Monday, February 04, 2008


An Information Service of the Cuba Transition ProjectInstitute for Cuban and Cuban-American StudiesUniversity of Miami

Issue 92
February 4, 2008
Jaime Suchlicki*

Rapid Succession, Slow Transition in Cuba

Recent discussion about Cuba’s immediate future centers primarily on two possible variables: the first one explains that Raul Castro is more pragmatic than his older, ailing brother and that once Fidel is gone he will engage in major economic reforms. The second one suggests profound differences between zealots and reformers. Again with Fidel out of the picture, the reformers will prevail and Cuba will begin to change rapidly. Most analysts agree that a succession has taken place and that Fidel is too ill to resume power. Raul and the military are firmly in control. New leadership is likely to take over the presidency of the Council of State, the Secretariat of Cuba’s Communist Party, and the National Assembly. Yet, as long as Raul is in control, these leaders are likely to take their cues from the younger brother and refrain from taking individual initiatives.

The key question, then, about post-Castro Cuba is not who its new rulers will be or what they would like to accomplish. The key question is whether the institutionalization of the revolution under the control of the military, the party and the security apparatus will survive the transition from the totalitarian, paternalistic rule of Fidel Castro. And equally important, what can any emerging leadership hope to accomplish within the existing socio-political and economic context.

There are also other key and more troubling questions: Will the new rulers be able to exercise any major options at all? Will they fear upsetting the multilevel balance of interests upon which a new government will certainly depend? The impediments to major change are significant:
The months, if not years, following Fidel Castro’s death, will be filled by a “cult of personality” emphasizing his main teachings: economic openings will lead to political openings; imperialism is the enemy; and internationalism protects the Cuban revolution.

The military, the most important institution in contemporary Cuba, has significant legitimacy and respect and is a disciplined and loyal force. It controls more than 50% of the economy. Will they be willing to relinquish this economic control and their prominent role? One of Cuba’s major challenges will be how to extricate the military from the economy and put them back in the barracks.

A terrorized, disorganized and fearful population hoping for change from above, with many hoping to migrate. There is a strong belief among the Cuban people about the efficacy of the security services and an overwhelming fear of their repressive capabilities. The political elite sees the development of a civil society as a major challenge to its absolute authority and a threat to its long term control. The limited gains made by a civil society independent of the Castro brothers in the past few years are the result of a deteriorating economy; disillusionment with the revolution and growing unhappiness with the Castro regime; influence of outside forces; and a limited relaxation of the system’s control. Yet civil society remains weak, not very effective and watched carefully and constantly by the security forces.

The possibility of regime continuity, therefore, seems stronger for Cuba than it was for other communist states. Although their end came suddenly, it took decades of decay to weaken critically the Eastern European regimes and successive leadership changes, as well as Soviet disengagement and acceptance before their collapse. In Poland where the trade union Solidarity was born in 1980, as the first non-government trade union in communist history, a military-led government remained in power for a decade. In China, the communist regime obtained a new lease on life following Mao’s death, initially through Deng’s reforms and then ultimately through increased repression. In Syria, North Korea, and Jordan, children of former leaders took and retained power. Even in Haiti, the young Duvalier was able to cling to power for almost a decade.

It is likely that Raul Castro will draw some lessons from these events and attempt to satisfy the needs of the Cuban people. He will initially purchase massive amounts of food to satisfy one of Cubans’ major complaints. After a while he may initiate limited economic reforms, allowing private ownership of land in an attempt to increase food productivity; encourage foreign investments in key sectors where Cuba lacks technology or capital, i. e., off-shore oil exploration, ethanol based agriculture; and increase consumer goods imports from China. Given Raul’s dislike for the niceties of the diplomatic world and his dislike for speech making, he may remain in the background. He will continue to control the military and security apparatus allowing civilians to occupy key positions in the Party and the government.

These changes, however, may not usher in a period of rapid political or economic change or in a collapse of the regime. The stability of the Cuban system is based primarily on the strength of the Armed Forces, the security apparatus, and the Party structure. The organization and strength of the bureaucracy that has grown around these institutions seem to assure continuity. Barring the imponderable or unpredictable, rapid change is not likely.

Perhaps the critical challenge for a Raul regime will be to improve the economy and satisfy the needs and expectations of the population, while maintaining continuous political control. Too rapid economic reforms may lead to a loosening of political control, a fact feared by Raul, the military, and other allies bent on remaining in power. Unfortunately for the Cubans, transition may be slow and painful.
* Jaime Suchlicki is Emilio Bacardi Professor and Director, Institute for Cuban & Cuban-American Studies, University of Miami. He is the author of Cuba: From Columbus to Castro & Beyond, now in its 5th edition and of the recently published Breve Historia de Cuba.

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