Cuba after Castro
The familiar bearded face gazes out from a billboard over a sunlit old Havana beside the reassuring slogan Vamos bien. Close by, another poster wishes the world’s longest-serving leader a happy birthday and calls for “another 80’’ years.
Now, however, for the first time since he led his rebel army into Havana in 1959, the man who epitomises Cuba has stepped down, albeit temporarily.
So what does the future hold for the island after Fidel Castro? The illness that has laid Fidel low has not come as a complete surprise.
Even in a country that has its own 120 Club for those who reach that remarkable age, it has been accepted that the days of Fidel would one day end. But for many it is hard to envisage a future without the man who has been the father of the nation for longer than most Cubans have been alive.
His speeches may have been shorter—a mere two or three hours—of late but even in the past month he has been almost as prominent as ever. On July 26 he addressed 100Â 000 people in eastern Cuba and mocked the United States’s newly published plans to replace him. His image, in battledress, fist clenched, beside two comrades in arms, still acts as the logo for the national daily, Granma. His current call for a “battle of ideas’’ appears, with his photo, on the front page of the other daily, Juventud Rebelde, aimed at young Cubans.
“That, my friend, is the billion- dollar question,” says Rafael, a middle-aged Cuban mechanic, when asked “what happens after Fidel?’’—an inquiry that was already being made in anticipation of his 80th birthday on August 13.
“Already you see businessmen coming over from Miami,” Rafael says. “They are not dummies, they know what may happen and they want to plant the seeds now and harvest them later. But we are not illiterate like we were before. We don’t want Miami here. Things are hard, things are difficult, but people are educated now and the people in Miami, they have been away so long they don’t know that ... But I hope we can change without any bloodshed.”
Diplomats in Cuba point to the increasing frequency with which Raul Castro, Fidel’s brother who has temporarily taken over the presidency, has been appearing in the Cuban media as a sign that the changeover has long been planned. Within the government the official position is that there will be a seamless transition and a continuation of the socialist policies so fiercely preserved by Fidel for all those years.
Even some of those who hope to see an end to all the Castros think that change will be gradual rather than the sudden shift desired by the hardline Cuban exiles in Miami.
Brian Latell, former CIA analyst on Cuba and author of the book After Fidel, believes that Raul “is likely to be more flexible and compassionate in power’‘.
But Raul is 75 and many anticipate that his leadership will be nominal or short-lived. The three other—younger—names most frequently mentioned as likely to take over the running of government are those of Ricardo Alarcon (69), president of the National Assembly, former United Nations ambassador and the most public face of the government; Carlos Lage (54), the vice-president; and Felipe Perez Roque, the 41-year-old foreign relations minister and Castro’s loyal former chief of staff.
There have been, according to Fabian Escalante, former head of the Cuban secret service, 638 plots to kill Castro, not to mention the many plans—of which the abortive Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961 is the best-known—to remove his government by force. Last month, the US government published a report by its Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba, which appeared to seek change in a non- violent way, with $80-million assigned for the purpose, but which included a secret classified annexe “for reasons of national security’‘.
“You may assume that what is there [in the annexe]—or they want you to assume that what is there—has to do with military intervention,’’ Alarcon says.
He is sanguine about what he calls the “classic question’’ of what happens after Castro although he says the US clearly considers military intervention a possibility. “I am sure many people would laugh at the idea that they would propose now to get involved in another foreign military adventure. At the same time, they haven’t changed an iota,’’ he says. “The American government has said that they do not accept the Cuban laws about succession. Now the only way you can substitute yourself as the sovereign of another country is by war. They keep insisting that they will not accept the succession strategy here. That proposition in itself is a threat.’’ The US, however, is playing down any notion of military intervention.
Those loyal to the government say its policies will survive any changes at the top. They point to the much-admired health service and an education system that has brought the country the highest literacy rates in Latin America.
Ernesto Fernandez is 28 and a member of the national bureau of the Union of Young Communists, which, he says, has 604Â 000 members, encompassing 25% of Cubans between the ages of 15 and 30. He says he does not believe that the country will see massive change as happened in 1989 in eastern Europe. “We are different from the Soviet Union, there the system had stagnated.” He cites the recruitment of 28Â 000 youthful “social workers’’ to various projects from fighting corruption to encouraging people to use environmentally friendly lightbulbs as a sign of the next generation of revolutionaries.
Other young Cubans are less enthusiastic. “Tito’’ (28) says: “If someone sees me talking to you they will come and ask what were you talking to him about. You cannot speak freely. Many of us would like to go, not to Florida, but maybe to Canada or somewhere in Europe. Here there is no money to buy things, we are dependent on people sending us money for shoes and clothes.”
Others foresee a different Cuba, one in which the Communist Party has no part. One of the most prominent of these is Osvaldo Paya, who launched the Varela Project in 2002, which called for freedom of elections, speech and association and the ability to start private businesses. “There are more than 300 political prisoners in Cuba today,’’ Paya says. “It’s difficult to say exactly what the offences are, but it can be just for being critical of Fidel Castro.
“More than 20 leaders of our movement [the Christian Liberation Movement] are in prison and many other activists are also. The repression against the Varela Project [named after Felix Varela, a 19th-century Cuban independence advocate] is because they understood that people had lost their fear so we became a symbol of hope.’‘
The Cuban government describes Paya and the prisoners he refers to as “so-called dissidents’’ and claims they are paid for and inspired by the US. They argue that no country can tolerate agents of a foreign power undermining it, particularly when it is debilitated by the US embargo.
Paya denies he is paid for by the US—“we have family and friends who send money. Millions of Cubans get money this way, it’s the country’s major income.’’ He opposes the US blockade. “The embargo has been maintained for many years and it is not contributing to any changes, but many people only want to talk about the embargo and not about human rights for Cuban people.’‘
He says some of the exiles are angry that the project does not favour the reacquisition of property left behind. “We don’t want a grand privatisation like in Russia,’’ he says. “We don’t want the poor becoming poorer and a nomenklatura in power. We want to keep the health service free and education free. This programme destroys the myth that we have to choose between socialism and freedom.’‘
Between those who seek a continuation of the government and those who seek total change are those loyal to Castro and what has been achieved but who have complaints about the way the country is run. One teacher says: “There is too much centralisation and there are too many restrictions—for instance, I am not even allowed to sell my car to anyone. But I would still fight to the death for the revolution.’’—Â