Cuba and Fidel Castro: Beyond his 86th Birthday.

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Regardless of how long he lives, Fidel Castro has an influential role in shaping the political discourse in Cuba. Fidel skillfully mixed Marxism and nationalism and made a revolution that changed the history not only of Cuba but also of the whole Western hemisphere. He was the most popular leader in a generation of Cubans, a political giant who reached world dimensions during the Cold War. As professor Jorge Dominguez from Harvard University said, If there have been competitive elections in the early 1960’s, Castro could have won them all. He didn't have the chance. In the most difficult moments of the Cold War, the United States, as the hegemonic power in the Americas, didn't have tolerance for a nationalist leader who aspired to an independent neutralist course not to mention a socialist one, no matter how popular Castro was among his people.

On the other hand, Castro was not a misunderstood liberal democrat. He was a realist politician with strong nationalist and socialist ideas ready to remain in power and implement his revolutionary program by democratic or undemocratic means.  He learned from the experience of Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala and fought the Cuban Civil War of the 1960's with every conceivable alliance and political weapon on his hands. Political opponents of Castro's program were treated as enemies of the nation, they suffered financial and property losses, harassment and long prison sentences. Fidel created a new Cuban Communist party (PCC) under his nationalist authoritarian leadership and remained in power for almost five decades. In 2006, he retired undefeated. No leader in Cuba could speak; bring enthusiasm to his followers, and plant fear in his enemies as Fidel Castro did. His charisma was no doubt an important source of the communist party’s legitimacy but he also attracted many Cubans due to his writings, ideas and speeches.

In analyzing how Cuba moved forward after the revolution a completely Fidel centered approach was always insufficient because it is impossible to trace how much of Fidel’s policies were the result of his own views and how much his campaigns were the result of influences by different interests within Cuba’s power structure. But when Fidel was committed to a policy, he was the minimal winning coalition. Politics at the strategic government level consisted of guessing what could help Fidel’s grand strategy. This limited the feedback on policy and the information flows of the system.                                                                                                

Fidel’s style hardly ever consisted of leading from behind. That is why the “Fidel in command” model truly ended when he got sick in 2006.   Fidel is no longer the decisive force in the political survival of the PCC rule. In part by design and in part by default the institutionalization of the party rule and the economic reforms proposed in the “Lineamientos Economicos y Sociales” (Social and Economic Guidelines) of the PCC imply a partial withdrawal of the communist state from social spaces and the economy. Fidel’s charisma and leadership style were cardinal obstacles for these two long overdue processes. The supreme leader of the revolution deployed a striking anti market bias all over his career.  

Fidel was not only the main creator of institutions in post-revolutionary Cuba but also the charismatic leader who reduced their importance at his pleasure, sometimes unconsciously. In his statements, Fidel Castro always advocated for “democratic centralism” and “collective leadership”, not a cult of personality, but in practice, his charisma and political dominance prevented the institutionalization of a legal-rational bureaucratic rule. The government was wherever he was; its priorities were his priorities. The recently approved term limits were unthinkable under his aegis.

Now, there is a new situation. Raúl Castro’s commitment to economic reforms and institutionalization is opening venues for the discussion of new ideas within the power structure and the general political discourse. Propositions in favor of a gradual expansion of the role of the market in the economy, the diversification of the property structure, and the expansion of the role of law and rules in the functioning of the government and the party are openly discussed. This is not part of a transition to a multiparty democracy but embodies the relaxation of information controls; it improves the feedback mechanisms and the expression of pluralistic interests within the Cuban elites and society. Public discourse is breaking away from the homogenous path of previous times, not only in the publications of the Catholic Church or reform oriented magazines such as Temas, but also in the core publications of the system. Newspapers and radios on the provinces, and even Granma, the Communist party newspaper, are talking about the need for separating the party from the government, and economic changes.  

One ideological factor that is emerging in post-Fidel Cuba is an increased emphasis in a nationalist narrative. During Fidel Castro’s leadership, particularly before 1989, the PCC promoted Marxist ideas, and a feeling of belonging to the international communist bloc. Internationalism, not nationalism, was the central ideological principle of Cuba’s foreign policy. Raúl Castro’s recent speech in Guantanamo on July 26 demonstrated how this feature is changing. The emphasis on the revolution as a solution to a history of national humiliation is becoming predominant and issues such as national unity, economic growth and public order are emerging more forcefully in the official discourse. The struggle against the U.S. embargo is becoming again the strongest unifying ideological factor in the elite and between the PCC and the population. 

When Fidel first got sick, the community of Cubans in Miami Florida reserved the Orange Bowl for the anticipated celebration of his death.  In other parts of the world, such as the Southern Cone of Africa where Cuban troops were key allies in the struggle against Apartheid, there was sorrow. What would happen in Cuba when Fidel Castro dies? A funeral.   Fidel Castro’s death will speed up the processes of economic reform and institutionalization but it is important not to exaggerate his current impact in Cuba’s policymaking. He is a retired head of State.  

Fidel Castro is not Cuba. Rather than focusing on an 86 years old revolutionary patriarch, the international community, particularly the United States, should look at the general trends operating in Cuba’s politics and economy. A central question is whether Raul Castro’s economic reform can alter the political dynamics and the distribution of power not only in Cuba but on the Cuban American community and U.S. debate about the embargo.  Everything else being equal, a market oriented Cuban economy, with a vibrant non-state sector, would create a virtuous cycle of pressures to end the U.S. sanctions that would also strengthen the appetite for more economic opening in Cuba. It is also worth noticing that the antipathy generated by Fidel among some segments of the American public and the Cuban American community is not transferable to any other leader, not even his brother Raúl. That is a present that Fidel Castro has given all of us to contemplate on this, his 86th birthday.