When it's cigar and slippers time

June 4, 2004

In the second of our series on democracy around the world, Huw Richards explores the political portents for a post-Castro Cuba

Well-informed Miami sources announced the imminent fall of Fidel Castro, who would collapse in a matter of hours." So records Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano, setting the scene for the 1962 World Cup in his remarkable episodic football history, El Fútbol a Sol y Sombra ( Soccer in Sun and Shadow ).

That this exact passage recurs eight more times in a narrative running through to 1994 conveys wry Latin American amusement at the staying power of an island regime that has withstood more than 40 years of sanctions from the superpower less than 160km from its coast and has seen off nine US presidents. Among heads of state, only the Queen, similarly unelected except in Australia, has been around longer than Castro.

Few are neutral on the subject of Cuba. Even within the US government there are profound disagreements - the announcement of new sanctions last month coincided with leaked comments from advisers close to Colin Powell, the US secretary of state, that the long economic siege of Cuba was probably the least successful US policy ever.

David Brighty, the former British ambassador to Cuba and an associate fellow at the University of London's Institute of Latin American Studies, had his first Havana posting early in his career in the first half of the 1960s. "There was a real sense of excitement and a fascination with how it was going to turn out. Fidel was a glamorous figure, an icon for much of the left and not yet a hate figure for the right. Che Guevara was still a minister, and there was a real sense of promise about everything," he says.

Castro is still there, but the sense of excitement has long since evaporated. Richard Gott - another ILAS associate, whose New History of Cuba will be published in the autumn - points to one of the ironies this has created: "If you're conservative and appreciate stability, Havana is perfect since there is very little there that wasn't there half a century ago."

And while Castro remains an icon of sorts, at 77 he hardly represents youthful glamour. "This is his tragedy. He has become a force for immobility. After 45 years of almost total power, he isn't going to say, 'Perhaps I got it wrong - central planning and isolation weren't the right way.' Where he was once the solution, he is now the problem - and it is hard to see there being any real change while he is still around," Brighty says.

Antoni Kapcia, professor of Latin American history at Nottingham University, notes that Castro, always conscious of his place in history, has appeared much more aware of his mortality in the past decade but still shows no sign of giving into it. "My guess is that if he can, he'll want to hang on to become head of the Non-Aligned Movement in two years' time. That lasts for three years, and I can't see him readily giving up the chance to be, in effect, head of the third world," he says. Five more years would also complete a scarcely conceivable 50 years in power, following on from the flight of Fulgencio Batista in January 1959.

Castro's designated successor is his brother Raul, who has been minister of defence for four decades. But at just three years younger than Castro himself, he is unlikely to be a long-term leader. So what then?

Laurence Whitehead, fellow in politics at Nuffield College, Oxford, and a specialist in democratisation, recently published an article on Cuban political exceptionalism. He warns: "You can't fit Cuba into other patterns. It has consistently been out of synch with other countries - staying a colony when other Spanish possessions were getting their independence in the 19th century and adjusting in the early 1990s when other communist regimes were collapsing. If it ceases to be communist, whether in 2006 or 2020 or any other year, it will be very different to undergoing that process in 1991."

Kapcia draws on his own Polish origins to make a similar point: "There is no real comparison between Cuba now and Poland in 1989. While the level of participation in political activities expected of Cubans is coercive and exhausting, it does mean that the system picks up and responds to problems much more readily. And where Polish nationalism was anti-Soviet, Cuban nationalism is anti-American. You can argue about whether or not Castro has used the American siege to justify authoritarianism, but it has certainly led many Cubans to give him the benefit of the doubt."

He also says that the focus on Castro has led many observers to miss the extent of change already accomplished. Gott, too, argues: "They have had their crisis already, when the Russians withdrew support in the early 1990s and they had to recast their economy. Standards of living are lower than they were in the 1980s, but they have been recovering steadily since the early 1990s."

Both Gott and Kapcia believe that, while undoubtedly coercive, Castro's system is more flexible, sophisticated and durable than it is often given credit for. Kapcia says: "There is considerable debate. It tends to happen behind closed doors or in coded language, and it is not allowed to bring serious disagreement into the open, but this isn't a monolithic system."

Neither sees much serious dissent in the party - Gott says "there is no Cuban equivalent of Stalin vs Trotsky" - or any real support for opposition groups.

One factor in this is residual regard for Castro and his achievements. Whitehead points to generational differences: "The age group who were young when Castro came to power did very well in the 1960s and 1970s. They were very upwardly mobile - a lot of people had left, and this created space for people who had not previously had many opportunities. Younger people are seriously disaffected. They're tired of the old ideology. And while people point to a supposedly well-educated population, that education is pretty lopsided. There's limited access to information and there's not a lot of point being, say, qualified to be a doctor when the hospital you work for has no proper equipment."

Much will depend on which lessons Cubans choose to draw from overseas experience. Kapcia says: "Miami may be only 90 miles away, but they're also aware that they're better off than many other Latin Americans and that the changes in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe were painful for many."

Miami may also be seen as offering as much threat as promise. Nobody expects Cuban-Americans, settled and prosperous, to want to return. But political change could lead to their seeking the return of their former property. Brighty, also former ambassador in Prague, says: "Restitution was disruptive enough there, and it would be much more destabilising in Cuba, which was semi-feudal, with a small group controlling most of the wealth."

Post-Castro rulers, the experts agree, are likely to come from within Cuba rather than exile communities. Gott sees Castro as closer to Kemal Atatürk - whose reforms of Turkey lasted 50 years after his death - than to the communist leaders of Eastern Europe. Kapcia also believes the system could outlast Castro. Kapcia points to the "controlled democracy" of Mexico before 2000 or Vietnam as possible models for a structure in which the communists would still exert control, with the 40-something Carlos Lage and Young Communist leader Otto Rivero as the sophisticated pragmatists likely to prosper under such structures.

With Cuban exiles representing a substantial presence in Florida, whose electoral significance needs no explanation in a presidential year, short-term changes in US policy seem unlikely - although Whitehead suggests that the recent departure of hardliner Otto Reich from the National Security Office may indicate a wariness, when the US government has more serious foreign policy worries, of creating yet another zone of instability.

That American policy has sustained Castro's position, not least by giving him an alibi for everything that goes wrong and the image of a national leader standing up to the local bully, is scarcely a matter for debate.

Brighty suggests that if the US is serious about changing Cuba, a relaxation allowing aid, trade and showing the potential benefits of economic reform would be far more effective. Democracy, as a Western European would recognise it, may still be a little way off. But Brighty says that the Castro era, with its enforced participation, might not be a bad preparation. "I suspect that with a well-educated population and the experience of socialism, they'd turn out to be rather good democrats," he says.

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