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”)