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The Cuban Revolution at Fifty

4 January 2009

The Cuban Revolution at Fifty

 By Gwynne Dyer

I have learned one thing from my various visits to Cuba over the years, and that is not to predict the demise of the regime. I did that sometimes in the past, if only to offer a bit of hope to various despairing  individuals who thought that a visiting foreigner might know more about their future than they did themselves. But the brothers Castro are still there, ever more moth-eaten (in Raul’s case, almost mummified), and they have just celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of their revolution.

Nevertheless, change may be lurking around the corner at last, for Barack Obama represents the greatest danger that the regime has faced since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of its subsidies seventeen years ago. The survival of the regime is due in large part to the unremitting hostility of the United States, which lets it appeal to Cubans’ patriotism, and to the trade embargo that gives it an excuse for its economic failures.

Obama is clever enough to understand that the best way to kill the Communist regime in Cuba is with kindness, and he has no domestic political debts that would keep him from acting on that insight. In particular, he owes nothing to the Cuban exile establishment in Florida, which mostly voted for Bush.

He could start right away by ending the rule that allows Cuban-Americans to visit their families on the island only once every three years, and limits their remittances to $300 every four months. Even within the Cuban exile community in the United States those restrictions are controversial, as it is hard to see how they hurt the Cuban regime.

Once the question of where to send the remaining Guantanamo detainees has been resolved, Obama could close the base down entirely. Indeed, he could give the land back to Cuba as a free gesture, since it has no economic or strategic value to the United States. That would seriously undermine the Communist regime’s argument that the United States is an implacable enemy that Cubans must confront with discipline and solidarity.

Then he could get to work on the ridiculous embargo on trade and travel to Cuba. The sanctions have been written into law in recent years, so he would need Congress’s assent to remove them. But if he got it, all the mechanisms of control built up by Fidel Castro over the past fifty years would probably begin to crumble.

The real question is: what happens then? The last time the fall of the Castro regime seemed likely, a couple of years after the collapse of the Soviet Union in late 1991, I went to Cuba in the guise of a tourist (there’s nothing like having a baby along to make you look innocent) and talked to a great many people informally.

Most of them expected the regime to fall soon, and a majority (though not an overwhelming majority) welcomed the prospect. However, they were all frightened of what might come next, for two reasons. One was the fact that at least ten percent of the Cuban population — over a million people — were true Communist believers, and they were armed to the teeth. Would they let their dream die without fighting to save it?

The other was that the exiles would come back from Miami and take over. Their money would let them buy up everything of value, and those who had endured decades of poverty under Castro would stay poor and marginalised. Even the few good things about “socialist” Cuba, like the health care system, would be destroyed.

Well, my last trip to Cuba was less than two years ago, and things had changed. The poverty, the oppression and the despair were the same, but the true believers who would kill and die to save the revolution were noticeably scarcer.

This visit was part of a project in which various Western embassies, thinking that Fidel Castro’s illness might mean that big changes were on the way, brought in “experts” to talk to the Cuban elite about how things were done in democratic countries. It was pretty pointless work, frankly, but it did offer unusual access to the apparatchiks who really run the show in Cuba.

Most of the officials were about what you’d expect: loyal, fully institutionalised servants of the regime. But very few of them were passionate ideologues who would launch and fight a civil war to save it.

Generational turnover had done its work, and these were just people who were glad to have their jobs and the few privileges that came with them.

Generational turnover has been at work in Miami, too. Fifty years on, the original generation of Cuban refugees is gradually giving way to an American-born generation who still care about the country, of course, but are much less interested in going back and re-creating the Cuba of the 1950s.

So change is a lot less dangerous for Cubans than it would have been if the regime had collapsed in the early 1990s. If Obama sets out to destabilise the Communist regime with offers of help and friendship, it might well work. And even if it doesn’t work right away, it would make the lives of Cubans a lot easier.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 11. (“He could…regime”; and “This visit…Cuba”)

“Never Waste a Crisis”: Can Obama Change the Game?

19 November 2008

“Never Waste a Crisis”: Can Obama Change the Game?

 By Gwynne Dyer

US president-elect Barack Obama inherits the in-box from hell, but an all-points crisis like the present one also creates opportunities for radical change that do not exist in more normal times. As Rahm Emanuel, his newly appointed chief of staff, put it: “Never waste a crisis.” Is Obama clever enough and radical enough to seize those opportunities?

For example, he has promised to shut down the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. While he’s at it, why not hand the whole US military base at Guantanamo back to the Cubans?

Guantanamo has absolutely no military purpose; Washington has only hung on to it for all these decades to annoy the Cuban regime. If the US wanted to bomb Cuba, it would do it from Florida. If it wanted to invade, it would land Marines on beaches elsewhere, not march them into the teeth of the Cuban defences around Guantanamo.

Besides, the goal should not be to fight the Cuban Communist regime, but to smother it with love. After half a century in power the Castro brothers are nearing the end of the road. What better way to signal the end of the confrontation with the United States that has kept the Communists in power for so long than to evacuate the only foreign military base on Cuban territory?

In normal times, a decision to pull out of Guantanamo would stir up a months-long storm in the US media. Right now, it would be a two-day story that cost Obama almost no political capital. Opportunities for this sort of low-cost action that clears old obstacles away now abound, and it would be a shame to miss them.

Another example. Obama plans to cancel most of President Bush’s executive orders, including the one that overruled California’s decision to impose stricter emissions standards on automobiles. Why not accompany that with a federal commitment to an even higher standard — and make it a condition of the forthcoming bail-out of the Big Three US auto-makers that they meet that standard in all the cars they produce within three years?

They’ll whine, of course, but if Toyota can do it, why can’t they?

Sympathy for the Three Dinosaurs is very limited at the moment, so now is the time to act.

The recession will only feel like a crisis for a few more months:

people eventually get used to almost anything. So Obama should do as much of the controversial stuff as he can while the public is still willing to accept the destruction of shibboleths that have hung around since forever.

And he deserves his fun, because the rest of his agenda will be no fun at all.

The century-long preeminence of the United States as the economic superpower was bound to decline gradually as the Asian giants industrialised, but the financial collapse risks turning that into a steep and irreversible fall. Even the US dollar could lose its place as the global reserve currency. To limit the damage, Obama has to play a poor hand very well.

He has implicit permission from the financial gurus to run even bigger deficits over the next couple of years than the Bush administration did. That will let him do some repair work on the American social fabric as well as just bailing out failing businesses and jobless people. But rebuilding America’s reputation abroad will take more than money.

Current developments in Iraq allow Obama an easy and early exit from that country, but his statements on Afghanistan and Pakistan suggest that he is still trapped in the “war on terror” paradigm. In truth, US military domination of the Middle Eastern region is finished, but the hardest thing is just to walk away from the region and accept that changes will occur there. He may lack the knowledge and the wisdom to do that.

If he can untie that albatross from around America’s neck, however, he stands a fair chance of gaining a real leadership role in international affairs. Paradoxically, by turning into a financial morass that no one can ignore, the United States has regained its centrality in world affairs, and Obama can use that to do big things elsewhere if he is so inclined. The obvious place to begin is in the area where the United States has done the most damage by its obstructionist policies under President Bush: climate change.

Serious action on global warming is clearly on Obama’s list of things to do. It’s also an area in which bold action has relatively modest up-front costs (though major long-term costs), so it’s an ideal field to concentrate on in a recession. It can even create a lot of jobs, if it is done right.

If he takes leadership on that issue, avoids disaster in the Middle East, and restores faith in the US financial system, Obama can put the country back on its previous glide-path of gentle and purely relative decline in the great-power pecking order. That is his most urgent task, because the risk of a run on the US dollar and an abrupt and precipitous fall in American prestige and power still persists. But at least the economic crisis gives him unprecedented freedom of action, if he chooses to use it.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5, 7 and 13. (“In normal…them”; “They’ll…act”; and “Serious…right”)

Cuba: What If He Comes Back?

23 March 2007

Cuba: What If He Comes Back?

By Gwynne Dyer

For anyone who knew the old Soviet Union, a visit to Cuba is always a trip down Memory Lane. From the ubiquitous revolutionary slogans and the absence of advertising to the cautious shorthand in conversation (stroking the chin means Fidel Castro) and the sour, fatalistic jokes, it is a Communist country of the classic era. But this time, I kept thinking about an old Soviet joke that had not made it to Cuba (though I have now done my best to get it started there).

A rising young apparatchik in the Communist Party, starting to enjoy the privileges that come to high officials of the regime, brings his peasant mother to Moscow from her distant, impoverished village and installs her in a grand apartment in the Arbat. His mother, instead of being delighted, just falls silent and looks worried. So he takes her to one of the special Party shops, a wonderland of Western consumer goods unavailable to ordinary Russians, and tells her to buy anything she wants. She buys only a kilo of oranges, and looks even more troubled.

Desperate to please her, he takes her to dinner at the Praha, the grandest and most expensive restaurant in the capital, but by now there’s no denying it. This display of privilege is not impressing her; it’s frightening her half to death. So her son finally asks her straight out: isn’t she pleased with what he has accomplished? Isn’t she proud of him? “It’s wonderful, darling,” she replies. “But what will happen to us if the Communists come back?”

The question in Cuba is: What will happen if Fidel comes back? It’s eight months since he fell gravely ill and handed the president’s powers over to his brother Raul, and the “transition” is complete. Fidel’s lengthy illness created the ideal circumstances for an orderly hand-over of power, and by the end of last year the new collective leadership was firmly in charge. Most people were quietly relieved that it was all over.

It felt a bit strange no longer having Fidel on TV all the time nagging and exhorting the population, a larger-than-life father figure, but after 47 years of that most people were very tired of being treated like backward children. There was enormous respect for Fidel in Cuba, but there was also enormous weariness with him, combined with a great secret fear of what would happen when he finally went.

Partly it was just fear of the unknown — 80 percent of Cuba’s population have known no other leader — but it was also fear of chaos, because everybody knew that the United States would use Castro’s death to try to change the regime. As Wayne Smith, former head of the US diplomatic mission in Havana, said recently, Cuba has the same effect on the US that the full moon has on a werewolf. Washington doubtless had all sorts of regime-change projects lined up and ready to launch as soon as the Old Man died.

Even Cubans who don’t like Castro don’t want abrupt political collapse and perhaps great violence. Neither do they believe that life would necessarily be better for the people who live in Cuba now if all those Cuban refugees in Miami and all of their money suddenly flooded back. They’d just buy up the island and take over again. So a smooth transition to the next generation of the Communist leadership now is better than the chaos that would have followed if Fidel had just died suddenly one day.

The new leadership is collective, with brother Raul out front as chairman of the board. Its members are well known and respected by the Cuban public — people like Felipe Perez Roque, the foreign minister, Ricardo Alarcon, head of the National Assembly, Ricardo Lage, now in charge of energy, and Francisco Soberon, governor of the Central Bank — and they can expect a couple of years’ grace to show that they can grow the economy faster and give Cubans more freedom without destroying the welfare state that gives people free education and health care.

Or rather, they did expect a couple of years’ grace — but then Fidel started to get better. He is still far from fit, but he is out of bed and on the phone, and the spectre looms that he might decide he is well enough to take over again.

“[Fidel cannot participate in decision-making] the same way he did before, because he has to dedicate a good part of his time to recuperating physically,” said Ricardo Alarcon last week. “To what extent he will go back to doing things the way he did, the way he is accustomed to, it’s up to him.” And it really is up to him. Fidel Castro so dominates modern Cuban history, and the reflex respect that all his colleagues feel towards him is so deep, that nobody would tell him he can’t take back supreme power.

But it would be a disaster for the regime. Many Cubans revere Fidel, but few want him back in power, jerking them around again with his constant, arbitrary changes of policy. Moreover, the odds are very much against another smooth transition of power some time in the future, when death finally does take Fidel. Miracles happen, but not with any regularity.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 8. (“Partly…day”)

After Castro

3 August 2006

After Castro

By Gwynne Dyer

“Are revolutions doomed to fail?” asked Fidel Castro last November, addressing an audience of university students in a five-hour speech that was followed by a question-and-answer session that lasted until dawn. “When the veterans start disappearing, to make room for new generations of leaders, what will be done? Can the revolutionary process be made irreversible?”

Those questions haunt Cubans now, as the 79-year-old Maximum Leader recovers from surgery for “intestinal bleeding,” having temporarily handed power over to his designated successor, his brother Raul. Some Cubans desperately hope that Fidel will survive; others hope just as strongly that he and his revolution will pass away. But the only people currently in a position to affect the outcome are the senior officials of the Cuban Communist Party. None of their alternatives is ideal.

Brother Raul is not a viable long-term option: he is too old (75), and he suffers from a drastic lack of charisma. There is a younger generation of dedicated Communists, people like Vice-President Carlos Lage Davila and Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque, but they aren’t exactly pop stars either. For almost half a century Cubans have been incited, flattered, thrilled and scolded by the incendiary rhetoric of the 20th century’s most articulate revolutionary, and he is a hard act to follow. But there is Hugo Chavez.

Chavez’s drawbacks as a replacement for Fidel Castro are obvious: he is the president of another country, Venezuela, and he is not a Communist. On the other hand, he is a tireless revolutionary orator in the Castro mode, he is the right racial mixture to appeal to the downtrodden in many Latin American countries — and he does have money. With oil at its present near-record price, about $200 million in oil revenues is flowing into Caracas every day (half of it from the United States), and Chavez has already proved generous to his friends.

The Communist bosses would expect to go on making the real decisions in Cuba, of course. As hardened masters of the dialectic, they are bound to see Chavez as a naive, impulsive romantic, and in any case no Cuban nationalist would hand over his country’s destiny to a mere Venezuelan. But a formal merger of the two countries, rather along the lines of the “United Arab Republic” that Egypt’s Gamal Abdul Nasser once declared with Syria and Libya, would have major advantages for a beleaguered post-Castro Communist regime in Havana.

That regime will be under tremendous pressure from the United States, where Cuban exiles in Miami are already celebrating Castro’s coming emise. In Washington, the Bush administration has appointed Caleb McCarry as “transition co-ordinator” for Cuba, with a budget of $59 million to “hasten the transition” and help Cubans “recover their freedom after 47 years of brutal dictatorship”.

US hostility to the Castro regime has been relentless for all of those years, even when Washington found reasons to back brutal dictatorships elsewhere in Latin America. The Bush administration has worked hard to raise the pressure on Cuba, creating the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba (co-chaired by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rica and Treasury Secretary Carlos Gutierrez, a Cuban-American), and reinforcing the long-standing trade embargo by cutting the remittances that Cuban exiles can send home to their families.

The Cuban Communists fear indirect or even direct US interference in the country to destabilise the regime following Fidel’s departure. They worry out loud about the loyalty of a younger generation whose nationalism (which in Cuba means anti-Americanism) is at war with its urgent desire for access to all the pleasures of consumerism. They worry more quietly about the millions of Cubans who really would like to see democracy in their country. Plenty of reasons, then, to consider the Chavez option.

A formal link between Cuba and Venezuela, with Chavez as joint president, would give the regime in Havana new ideological impetus by appealing to the old Bolivarian dream of a unified Latin America. It would give Cuba more access to Venezuelan oil, Venezuelan financial aid, and perhaps even the modern arms that Venezuela is now buying from Russia.

Chavez would be a sucker for such a proposal, partly because it would appeal to his own Bolivarian dreams and partly because it would drive the US government crazy. As he said last year at a meeting of the Joint Commission on the Comprehensive Cooperation Agreement Between Cuba and Venezuela, “Cuba and Venezuela have joined together, and at this point, the world should know that our fate is sealed, that these two homelands, which deep down are one, are opening a new road at whatever cost.”

It isn’t just a pipe dream. The first person to suggest in public that the Cuban regime might be seriously considering such a union was Ana Faya, now a senior analyst at the Canadian Foundation for Latin America (FOCAL) in Ottawa, but for ten years, until she fled to Canada in 2000, an official of the Central Committee of the Cuban Communist Party. “It wouldn’t be outrageous,” she said in an interview last October. “(But) it should take place while (Fidel) Castro is still in charge.”

If she is right, it will now have become a very urgent priority in Havana.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 7. “”That regime…families”)