August 10, 2006
See You In HavanaBy John Mendez
And so it ends, not with an assassin's bullet or a military strike or even a popular uprising (at least not yet). Instead, the messianic Castro appears as though he will succumb to intestinal bleeding, if not already, then in the very near future. Not exactly the fate most envisioned or hoped for, but justice is rarely poetic.
Fidel may very well be alive and recuperating but intestinal bleeding isn't the type of medical problem you merely 'nip & tuck' away, particularly when your patient's diet has consisted of Cohibas, rum, steaks and fried 'maduros' for the better part of 80 years. So, regardless of whether the maximum leader is, in fact, dead is absolutely irrelevant. He hasn't much left in the tank.
If history teaches us anything, it is that paranoid dictators always talk of 'successions' and 'smooth, seamless transitions' but never give up power voluntarily until 'the fat lady is singing.' This time is no different. Cue the fat lady.
So, the Raul Castro era has begun in Cuba with all the pomp and circumstance of a dental appointment. There have been no grand speeches or world tours, not even as much as a public appearance, for that matter. It appears as though Raul is suffering from a bit of stage fright. Living in the shadows of your megalomaniacal older brother for five decades will do that to the most confident of men. Raul is more 'Fredo' than 'Michael' Corleone.
Fortunately for Raul, — and the Cuban people, coincidently — he won't have to rule for long. He is 75, not in the greatest of health and reportedly has a proclivity for rum. Not exactly the profile of someone who will lead the Cuban 'revolution' into the next decade. Frankly, Raul is a Cold War relic every bit the cold blooded killer the Che and Fidel were, but without the puzzling rock star appeal or charisma. But a predilection for mass murder goes a long way during power struggles on an island fiefdom.
Fidel understood perfectly that Raul wouldn't or couldn't rule for long. That became perfectly clear following last June's declaration by the Communist Party that it alone was responsible for Cuba's future. Not quite inheriting absolute power, Raul will now oversee a six—member ruling committee that will make all decisions on the island nation.
In hindsight, the decision to create this new scheme was clearly made in anticipation of the elder Castro's worsening medical condition and surgery and looks to a future devoid of Castros. Nothing in Cuba is decided without the dictator's approval, so the move isn't exactly a ringing endorsement of Raul's tenure as new 'maximum leader.' It also suggests Fidel understands that Raul has the charisma of wet towel and is wholly incapable of running the government for very long. The brutal repression won't be quite as veiled under the devout Stalinist, Raul.
Of course, not many on the island have seemed to notice Raul's absence or the subtle shift in the power structure; apparently they're busy still trying to eek out an existence in the socialist paradise. Or perhaps they're enjoying the fabled free health care that has Cubans from New Jersey to Florida acting like Columbian drug mules, smuggling needed medications to loved ones on the island prison.
The new ruling council faces the issue of reviving a savagely failed economy as its ultimate task. Economically deprived people tend to blame their government, particularly when the government IS the economy. The cult of personality Fidel created, coupled with arguably the world's most repressive power and control structure, allowed the Castro brothers to escape much of the blame for and, more importantly, the repercussions of the social and economic failures in Cuba.
But the Castros' successors will not fare quite as well in escaping culpability. The second rate despotism they inherit from one of history's worst human rights violators will be exposed rather quickly when the Cuban people realize not only does the emperor—regime not have clothes but he's lost quite a few pounds on his 47 year diet. A diet that has taken the Cuban economy from third largest in Latin America pre—Castro to dead last, despite the inflated projections and largely doctored statistics of the Castro government.
The desperate conditions and post—liberation long—lasting damage in communist Eastern Europe exposed all the lies of totalitarian statistics. There never existed a 'worker's paradise' — not in yesteryear's Eastern Europe nor in today's Cuba, except in the fabricated numbers reported to the international community. The life expectancy of a Romanian didn't suddenly collapse with the advent of democracy; it was never as high as Ceausescu puppets reported. Cuba is no different.
After 47 long years of failed economic policy that saw colossal Soviet aid totaling nearly US$6 billion annually for decades (a whopping 35% plus of the island's total GDP), and lately becoming a welfare recipient of Chavez's temporary oil wealth, Castro has managed to create a financial sinkhole. Castro owes US$36 billion in hard currency to global creditors. The entire annual GDP of Cuba is generously estimated to be US$16 billion. That makes Cuba's debt ratio a massive 225% of GDP!
Quite simply, the Cuban economy is a complete disaster.
The fault for the economic catastrophe in Cuba falls squarely on the shoulders of Castro and the failed policies he imposed. Where most of the world has recognized that individual freedom, consensual government and capitalism are the cornerstones of human flourishing and development, Castro uncompromisingly repudiated any semblance of reform, clinging desperately to disastrous economic policies and continued to repress freedom and human rights. Merely surviving is not a vision for the future. More than 70% of those still on the island were born after Castro overthrew Batista and simply took solace in the knowledge they would likely outlive the 'comandante,' expecting things to improve once the dictator and his failed ideology were gone.
The brutal Raul is an extension of Fidel and still controls the military which he has carefully crafted as Minister of Defense for 47 years, but he is utterly incapable of ushering in any form of economic vitality, which will only add to the local frustration. So the future falls on the supposedly dynamic Perez Roque or the technocrat Alarcon, neither of whom has the charisma to make everyday Cubans indefinitely forget their daily misery. Complicating matters further for the less—than—dynamic duo is the fact that neither will have control of the military apparatus when Raul passes. Let the power struggle begin.
The hellish ordeal is not over — yet — but we are witnessing the beginning of the end and regardless of who emerges, one thing is clear, drastic changes are in order for the long suffering Cuba and Castro's Marxist—Leninist utopian nightmare is finally grinding to a merciful end.
See you in Havana!