Castro versus Castro
At 83, Fidel Castro remains a powerful force in Cuba, though he's
increasingly at odds with younger Cubans and his brother Raúl
guardian.co.uk, Thursday 13 August 2009 14.00 BST
Fidel Castro, who turns 83 years old today, may no longer be the
president of Cuba, but contrary to his indications at the start of 2009,
he has no intention of slipping away quietly. The question for Cubans
and commentators alike is whether his presence as revered elder
statesman in his brother Raúl Castro's government remains either
relevant, influential or even lasting.
In early January 2009, Fidel wrote that Cuba should not feel bound by
his "occasional Reflections, state of health or [his] death". He noted
that he had "the rare privilege of observing events over such a long
time." "I expect I won't enjoy that privilege in four years, when
Obama's first presidential term has ended," he wrote. "I have reduced
the Reflections as I had planned this year, so I won't interfere or get
in the way of the [communist] party or government comrades in the
constant decisions they must make."
Beware those who take Fidel strictly at his word. Coinciding with his
birthday this week, a new collection of Fidel's thoughts and writings
over the last 50 years has just been published in Cuba. His Reflections
in the state-run Granma newspaper, far from being reduced, have become
increasingly agitated over recent months.
Fidel's latest essay, titled "The yanki bases and Latin American
sovereignty", is a belligerent rant against American imperialist
adventures across the continent. Relying on the well-worn themes of
Latin American liberators who have peppered his psychology and speeches
for over 50 years, the latest references to Bolivar and Martí are not
only surprisingly incoherent at times, but in light of the new economic
crisis facing his country and with a generation of young people who no
longer consider themselves on a constant war footing, the articles
appear strangely out of tune with Cuban reality today.
At a meeting of socialist leaders in Venezuela in April, Fidel's younger
brother Raúl, who formally took over the Cuban presidency in February
2008, declared a willingness to talk to the United States. "Human
rights, press freedom, political prisoners, everything, everything,
everything they want to talk about," he said. Barack Obama's response
was to indicate that relations between the two old enemies might begin
Fidel responded angrily from his Granma platform, announcing that Obama
had misinterpreted his brother's comments and that Cuba would not
concede even minor issues. Notwithstanding his brother's constant and
critical musings concerning Cuba's northern neighbour, last week Raúl
again reiterated that Cuba was prepared to discuss "everything" with the
US, so long as the US was prepared to discuss "everything" with Cuba.
Despite a lifetime of living in the shadow of his brother's "tall tree",
as Castro Senior once described their relationship, it seems as though
Castro Junior is beginning to make his own policy decisions.
This extends to more than just rhetoric. In the course of comments made
last week to the Cuban national assembly, a body that supporters
unrealistically argue lends democracy to the country's electoral system,
Raúl Castro announced that there would be spending cuts in the
"unsustainable" but prized education and health systems of Cuba.
He did not provide any detail of these measures, which are bound to
prove massively unsuccessful in a country that has had to bear decades
of isolation, hardship and basic shortages. The free health and
education systems are the placards upon which the success of the
revolution generally is held.
Many young, urban Cubans, often critical of both Castro brothers and
their stranglehold on the political system, remain fiercely proud of
their state health and education systems, citing statistics about the
number of Cuban doctors being exported to Venezuela and other Latin
American countries. It will become increasingly difficult for the Cuban
government to justify their dictatorship if key planks of their policies
Over the last year, Cubans have often considered themselves protected
from the global financial crisis because of their non-capitalist system.
Now, the impact of the crisis is being felt on their own beleaguered
economy: Major food stores are temporarily closing in the urban centres,
oil and electricity shortages lead factories to close early and severe
restrictions are being placed on air conditioners as the summer heat
rips through the island. Rationing remains in place.
Memories of the so-called "special period" during the 1990s, when the
country underwent severe hardships following the collapse of the Soviet
Union and its accompanying handouts, are not yet distant, and the
ravages of three hurricanes, which caused an estimated $10bn worth of
damage last summer, remain fresh in Cuban minds. In these difficult and
worsening conditions, and with many Cuban youngsters increasingly
viewing Fidel Castro as an irrelevancy in their lives, it will be
surprising if murmurs of dissent do not become louder.
They are unlikely, however, to lead to an internal uprising. Across the
straits in Washington, thinktanks will know that the Cuban political
system has weathered many a storm before. Previous US presidents have
hoped unsuccessfully that crushing Cuba's economy, by whatever means,
will bring down Fidel. They have been proven wrong.
For decades, the revolution has been carried by a wave of popular
support. The great irony is that, at the height of its popularity, the
revolution probably would have been sanctioned by democratic victory,
had Fidel gone to the polls – not unlike the Allende government in Chile.
But, almost certainly because of the almost-complete block on relations
between the US and Cuba, there has never been a known attempted coup,
whether supported by the US or otherwise. Raúl has commanded the army
with unprecedented levels of support in Latin America. For that reason
alone, another revolution is not yet brewing in Cuba, no matter how
discontented its inhabitants are.
It's true that Raúl has never inspired the devotion that Fidel has
instilled in many of his admirers. Historically he has been feared as
being merciless and cold-blooded. He became infamous for refusing to
tolerate "ideological diversionism" since the early 1970s. However, over
the last decade, as the inevitable transition of power from the older to
the younger brother has taken place, he has stepped back from his
uncompromising image. In courting some form of positive relationship
with the Americans, many Cubans believe that Raúl is practical and
willing to engage in market reform.
For now, however, Raúl has warned Cubans that they must work harder.
They have heard this mantra many times before, from Fidel. Raúl has
stated categorically that the political and social system built during
50 years of Cuban struggle will continue long after the death of his
older brother. Raúl said last week that he was not "elected president to
return capitalism to Cuba", nor "to surrender the revolution". He told
the assembly that he was "elected to defend, build and perfect
socialism, not destroy it".
When Fidel first came to power, he warned that if he were assassinated,
those that came behind him carried even more hardline zeal. Far from
being the soft touch that some predicted, Raúl Castro is allowing his
brother to limp back from the limelight with dignity, but he is
fundamentally unyielding to his brother's ideals. He may be willing to
make some compromises to ensure that the Cuban suffering can be
alleviated where possible, but the Cuban political system is not about
The real danger to Fidel's ideology, and to his Cuban revolution, will
be if Raúl, aged 78, becomes infirm or dies. No one has been groomed
properly to take over the country. No credible internal opposition party
exists. A power vacuum at that stage will almost guarantee interference
from Washington, notwithstanding Obama's overtures. On his 83rd
birthday, Fidel Castro will blow out his candles, wishing for his
brother's good health.
Castro versus Castro | Schona Jolly | guardian.co.uk (13 August 2009)