamental rights set out in the UN covenants is the only path to solving the Cuban dilemma, and if it conditions any measure relaxing the economic sanctions on the fulfillment of those international agreements, it will not take long to see results.
The Cuban government has not been and is not reckless, despite the provocative behavior it engaged in when it sheltered under the Soviet umbrella. The elite want to maintain power, but not a brief, après moi le déluge power that lasts only for their own lifetime, with family and close friends inheriting a wasteland.
The vast majority of the opposition, for its part, continues to hold the line by promoting peaceful change that transitions to a true democracy with the full and absolute respect of individual liberties and that will stand as a moral and political measurement of whatever status quo the government settles on in a desperate attempt to maintain its power.
One subtle sign that this change is on the way, even if there is not immediate economic reform or political liberalization, will be the disappearance of the metaphors of combat as Cuba’s lingua franca: “heroic territorial militias,” “socialism or death,” “impregnable bastions,” etc. These clichés represent the necrosis of Castroism; their disappearance will mean that the head has finally gotten the message that the body of Cuban communism is dead.
Antonio G. Rodiles, a Ph.D. candidate in physics, is a Cuban activist and founder of Havana’s Estado de Sats project.