Change by Attrition: The Revolution Dies Hard / Antonio Rodiles
Posted on July 24, 2013
From World Affairs
By Antonio Rodiles
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
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
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.
July/August 2013 Issue of World Affairs
Source: “Change by Attrition: The Revolution Dies Hard / Antonio Rodiles
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