Cuban dictator Fidel Castro turns 80 years old on August 13th, and will be hosting the September 15-16 annual conference of the so-called Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) in Havana.
On July 26th, the anniversary of the Moncada barracks attack that launched his revolution, the world will be watching very closely for signs of the dictator's mortality. Images of Castro collapsing while making a speech in 2003, falling on stage and breaking his left knee and right arm in 2004, or scoffing at reports by the CIA in 2005 that he suffered from Parkinson's disease, while clearly favoring a limp arm, have been flashing on television screens for several years now.
Friend and foe alike are engaged in a Castro deathwatch, as they speculate about his continued capacity to rule and what will happen to Cuba after his inevitable death or incapacitation. In power for 47 years, he is the longest ruling dictator in Latin American history after the nineteenth-century Brazilian emperor Pedro II, who reigned for 49 years. Three possible post-Castro scenarios currently debated by the experts are: a violent regime change, a transition to democracy, or a dynastic succession.
Regime Change is a possibility since Cuba is one of Freedom House's two not-free countries in the Americas, a State Department country sponsor of terrorism, and in the words of Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes, a "suffocating dictatorship." But after 47 years of one-man rule, a violent overthrow of the dictatorship is highly unlikely. There is no organized armed opposition within Cuba and the repressive state machinery operates effectively against real or potential enemies. The Cuban Armed Forces (FAR) remain loyal after having been purged and are tightly controlled by Casto's brother Raul.
Castro has run terrorist training camps since the 1960s and now has close ties with the Iranian mullahs and Venezuela's Chavez. He received a promise not to invade the island from President Kennedy as part of the deal with the Soviet Union that ended the Missile Crisis of 1962. Since Robert Kennedy's "Operation Mongoose," a failed attempt to eliminate Castro, the U.S. has kept its promise not to invade the island. One main reason is that it has lacked the political will to conduct offensive operations against Cuba despite Castro's decades long anti-American activities and support for terrorism.
The global war on terror, Iraq, the nuclear proliferation issues raised by Iran and North Korea, and the current terrorist attacks against Israel are the hot foreign policy priorities of the Bush Administration. Some feel, therefore, that the U.S. would need to feel directly threatened before considering the use of force against Cuba. So despite U.S. government rhetoric in the July 5th, 2006 report of the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba (CAFC), about liberating Cuba, Castro knows that he will retain power as long as he lives.
A peaceful transition to democracy and a free market economy do not have a tolerable measure of success as long as Fidel is alive. After the disintegration of the Soviet Union, there was hope that Cuba might undergo something similar to the "color" or "flower revolutions" that transformed many of the former Warsaw Pact countries (velvet in the Czech Republic, rose in Georgia, orange in the Ukraine, tulip in Kyrgyzstan).
Unlike the Europeans, however, Cuba's Communist party and security services remain loyal and there is no solidarity movement or opposition leader with a credible plan. Cuban civil society is rather weak and dissidents are unable to work openly and in full coordination. More importantly, the main reason why no color, flower, or cedar revolution will ever occur in Cuba is that Castro and his closest lieutenants studied those events very closely, identified and anticipated the relevant contingencies, and learned how to deal with them.
A dynastic succession based on collective leadership is the most likely unfolding Cuban scenario. Castro wants to retain personal power for as long as he can to protect his dominant position and interests. To accomplish this, first, he has sought close commercial and security ties with China, Venezuela, Bolivia, and even the mullahs of Iran. Next, he organized a succession process. Under Cuban law, the first vice-president of the Council of State, Fidel's brother Raul, assumes the duties of the president. Raul, who turned 75 on June 3, has physical ailments too and there is no clear indication that anyone else has been groomed to replace him.
Recent revelations by Forbes magazine estimating Fidel's personal worth at $900 million and ranking him as the world's seventh richest leader, however, have put a dent on his image and raised the stakes for survival.
So at age 80, the Cuban dictator's place in history, for better or for worse, has already been established. For almost 50 years, the Cuban people have suffered political repression and tyranny under his one-man rule.
Castro's eventual passing, the so-called "biological solution," would constitute good and transformative news for Cuba if progress is made along a range of issues from development of true and honest representative institutions of governance to improvement of the Cuban people's quality of life. The overarching American foreign policy objective should be to pressure the succession regime while encouraging a strong bias among Cuban elites for internally generated democratization, the rule of law, and transparency in reciprocity for graduated normalization of relations with the island.
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