In the wake of Tuesday’s announcement by Cuban leader Fidel Castro that he will “neither aspire to nor accept” another term as the country’s president, much of the analysis in the mainstream media has concentrated on whether Fidel’s retirement will usher in a “transition” period for Cuba’s socialist revolution, now in its 50th year.
But while the transition being talked about by these analysts foresees a globalised, neoliberal economy, Cuba has in fact been engaged in its own distinct transition for the past year or so, when illness resulted in Fidel handing over power to his younger brother Raul in July 2006.
Under Raul Castro, the Cuban revolution’s leadership has initiated a series of far reaching debates within Cuban society about the type of socialism that it sought. Through various mechanisms Cubans have been actively participating in determining the future direction of the country’s revolution. During this period Fidel has largely remained in the background yet the widely predicted implosion of Cuba’s revolution has failed to materialise. Instead, the revolution has shown that it can both survive without Fidel at the helm and make the type of changes needed to renew the island’s socialist model.
It now seems that Fidel has reached the stage where he feels able to let go and let a new generation of revolutionaries lead the island’s political process. In his resignation letter Fidel said of these: "Some [in the new leadership] were very young, almost children, when they joined the fight in the mountains and later they filled the country with glory with their heroism and their internationalist missions. They have the authority and the experience to guarantee the replacement. There is also the intermediate generation which learned with us the basics of the complex and almost unattainable art of organising and leading a revolution."
So, rather than a chaotic turn to capitalism, as occurred with the demise of the Soviet Union – and which Fidel has sought to avoid at all costs in Cuba - the changes taking place in Cuba so far seem to be controlled by the leadership yet importantly also contain a significant degree of popular participation in moulding the model of society that Cubans aspire to.
Two inter-related factors have been critical in ensuring the survival of Cuba’s revolution and facilitating the transition currently underway in the face of continued U.S. opposition. The first is the rise to power of a number of left-wing governments in Latin America, the so-called “pink tide” sweeping the region.
In particular, the election of Hugo Chavez to the Venezuelan presidency in December 1998 has been of incalculable importance for Cuba. As well as providing invaluable economic support (especially access to Venezuelan oil), Chavez has spearheaded an ideological assault on the failed neoliberal policies that Washington has promoted in Latin America. With his fiery rhetoric Chavez has also reignited the anti-imperialist discourse that has characterised Fidel’s Cuban revolution and many of the social movements that are once again on the march in the region. By standing shoulder to shoulder with Cuba and daring to talk of “21st century socialism” Chavez has conferred a level of legitimacy on Cuba that many predicted would disappear with the crumbling of the Soviet bloc.
Indeed, Chavez’s ‘Bolivarian revolution’ – named after Simón Bolívar, who liberated Venezuela and much of South American from Spanish colonialism – has become a reference point for the left not only in Latin America but across the world. And the alliance that Cuba has formed with Chavez’s Venezuela and other governments such as those of Evo Morales in Bolivia and Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua has meant that Cuba feels more secure that at any point since the end of the cold war, when it was left without friends or support.
The second factor concerns the current US government’s inability to impose its agenda for transition in Cuba due to the severe weakness of its Latin American policy. The Bush administration’s fixation with the “war on terror” and its involvement in Iraq has meant that its policy of “regime change” in Cuba has failed to find public support in Latin America.
Such is the loss of the US political influence in Latin America that a statement released yesterday by the secretary general of the Organisation of America States (OAS), José Miguel Insulza, said that the Cuban people should be allowed to determine their own future, free from foreign interference. The significance of this lies in the fact that Cuba was famously suspended from the OAS in 1962 at the behest of the US
In light of all of this, the announcement of Fidel’s retirement seems much less dramatic than what we have been led to expect. The fact is that Cuba is already changing, and rather than signalling the beginning of a move towards a discredited neoliberal model, Fidel’s retirement merely forms part of a home-grown model of transition.
Pablo Navarrete is Red Pepper’s Latin America editor