WASHINGTON--Raul Castro has killed all hope that a transition to the rule of law and a market economy will start anytime soon in Cuba. The appointments he has made as well as his first speech as president and his televised conversation with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez indicate that self-preservation is Castro’s paramount objective even if he understands the need to shake up the moribund communist state.
Raul’s appointments aim to consolidate the old guard, starting with first Vice President Jose Ramon Machado Ventura, a fiercely loyal party apparatchik, and including generals such as Julio Casas, until recently Castro’s second-in-command at the Ministry of Defense and now one of the five vice presidents of the Council of State. The average age of the 31-member Council of State is 70--the same age as the president of the Popular Assembly (parliament). The younger generation whose names had been naively mentioned as possible replacements for Fidel Castro--among Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque and Carlos Lage, the manager of the island’s economy--have been humiliatingly passed over.
Raul Castro has spent the last few decades surrounded by generals politically attached to him. He has given them power--the Cuban military controls many of the state-run industries in areas such as agriculture and tourism that generate some revenue. They will be the backbone of Raul Castro’s government.
If this was not enough to signify continuity, take Castro’s half-hour speech before the Popular Assembly on Sunday. He assured his compatriots, loud and clear, that he will consult his older brother, whose “analytical capacity” is “intact,” on every important decision in matters of state--that is, on defense, foreign policy and the economy. “Fidel is Fidel,” he ominously reminded everyone, meaning not just that his decisions will have the legitimacy that arises from the ailing leader’s nod but, more importantly, that nothing will change dramatically. This is an obvious signal to the military and the bureaucracy that any attempt to move away from orthodoxy will be seen in the future as an explicit betrayal of Fidel Castro and his revolution. In fact, the statement would be enough to justify the overthrow of Raul himself should he venture into bold reform.
The younger Castro did promise economic changes, of course, admitting that many of the services people are getting for free are not sustainable and giving the impression that he will eliminate entire government departments. This does not amount to the “Chinese model” that many observers see Castro embracing. Apart from the fact that Fidel Castro, who will continue to have the final say, has repeatedly said he will never go the “Chinese Way,” there is a precedent that indicates there are limits to how much the old guard is willing to experiment with economic reform. The Castro brothers opened up the economy somewhat in the 1990s, allowing Cubans to open small businesses and inviting foreign investors to establish joint ventures with state-run companies. As soon as there were signs that economic decentralization might create certain pockets of power not directly answerable to the island’s leader, the Castros backtracked on many of the reforms.
Raul Castro has managed the armed forces with a greater efficiency than Fidel has managed the rest of the nation. Not surprisingly, Raul wants to bring the national economy to be run like his army. But I fail to understand how he can go from there to Chinese-style conversion to capitalism--much less to democracy--as so many observers are anticipating. If Cuba were to open its economy to an extent comparable to China’s, the Cuban government would risk losing control of the process very quickly. Raul Castro wants to guarantee the continuity of the revolution by making it more efficient, not to change its nature by turning capitalist.
That is why, even though Raul is believed to be resentful of the Venezuelan president’s interference in Cuban affairs and jealous of Chavez’s role as Fidel’s Latin American heir, the two talked on the day of Castro’s “inauguration.” The message was clear: the alliance will continue.
Could it be that the new president simply has no choice but to move very slowly while his brother is alive? It’s possible, but where is the evidence that 76-year old Raul Castro, who has been a member of the Communist Party since 1953 and continues to live under the shadow of his brother, is the Cuban Gorbachev? So far, such talk can only be attributed to wishful thinking.
Alvaro Vargas Llosa, author of Liberty for Latin America, is the director of the Center on Global Prosperity at the Independent Institute.
By Alvaro Vargas Llosa