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Castro's Cuba: Quo Vadis?

Authored by Dr. Francisco Wong-Diaz. | December 2006

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This paper serves multiple purposes, the most important of which is contributing to the depth of knowledge about Castro?s Cuba and Cuba?s Fidel in a time of transition. Evidence supporting the analysis and conclusions is derived from open sources.

Interest and concern about the unfolding Cuban reality increased after Fidel Castro provisionally delegated his presidential powers to his brother, Raul, on July 31, 2006, allegedy due to a life-threatening illness. Images of Castro collapsing while making a speech in 2003, falling on stage and breaking his left knee and right arm in 2004, or scoffing at reports by the Central Intelligence Agency in 2005 that he suffered from Parkinson?s disease while clearly favoring a limp arm have been flashing on television screens for several years.

This monograph examines alternative scenarios in the twilight of Fidel Castro and in a post-Castro Cuba. They constitute a triad of outcomes; namely, a violent regime change, a peaceful transition to democracy, or a dynastic succession. Regime change is a possibility since Cuba is one of Freedom House?s two not-free countries in the Americas and a state sponsor of terrorism. However, after 47 years of one-man rule, a violent overthrow of the Communist dictatorship is highly unlikely. There is no organized armed opposition within Cuba, and the repressive state machinery operates effectively against real or potential enemies. The Cuban armed forces (FAR) remain loyal after having been purged, and are tightly controlled by Raul. In addition, on August 6, Secretary of State Condolezza Rice publicly stated that the Bush administration had no intention to invade Cuba. The global war on terror, Iraq, nuclear proliferation issues raised by Iran and North Korea, and the current terrorist attacks against Israel are the hot foreign policy priorities of the Bush administration. The United States would need to feel directly threatened before considering the use of force against Cuba. So despite U.S. Government rhetoric in the July 5, 2006, report of the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba (CAFC) about liberating Cuba, Castro knows that he will retain power as long as he lives.

A peaceful transition to democracy and a free market economy is also unlikely as long as Fidel is alive. After the disintegration of the Soviet Union, there was hope that Cuba might undergo something similar to the ?color? or ?flower? revolutions that transformed many of the former Warsaw Pact countries. Unlike the Europeans, however, Cuba?s Communist party and security services remain loyal, and there is no solidarity movement or opposition leader with a credible plan. Cuban civil society is rather weak, and dissidents are unable to work openly and in full coordination. More importantly, the main reason why no color, flower, or cedar revolution will ever occur in Cuba is that Castro and his closest lieutenants have studied those events very closely, identified and anticipated the relevant contingencies, and learned how to deal with them.

A dynastic succession based on collective leadership is the unfolding Cuban scenario. Castro wants to retain personal power for as long as he can to protect his dominant position and interests. To accomplish this, first, he has sought close commercial and security ties with China, Venezuela, Bolivia, and even the mullahs of Iran. Next, he organized a succession process. Under Cuban law, the first Vicepresident of the Council of State, his brother Raul, assumes the duties of the president. Raul, who turned 75 on June 3, assumed provisional power on Monday, July 31, following an announcement that Fidel was ill and would undergo surgery. Raul has physical ailments, too, and there is no clear indication that anyone else has been groomed to replace him.

So at age 80, the Cuban dictator?s place in history, for better or for worse, already has been established. For almost 50 years, the Cuban people have suffered political repression and tyranny under his one-man rule.

Castro?s eventual passing, the so-called ?biological solution,? would constitute good and transformative news for Cuba if progress is made along a range of issues from development of true and honest representative institutions of governance to improvement of the Cuban people?s quality of life. The overarching American foreign policy objective should be to pressure the successor regime while encouraging a strong bias among Cuban elites for internally generated democratization, the rule of law, and transparency in reciprocity for graduated normalization of relations with the island.


For better or for worse, Castro?s place in history already has been established. For almost 50 years, the Cuban people have suffered political repression and tyranny under his one-man rule. On the other hand, the UN Human Development Index (HDI) Report for Year 2005, relying on data from 2003 and before, ranks Cuba (with an HDI of 0.817) at No. 52 out of 177 countries--above Mexico and Panama, but below Costa Rica, Uruguay, Chile, and Argentina.76 Whether history will absolve or condemn him will depend on what happens to the long-suffering Cuban people after his demise. Fidelismo/Castroism, not being a true ideology like Marxism or even Al-Qa?idism, will probably dissipate and die with him. It is quite likely that his political legacy might be a return to traditional Latin American politics of military rule or weak civilian governments beholden to military leaders. In that regard, De Mesquita?s useful insight that authoritarian regimes are difficult to dislodge because they are growing more sophisticated and that authoritarianism leads to stability is quite apropos.77

In a post-September 11, 2001 (9/11), post-Saddam Hussein world, the United States can ill afford a Cuban collapse and attendant instability. An authoritarian successor regime might be preferable to a failed state. This is the reason why an American military intervention to depose Castro or his successor is neither advisable nor likely. While Castro is alive, American foreign policy toward Cuba will remain the choreographed pas de deux of the past 5 decades. An uncomfortable and conflictual relationship is one whose organizing principle is Cuban anti-Americanism and American isolation of Cuba encouraged by Fidel Castro?s dictatorial ?kakistocracy? (rule of the worst citizens).

The inevitable passing of Castro will constitute good and transformative news for Cuba if progress is made along a range of issues from development of true and honest representative institutions of governance to improvement of the Cuban people?s quality of life. Cubans will have to overcome the long shadow cast by a culture of authoritarian one-man rule where, for decades, individual initiatives have not been allowed to surface and prevail because Castro, the micromanager par excellence, had to either approve or direct them all. The overall post-Castro American foreign policy objective should be to engage the succession regime and encourage a strong bias among Cuban elites for internally-generated democratization, the rule of law, and transparency in exchange for an across-the-board normalization of relations with the island. U.S. military command will need to perform regular and timely updating of contingency planning to interdict vessels to and from the island and to protect and evacuate American diplomatic personnel and tourists in case of violent unrest.78 As the 2006 report of the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba reflects, we must be at the ready to propitiate the process, since in the final denouement, the vested military and civilian elites will inexorably begin a struggle for power postponed by Castro?s longevity, and they will seek powerful allies. When that time arrives, in cauda venenum, preventing a bloodbath, avoiding a total economic collapse, foreign intervention, and massive uncontrolled migration to Florida will be the biggest challenges we will face from Cuba since January 1, 1959.


76.The HDI is a worldwide comparative measure of poverty, literacy, education, life expectancy, childbirth, and other factors. It was developed in 1990 by Pakistani economist, Mahbub ul Haq, and used since 1993 by the UN Development Program. For many, it is a measure of whether a country belongs in the 1st, 2nd, or 3rd world. A country with an HDI of 0.8 and above is considered high in human development.

77.Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, ?Democracy and Development,? Foreign Affairs, Vol. 84, No. 5, September/October 2005, p. 78.

78.Regarding the absence of a true rule of law in Cuba, see Edward Gonzalez, ?Cuba After Castro: Legacies, Challenges, and Impediments,? Appendix A, Santa Monica: Rand Corporation TR131-RC, May 2004, pp. 46-51. See also Cuban Migration, ?Averting a Crisis,? The American Immigration Law Foundation, www.ailf. org/ipc/policy_reports_2003_CubanMigration.asp.