COMMENT & ANALYSIS: The illusion of Cuba's caudillo
By Christopher Caldwell, Financial Times
Published: Feb 23, 2008
When Ernest Hemingway survived a plane crash in Uganda in 1954, he was
able to read his own obituaries. A similar diversion may await Fidel
Castro, the ailing Cuban leader, who has not been seen in public since
mid-2006. This week the state organ, Granma, published a letter of
resignation under Mr Castro's name. It ceded power to his brother, Raúl.
The news has disgorged thousands of column-inches that had been stored
up on the assumption that only death would end the iron rule that Fidel
has exercised since 1959.
The passing of his regime seems less epochal than the retirement of Mr
Castro himself. In an era when politicians build résumés, he had
exploits. The Moncada Barracks, the Sierra Maestra, the Playa Girón . .
. for a generation, otherwise indifferent people in countries far more
important than Cuba knew these places and what they stood for. You could
imagine Schiller writing a dramatic poem called "Fidel Castro". "Hero"
is the only word to describe his status in the eyes of most political
radicals for the past half-century. What, if anything, did this heroism
Many accounts this week cited the Castro regime's economic achievements.
That is the wrong place to look. "Progress in healthcare was real,"
pronounced a leader in The Guardian. But as the pre-emptive tone
betrays, Cuba is not the sort of society in which accurate statistics
can be obtained or trustworthy interviews conducted. Elsewhere The
Guardian cited the "gratitude" for the revolution of citizens who did
not dare give their names. Final verdicts on all sorts of matters – from
infant mortality to racial equality – will have to await the passing of
the Castro regime.
Jorge I. Domínguez, the Harvard scholar, noted in 1993 that Mr Castro
had taken an unusual lesson from the fall of communism in eastern
Europe. It could be summed up in the words: do not reform. After briefly
allowing human-rights groups to flourish in the 1980s, Mr Castro brought
them to heel. People sit in jails for promoting democracy. You can be
arrested for watching American commercial television or having an
illegal internet connection. Dissenters are watched by networks of
neighbourhood informants and beaten up by gangs in pseudo-spontaneous
"acts of repudiation". Yet Cuba, Mr Domínguez astutely wrote, may have
felt freer than it was. There has always been a modest space for Cubans
to criticise "specific malperforming services", as long as they do not
criticise the revolution itself.
This may have seemed a reasonable bargain half a century ago. Cuba
seemed to have found an alternative to US exploitation and (it being the
Jim Crow era) racism. But when the Soviet Union began to insist on hard
currency for its exports in the early 1990s, Cuba turned into a basket
case. People worked by candlelight and in restaurants the silverware was
chained to the tables. Cuba turned into a country that thousands risked
their lives to flee on homemade rafts. Economic backwardness is no
crime, but in this case it called Mr Castro's bluff. Cuba was never a
proud, independent socialist paragon. It had been a rented military base
of the Soviet empire. (Khrushchev excluded Mr Castro from all important
decision-making during the "Cuban" missile crisis.) All Mr Castro had
done was to swap masters.
Today Cuba is the junior partner in a variety of demeaning
relationships. Hugo Chávez, the Venezuelan strongman, gives Cuba $6bn
(£3bn) worth of oil a year in exchange for doctors and political
organisers. Those who have escaped Cuba pour remittances into the
country out of pity for those left behind. Cuba rails against the US
trade embargo imposed in 1962. But having won exemptions to it in 2000,
Cuba now finds itself dependent on US food products. Having made
prostitution a symbol of the corruption it overthrew, the government now
tolerates jineteras as a way of bringing in hard currency.
Mr Castro's foes abroad tried to demean him as little more than a
classic Latin American caudillo , or strongman. But that was the heart
of his achievement. There is an odd and enduring problem in Cuban
history that lends itself to strongmen: the country's material
well-being and the freedom of its individual citizens have long been at
odds with its self-determination. No one can say that Mr Castro, in
making the latter his priority, was choosing the easier route.
Sovereignty, not socialism, was at the heart of Mr Castro's appeal
around the world.
But it was an illusion. And Mr Castro left his country with special
problems in an age of globalisation. As the essayist Carlos Alberto
Montaner wrote this week, while the charisma of Mr Castro may be unique,
the material failures of Cuba are unique, too. "Almost all those long
tyrannies – Stroessner in Paraguay, Somoza in Nicaragua, Trujillo in the
Dominican Republic – were corrupt and cruelly tormented societies," Mr
Montaner wrote, "but they left behind countries that were richer and
better equipped than those they began with."
Mr Castro, by contrast, put his island in a position where a government
that cannot control everything cannot control anything. If the Cuban
regime cannot withstand US television shows, how will it withstand
trade? If the country's 65,000 physicians are as good as its propaganda
claims, how will it retain them when there is freedom of movement? The
daily Folha de São Paolo reported this week that Brazil's leader, Luiz
Inácio Lula da Silva, has been advising Raúl Castro against the
temptation to follow the "Chinese model" of opening up the economy
without releasing the ruling party's grip on political life.
Such reports show Fidel Castro's claim that Cuban socialism is
"irrevocable" to be an Ozymandian boast. As Cuba modernises, its
economic model will be the first thing to go.
The writer is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard