The Debilitating Legacy of Fidel: A Report from Havana
By William Ratliff on Nov 16, 2013 | In Foreign Policy, Politics
Having travelled extensively to Cuba, Vietnam and China, Mr. Ratliff
compares the cultural and institutional factors of Cuba to other nations
as a guidepost of what lies ahead for the people of Cuba.
Is Raúl Castro simply a clone of his elder brother Fidel? Solving that
evolving puzzle may be a step toward ending one of the most prolonged
and divisive disputes in U.S. foreign policy today, though neither a
positive nor negative conclusion justifies a continuation of the current
During the Cold War, trying to isolate Cuba served American security
interests because Cuba was the most important ally of the Soviet bloc in
the Western Hemisphere. But since the fall of the Soviet Union, U.S.
policy toward Cuba has focused on “nation building” and agitation to
improve lives for Cubans and overthrow the Castros. Analysts who reject
those as adequate grounds for a legitimate policy, as I do, can also
critique what Washington is doing on its own terms: has it been
successful in nation building or ousting the Castros? No.
The first challenge is to see if Raúl’s reforms since taking the top
political offices between 2006 and 2008 have really begun to change
conditions on the island. The best Cuban exile experts disagree.
Economist Carmelo Mesa-Lago has called the reforms “the most extensive
and profound” changes on the island in decades, though still inadequate,
whereas journalist Carlos Alberto Montaner calls them “token gestures.”
Raúl and the Cuban Communist Party (CCP) speak only of “updating the
economic model.” At best, this a ploy to mask criticism of Fidel’s
decades of economic failures while undertaking serious reforms. At
worst, it is a fraud for policies truly intended only to apply bandages
to policies recently characterized as Frankenstein’s “monsters”; they
are welcome but in the end non-starters.
Changes and Conditions
I surveyed Raúl’s specific policy responses to Cuba’s challenges earlier
this year in an essay entitled “Cuba’s Tortured Transition”
(http://www.independent.org/newsroom/article.asp?id=3541). After a
two-week visit to Cuba in mid-year, my sixth since 1983, I will here
focus on the individual, cultural, and institutional factors that
promote or impede substantive reform in the years ahead.
If Cuban leaders were free to think outside the socialist box, their
best reform model would be Taiwan, where an authoritarian regime created
a balanced and productive market economy and cultivated a democratic
political system. Realistically, however, Cuba will not take this route
under its current leadership, and thus its more likely near-term models
are allies China and Vietnam. Former high-level Cuban officials who
worked closely with Raúl and later coauthored articles with me affirm
the younger Castro’s standing interest in systematic, long-term economic
reforms in the direction of those undertaken by these Asian allies.
Raúl’s current heir apparent, Vice President Miguel Diaz-Canel, visited
both countries in June.
The Castros have never respected individual rights, though they claim to
do so with education and preventive health programs for all. But in
these and other socio-economic fields Cuba rated high among Latin
American nations before the Castros arrived, though with an imbalance
between urban and rural sectors. Under the Castros Cuba has fallen in
the regional rankings. The United Nations Development Programme’s 2013
Human Development Index rates Cuba fifty-ninth in the world and sixth in
Latin America, a respectable but not stunning record. The 2013 Human
Rights Watch World Report concluded that Cuba “represses virtually all
forms of political dissent” and economic freedoms are just beginning to
sprout in a system recently branded “handcuffed capitalism.”
Frankenstein in Havana
Cuban professor Carlos Alzugaray has underlined the gravity of Cuba’s
current economic problems by using what he calls the “Frankenstein
metaphor.” Speaking in June at Stanford University, he said Fidel’s
economic policies were meant to be a gift to mankind, like
Frankenstein’s creature. But like the creature they turned out to be
“monsters.” Though Alzugaray did not openly criticize “Father” Fidel, he
noted the latter’s debilitating insistence on state control of all
economic policy and his long opposition to the free markets, individual
initiative, and entrepreneurship.
Fidel’s freely chosen economic plan was, over the course of a
half-century, uniformly disastrous in terms of political freedoms and
economic development. From the 1960s on, Fidel’s policies paralyzed the
Fidel Castro was one of modern history’s most arrogant leaders. He never
learned about economic realities or human nature from his own studies or
disastrous policy failures, nor from the collapse of his late allies in
the Soviet bloc or his current friends in China and Vietnam. Fidel
himself sometimes acknowledged that markets could be more economically
productive than socialism, but only at the expense of “social justice.”
Yet as Juan Antonio Rodríguez Menier and I show in our book Inside the
Cuban Interior Ministry, some of Fidel’s policies deliberately limited
economic growth simply because that kept Cubans more dependent on
himself and his government.
Fidel’s Cuba is a case study in the tragic waste of opportunity and life
that is inevitable under a Caudillo Messiah with a paternalist utopian
domestic agenda and an expansive revolutionary international policy.
Thus a key question today for Cubans is, what direction can the country
take now that Fidel’s role is at the least very much reduced?
Raúl on Fidel’s Monsters
The most influential expert witness on Cuba’s economic condition today
is Raúl, historically the more pragmatic of the brothers. Since taking
power he has often critiqued deeply ingrained attitudes that have kept
Cubans from openly recognizing, confronting and resolving problems.
In 2011, he said bluntly that changing Cuba would depend on
“transforming erroneous and unsustainable concepts about socialism,
deeply rooted in broad sectors of the public for years, as a result of
the excessive paternalistic, idealistic, and egalitarian focus that the
Revolution adopted in the interest of social justice.” After a visit to
Cuba last year the head of the Vietnamese Communist Party, one of Cuba’s
oldest and closest allies, said publicly that what the Cuban people need
most is “a change of mentality at all levels, from the highest level to
the grassroots.” Colleagues at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences
have said the same for more than a decade.
As soon as he took over in 2006 Raúl proclaimed, ”We’re tired of excuses
in this revolution!” Cubans, he warned, must “erase forever the notion
that Cuba is the only country in the world where one can live without
working.” Shouting slogans and scapegoating will no longer do, he has
said repeatedly. The farmland is there waiting to be cultivated, and
jobs of all sorts are waiting to be created and done.
One of Raúl’s most revealing critiques emphasizes the challenge of
simply getting things done when people have little motivation and a weak
work ethic. He relates that decades ago Vietnamese leaders asked Cubans
to teach them how to grow coffee, which Cubans did. Vietnam soon became
the second largest coffee exporter in the world and a high Vietnamese
official asked, incredulously, “How is it possible that you taught us to
grow coffee and now you are buying coffee from us?”
Raúl has not fully owned up to the depth of the country’s problems,
however, for he has downplayed the impact of Hispanic tradition. Fidel
and his late acolyte Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez are just the most
recent in a centuries-long parade of Latin American caudillos or
dictators who have proclaimed themselves Messiahs and thus been welcomed
or tolerated in societies that traditionally looked to paternalistic
leaders. But the Castros squandered a half century, during which the
Asian “tigers” demonstrated development prospects in the mid-20th
century, and like most Latin caudillos they left their “children” in
most ways far worse off than they found them.
Fidel’s Independence Fraud
One of Fidel’s proudest, most widely accepted and dishonest claims was
that he finally made Cuba independent. True, under his leadership the
island became a militant enemy of its dominant neighbor the United
States, and he even sometimes bit the Soviet hand that fed him. But
economically Cuba was always on the dole to foreigners who in various
forms often sent him a quarter of the country’s annual GDP.
Thus the Soviet bloc subsidized Cuba throughout the Cold War, and when
the bloc collapsed and aid stopped in the early 1990s Cuba’s economy
crashed utterly. Thereafter Fidel arranged generous support from Chavez,
China, and even indirectly from the United States, the latter allowing
extensive trade in foodstuffs as a humanitarian gesture outside the
embargo. Direct “aid” came from Cuban-Americans whom Fidel always called
“worms,” who sent and still send remittances that, according to
differing calculations, are today either the main source of foreign
exchange revenue for the state or greater than all other sources combined.
Slogans, challenges, and the future
Despite Raúl’s rhetoric, however, the official vocal enthusiasm for
socialism is as alive as ever. Buildings and roadsides in the cities and
countryside are plastered with slogans like: “The Revolution Moves
Ahead, Vigorous and Victorious”; “This is the Hour of Our True
Greatness”; and “United, Vigilant and Combative in Defending Socialism.”
Stultifying Cuban publications constantly rehash the great “triumphs”
and heroes of decades ago when in fact those events and people were the
chief reasons Cuba now has so many seemingly intractable problems.
As in the past, the most omnipresent image in Cuba is that of Che
Guevara, the supposedly selfless “new man” who lauded moral over
material incentives and was often even more violent, stubborn, and
utopian than Fidel. His image is everywhere. Almost all postcards for
sale across the island feature Che, but the most absurd and jarring
adulation is the 120-foot-high “silhouette-outline” of him on the
Ministry of the Interior building in Revolutionary Square. In truth,
after 1959 Che was much more useful to Fidel and the Revolution dead
than alive. First, he wasn’t around long enough to seriously challenge
Fidel, who never tolerated competition. Like the men and maidens on
Keats’s Grecian Urn, he “survived” in mythology and the unchanging
glamorous photos of the forever-macho young hero in his prime rather
than as the loser he really was from Cuba to the Congo to his death in
So contradictions and inconsistencies abound in Cuba today, and Raúl and
his cohorts send mixed messages to the Cuban people and the world about
their intentions and the island’s prospects. Does Raúl really support
serious reform? Is he being sabotaged by middle-level bureaucrats and
surviving ideologues, including Fidel? Is he being thwarted by rampant
corruption at all levels of society? Are enough of the Cuban people
willing to work hard and long enough to build and sustain a new economy
and life if given the chance to do so? In the words of one of the most
popular pre-revolutionary songs heard around the island, “Perhaps,
Raúl’s reforms to date fall far short of what China and Vietnam have
done and what is needed to bring Cuba into the economically developing
world. Even so, more Cubans are moving in the right direction now than
at any previous time in the past half-century. The bottom line for U.S.
policy should be to let Cubans resolve their own domestic problems as
best they can without frictions deliberately generated from abroad.
A version of this article ran in the Hoover Institution’s Defining Ideas.
Source: “The Debilitating Legacy of Fidel: A Report from Havana” –