Wednesday August 2, 2006

Cuba: what happens now?


Let’s assume for the moment that Fidel Castro is alive in fact, but dead effectively: that is, he’s sick to an extent that will make it impossible to return to power for a long while. Let’s further assume that the instability of the transfer, along with Raul Castro’s weaker political clout and cult-of-personality, make it impossible for the new leader to hold the Communist regime together. These assumptions each have considerable evidence behind them, but I feel comfortable making them primarily because the effect of their incorrectness would be little but to delay whatever the result would be. Where, then, does that leave us?

Since our current international eye is so used to looking at Iraq, it’s easy to conjure up images of civil unrest, chaos, and jostling for power. I find such predictions unpersuasive. In fact, I think the Velvet Revolution may be a much closer model of what is to come in Cuba. Whether it be in weeks or years remains to be seen, but let’s consider how the end of the Castro era in Cuba is likely to be similar or different from the fall of Communism in Czechoslovakia. (For new readers, I was born in Czechoslovakia in 1974, and immigrated to the US with my family in 1980.)

The Velvet Revolution was precipitated by events from outside the country: specifically, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the overthrow of Communism in most surrounding countries. As shocks to the system go, it seems roughly equivalent to loosing the one figurehead who’s been in charge of the Communist regime of Cuba for all this time. So the spark is there. But is there any fuel? By my estimation (And this might be a fair moment to point out that I’m no expert on on this stuff. If these thoughts have any weight, they must have it on their own merit. Feel free to dismiss them as rampant speculation.), two components are necessary for a relatively bloodless transition away from Communism: a strong intellectual dissident movement, and a significant percentage of fed-up population willing to put themselves at some risk to overthrow the regime.

Dissident intellectuals? I suspect Cuba is rich with them. Witness the reports that the government has been cracking down on just such dissidents over the last few days. That Raul may take a particularly strong position against them in the first days of his rule to prove his strength. And note the plight of Guillermo FariƱas, which, for all his suffering, made it into the international press. On NPR today I heard an interview with a Havana resident described as a “dissident and economist.” Nuff said.

Fed-up population ready to demonstrate? Hmm… here’s where Cuba’s geographical situation works against it. The problem is that it’s just so darned close to the US, which provides an escape hatch for those to whom the regime is most insufferable. I mean, no, the journey from there to here is nothing if not arduous. But it’s doable. And the costs of an attempt are low. (In contrast, my family had to go through endless legal wrangling and political subterfuge to get official permission for a vacation in Yugoslavia, which for some reason had a demi-porous (read: soldiers with machine guns patrolling, but only intermittently) border with Austria.) The result is that the very Cubans who might right now be most eager to rush into the streets of Havana with a view towards overthrowing the Commies are . . . living in Miami.

Of course this isn’t intended as a slight on Cuban-Americans or on the act of immigration. (When faced with a situation, it’s only right that each family does what it needs to do.) It’s an observation: one that might explain the oddly reticent reaction of folks still on the island. The lack of protests might very well be a simple a biding of time, though.

In the case of the Velvet Revolution, more then a week went by between the sparking incident and the tipping point, which came on November 17, 1989. Basically, what is required is a consensus feeling that change is possible, and something to motivate a lot of people to get out there and make it happen. Lots of things go into something like this, and again I note the importance of dissident leaders as a motivating force. (The riot police who responded to the demonstrations on November 17th blocked all the exits except one, and every person, as they filed out, got a whack of billy club across the back. The strength of a large group of people being able to take shit like that leads rather directly to the downfall of governments.)

Weighing all of this, I can’t help but feel optimistic for Cuba. Some absurdly thoughtful comments at the previous thread make it clear that the Velvet Revolution is but one possible model of what is to come in Cuba. Another equally plausible one is China: a Communist power that relaxes financial restrictions while holding tightly on to control of society. I don’t think I need to convince anyone that the way I’ve outlined—of temporary, short-lived suffering, followed by the sweet freedom of reality—is preferable to the slow and gradual relaxing of restrictions by a still oppressive regime. But I think the the situation is right for this kind of overthrow. The idea of Communism in Cuba is so closely tied to the leader that Val calls ‘the bearded goat’ that with him gone, everyone—man in the street, soldier in uniform, party intellectual, and even Raul himself—will be thrown into enough of a state of anomie that some drastic change will seem inevitable. The inevitability of that change itself is a powerful motor. Let’s hope it gives a push in the right direction.

Update: Some interesting and related information at the 26th. And at Balabu: read this and do this.

Tags: ,

comments powered by Disqus
  1. Cigar Blog Moderator    Wed Aug 2, 08:43 AM #  

    I bookmarked your site for updates this week on Castro. What other blogs should I look for?

    Keep up the good posts.

  2. barba blanca    Wed Aug 2, 07:13 PM #  

    Cuba’s destiny was decided on January 1st, 1959; the Fidelistas abound. What is there to speculate?
    For sake of argument, Cuba might evolve into a scandinavian style socialism, but never, never an economic system mimicking the USA, nor a “republican form of government”.

  3. Robert    Wed Aug 2, 09:24 PM #  

    Excellent and sound analysis. The spark is there, let’s hope people take advantage of it.

  4. Nick    Thu Aug 3, 12:10 AM #  

    I am conducting a research project for a college course that I attend. I have decided to conduct my research on Cuba and the changes, if any, when Fidel Castro dies, if he is not already dead. Currently I am seeking the opinions of others. Do you think it is beneficial for Cuba, and for the world, to remain a Communist country? To change to a democratic country? Should the U.S. become involved? Should the rest of the world become involved? I appreciate everyone’s ideas on this subject and I thank you in advance.

  5. barba blanca    Thu Aug 3, 02:51 PM #  

    What is your interpretation of democracy? People in the USA have a very biased, and usually wrong, opinion of what democracy is.

    If you mean a representative form of government, Cuba already has it. If you mean multi-party elections, Cubans must remain united as long as it has an enemy 90 miles away (divide and conquer, remember?); thus not for now.
    Since democracy is a form of government and not an economic system, one doesn’t need a democratic government (China?) to have capitalism (USA has a republican government, not a democracy), nor any other economic system. Thus Cuba could, and it ought to, have a more market friendly economy, but only as long as it satisfies the needs of the state (people) and not to enrich a few at the expense of the many (capitalism).

    Unlike USA, Cuba has great prospects of being the political and economic model that most others may want to emulate.

  6. alesh    Fri Aug 4, 07:43 AM #  

    barba, I agree with your distinctions between political systems and economic systems, but with little else.

    “Unlike USA, Cuba has great prospects of being the political and economic model that most others may want to emulate.”

    HUH?! Cuba and the former USSR embraced top-down, centrally controlled economic models, and have long-term shortages of EVERYTHING, along with some of the saddest standards of living, along with an economy wrecked for many many decades, to show for it. In the US and other capitalist countries, there are much larger disparities between the rich and poor (especially if you don’t “count” the Commie party leaders mooching off the top of the system), but economically, the poorest people in the US are better off then most people in Cuba.

    If you mean multi-party elections, Cubans must remain united as long as it has an enemy 90 miles away (divide and conquer, remember?)

    That’s almost laughable. So healthy political discourse and debate isn’t the route to smarter policies, eh? Oh, I guess we were wrong about that all along. I guess if the US wants to be a stronger nation, we should choose a leader-for-life and let him do anything he wants, unchecked. Yeah, that’s the ticket!

    I mean, I suppose it’s good to hear that there are Communist true-belivers still around. In Europe, the domocracies that emerged over the last twenty years often have a communist party that receives a not insignificant number of votes. I guess it’s all good like that. But I’m sure you’re right – a system like that would, um . . “weaken” Cuba. Yeah, right.

  7. Boli-Nica    Tue Aug 8, 11:29 AM #  

    Hey Cigar Blog Mod, I am keeping a running commentary Castro Corpse Watch focusing on the succession issues, trying to decipher what is going on inside the island.

    As far as transitions go, this looks to be a struggle between several factions. Crucial will be where the army goes.