As these lines are written, Cuban dictator and world-class human-rights violator Fidel Castro lies in a hospital bed after surgery for internal bleeding. The resulting media sensation underscores a remarkable paradox: Although Cuba is supposed to be a Communist state (one of the genre's last surviving examples), at this point it more nearly resembles a Caribbean dictatorship of the old-fashioned kind, where one man (and to some extent his family) make all the decisions, large and small.
In fact, the only question on the table is whether Castro himself--nearly 80 years old and semi-senile--manages to recover and continues to rule, or whether he expires and his brother Raúl assumes the reins of power.
Though Castro's health crisis has unleashed understandable anticipation in the Miami exile community, there is little reason to expect that his disappearance will make much of a difference, at least in the foreseeable future.
For some time now, Cuba has been undergoing a quiet transition toward what might be called raulismo--that is, a succession under Castro's brother. Raúl already controls the military, the interior ministry (the police) and indirectly, many ministries and state enterprises, where he has placed his own people (in a few cases, his relatives and in-laws).
Raúl also inherits the stabilizing force provided (ironically enough) by the 1994 migration agreements with the United States, which assure the export of 20,000 unhappy Cubans a year. As of now, the island holds 250,000 fewer potential dissidents than it did 12 years ago, and many others who are fed up with Castro's version of Communism are lining up at the U.S. Interests Section to follow them.
To be sure, Raúl is no Fidel. He is quite possibly the most charmless man in Cuba--charismatically challenged, a poor public speaker, married to a harridan who as president of the Federation of Cuban Women is equally despised by ordinary Cubans. He himself is supposed to be in indifferent health, so much so that until yesterday many Cuba watchers wondered if he would expire before his older brother.
But it is possible to underestimate his staying power, his organizational talents and his realism. He would probably rule in a more-or-less collective fashion, possibly pushing forward a civilian like Foreign Minister Felipe Pérez Roque or Ricardo Alarcón, president of Cuba's rubber-stamp parliament, as a kind of prime minister presentable (and, unfortunately, acceptable) in European and Latin American capitals.
None of this would mean substantive change for the island, either in politics or economics, much less human rights.
Some think otherwise. They point to Raúl's role in forcing Fidel to accept some modest economic reforms in the mid '90s, when the country almost collapsed after the withdrawal of the $6 billion-a-year subsidy from the former Soviet Union. But times have changed: The revenue stream produced by an opening to foreign tourism a decade ago has encouraged the regime to withdraw many of the modest concessions to the market it made in extremis.
As if that were not enough, Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chávez--who regards himself as the Castro brothers' special friend--has reinforced this trend by regaling the island with 90,000 barrels of oil a day. Only about 50,000 are needed; the rest get sold on the world market for hard currency.
As for human rights, it's worth noting that Raúl joined the Cuban Communist Party and made pilgrimages to the police states of Eastern Europe in the 1940s--long before his brother revealed his preference for Marxism-Leninism. For decades now, one of his portfolios has included Cuba's deplorable prison system, so vividly described by survivors like Armando Valladares, Ana Rodríguez and Reinaldo Arenas.
Until fairly recently, it was probably true that normalizing relations with the United States--at least getting the existing trade and travel embargo lifted--was Cuba's No. 1 foreign-policy priority. This may no longer be the case. The combination of tourist revenues and Chávez's gifts of oil have relieved the regime of its most pressing necessities.
Indeed, Raúl Castro warned Washington as long ago as 2003 that it had best make its peace with his older brother now, since later it would supposedly be more difficult for the two countries to settle their differences. What could he have meant? Perhaps nothing more than that, as long as there is a Castro on the scene, Cubans would be well advised to postpone any hopes they might have for a better future.
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