Posted on Wed, Jan. 24, 2007
What will Castro's death bring to Cuba?
BY NINA KHRUSHCHEVA
The death watch for Fidel Castro is something that only Gabriel García
Márquez could get right. The author's novel Autumn of the Patriarch
captures perfectly the moral squalor, political paralysis and savage
ennui that enshrouds a society awaiting the death of a long-term
dictator. Comandante Fidel's departure from power, of course, will be
solely a matter of biology, and the few pictures of him that have
emerged since he took ill last year clearly show biology at work.
When the end comes, change in Cuba could be as vast as any that greeted
the end of the last century's great dictators. Stalin, Franco, Tito,
Mao: All were mostly alike in their means and methods, but how they
passed from the scene was very different, and these differences can
shape societies for years and decades to come.
• Consider the Soviet Union. On March 9, 1953, from the Gulf of Finland
to the Bering Sea, everything stood still; likewise in Warsaw, Budapest,
Prague and East Berlin. In Beijing, Mao Zedong himself bowed before an
immense effigy of Joseph Stalin. Huge mourning crowds, crying, nearly
hysterical, could be seen all over the vast empire Stalin had ruled.
Yet, within days, the word Stalinism was being expunged from a new
Soviet dictionary, and three years later my grandfather, Nikita
Khrushchev, denounced Stalin's ''cult of personality'' in his famous
''Secret Speech'' to the Communist Party's 20th Congress. The Khrushchev
thaw that followed may have been short-lived, but for the first time in
Soviet history the possibility of change was opened — a possibility
that Mikhail Gorbachev seized upon in 1985.
• Yugoslavia: Marshal Josip Broz Tito's death brought forth an
outpouring of another sort. For decades, his personal rule imposed a
false unity on Yugoslavia; following his death in 1980, that artificial
state began to unravel, culminating in the genocidal wars of state
succession in Bosnia, Croatia, and Kosovo in the 1990s.
Not all long-term dictatorships, however, end in disintegration and mayhem.
• China: Mao's death brought Deng Xiaoping's return from disgrace and
internal exile. Deng quickly routed Mao's ''Gang of Four'' heirs, and in
only a few years opened China's economy, fueling a capitalist revolution
that has transformed China far more completely — and successfully than
Mao's socialist revolution ever did.
• Spain: When Generalissimo Francisco Franco's fascist dictatorship
collapsed at his death, Spain, too, escaped violent dissolution. Here
the old dictator could take some credit, for by reestablishing the
monarchy under King Juan Carlos just before he died, Franco provided
Spain with a foundation on which to build anew. With the help of a
clever young Franco-era bureaucrat named Adolfo Suárez, Juan Carlos
built the modern, democratic Spain of today.
What about Cuba?
So what will become of Cuba after Fidel departs? Many observers have
portrayed Raúl Castro, Fidel's brother and designated heir, as a
pragmatist — the ''practical Castro.'' When Cuba's Soviet subsidies
vanished in the early '90s, it was Raúl who recognized that the regime's
survival required economic reforms, pressing to reopen private
agricultural markets to boost food production and stave off possible
However, it was also Raúl who, as the head of Cuba's internal-security
apparatus, for many years represented the knuckles of an iron-fisted
regime, directly responsible for imprisoning — and often torturing —
thousands of dissidents. So perhaps the best that could be hoped for is
a Russian-style experiment with liberalization that is quickly called
off by the regime's nervous Old Guard.
Moreover, with the support of oil-rich allies like Venezuela's President
Hugo Chávez — and the recent discovery of significant crude reserves
off Cuba's own coast — reform could become less urgent. In that case,
Raúl might cling grimly to the oppressive, fossilized system that he
helped build and maintain with such brutality.
But Raúl is an old man himself, so we should look further ahead to the
prospect that some Deng or, better yet, a Suárez will ultimately emerge.
For now, that appears unlikely. Younger communist officials, like
Foreign Minister Felipe Pérez Roque, remain ideological hard-liners whom
many Cubans call los Talibán. If they assume control and stick to their
guns, Cuba could face another long biology lesson.
Nina Khrushcheva is a professor of international affairs at New School
University. Her book Imagining Nabokov will be published by Yale
University Press this autumn.
©2007 Project Syndicate