Fidel Castro is to take retirement. In a brief statement – by the standards of a man famous for speeches lasting the best part of a day and essays disguised as “letters” – Castro announced on 19 February that he will step down as his country’s president and comandante en jefe. The announcement follows a slow and difficult recovery from a serious intestinal illness and paves the way for Castro’s brother, Raúl, to become the next president of Cuba on 24 February when the recently elected national assembly will come together for the first time to elect the members of the next Council of State.
Reactions around the world have been predictable, ranging from veiled threats by the US government to everyone contemplating positive engagement with Cuba after Castro’s retirement and prompt calls for a “democratic transition” from European leaders to a warm and friendly salute from China. But despite the extraordinary amount of coverage dedicated to the Cuban leader’s decision, including a six-page leader in El País, reactions have also been surprisingly cautious: This time, not even the otherwise surreally fanatical anti-Castro community of Cuban Exiles, that had prematurely celebrated Castro’s death in the streets of Miami when he first fell ill in July 2006, felt moved to a repeat display of its usual shenanigans.
Both the high level of media attention and the caution are well placed: The first amounts to a well-deserved, however implicitly granted, tribute to an extraordinary political figure who kept a socialist project on a tiny Caribbean island on the world agenda, steering it through such historical events as the downfall of the Soviet Union, and who gained the (grudging) admiration of friends and foes alike for his political skills and his encyclopaedical command of knowledge, from major world affairs down to the latest production figures of the Chilean copper mines, the technicalities of a Venezuelan infrastructure project or the reserve movements of any Central Bank in the world. The second reflects the lasting complexities and contradictions that have characterised the Cuban revolution from its beginnings and that are not about to be resolved in a stroke of post-Castro genius.
At the heart of these complexities is the unique case of a revolution that, differently from Chile, Nicaragua or Venezuela in Latin America and also from Russia or China, truly wiped out an utterly politically bankrupt elite of semi-feudal landowners and rentiers, as well as its social and political institutions and its middle class allies. The memory of the sad caricature of a “Banana Republic”, run by native torturers and international thugs in casinos that was Cuba before Castro, is deeply rooted in the collective psyche of contemporary Cuba. Together with outstanding achievements of the revolution in the area of social policies, recognised by most international organisations, this has made for a potent mix of a wide-spread progressive nationalism and a latent, yet potent, loyalty of the people to “their” revolution without which even Castro could never have weathered the lengthy, repetitive and often punishing economic crises the country has experienced over the past 50 years, for reasons both of internal policy mistakes as well as external threats.
Today, the main challenges, apart from the continuing external threats, arise from two main issues that will require careful consideration: First, Cuba’s social landscape is changing fast. As a result of both, the gradual opening of the economy to international investment in a few sectors, such as tourism, since the 1990s, as well as a growing sophistication of the state structure and economy, Cuban society is becoming more stratified and also more unequal – spatially, economically and socially – than at any stage before in its revolutionary history. When all over Latin America the poor were forced to pay the price for their leaders' obsession with neoliberal policies, Cuba managed to maintain a basic safety net for those affected by unavoidable economic restructuring measures, such as the scaling down of sugar production, with the help of a centralised state system of social services. More than ten years on, this centralised system may no longer be adequate to respond to much more diversified social needs and a tendency towards growing inequalities.
Second, ethanol production offers a very tempting solution to Cuba’s immediate economic problems. For several years now, the US has pursued a policy of “rule and divide” in Latin America, offering its agrarian and industrial elites lucrative long-term high fixed-price and low or zero-tariff deals for the export of crops for bio-fuel production. Behind the closed doors of meetings to promote free trade agreements, this was the real deal with the explicit intention of bereaving popular left-wing alliances across the continent of their upper and middle class allies. Which is, of course, also why Fidel Castro continues to oppose any such deal. Yet, from a purely economic point of view, the Cuban revolution needs nothing more urgently than a lucrative long-term export deal, not least to provide the finances for an intelligent and progressive response to the growing complexities of its social base, and thereby also to set an example to the social phraseology of the neoliberal world.
In this context, speculation about personalities is secondary: True, possibly differing approaches to these problems have already been attributed to those up and coming in the new Cuban leadership. Raúl Castro, 76, is a guarantor of continuity, not least given his founding role and decades-long command over the Cuban military. Together with his main ally, Carlos Lage, 56, Vice-President of the Cuban Council of State and Secretary General of the government’s Executive Committee (thus comparable to a Prime Minister), Raúl Castro has been read to advocate a “pragmatic” opening of the Cuban economy and society to international economic and political relations. Of equal importance is, however, Felipe Pérez Roque, 42, currently Cuba’s Foreign Minister who was in charge of negotiations with Chávez’ Venezuela and all important agreements to supply Cuba with oil in exchange for doctors and social workers. He is generally seen to be a close ally of Fidel Castro’s more cautious stance towards offers from the “Empire”.
Be this as it may, Cuba’s new leaders share the iron-clad will of the majority of their people never to go back to anything resembling the pre-Castro era. This resolve will be much more important than any potential divisions on policy that may surface more openly now than they have in the past. Similarly, it would be premature to expect any serious overtures for a real change in relations from a new Democratic US president. It was a Democrat who sent a rogue army to the Bay of Pigs, for fear of being regarded as weaker on national security than his Republican rivals. Things change, but usually not very fast. Long as he may live, a retired Fidel Castro might be very much needed to oversee whatever real changes may be on the agenda.