The Alliance Between Reformists and Democrats: The Key to a Peaceful Transition in Cuba
after Fidel Castro's Death
Carlos Alberto Montaner
“Key Challenges of a Cuban Transition Government”
Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba (CAFC)
Army-Navy Club, February 13, 2006
As 2006 begins, it is evident that the Cuban government has managed to overcome the most dramatic aspects of the huge economic and political crisis entailed by the cancellation of the Soviet subsidies and the discredit of Marxism as an ideological reference after the end of the U.S.S.R.
Nevertheless, the manner in which that process of questionable recovery was conducted has exacted a high cost from Fidel Castro in the eyes of the Cuban people and even of the ruling class itself, compromising -- in the short range -- the future of the system after Castro's predictable death.
While the regime today is not in any danger of disappearing, that is due to the unlimited authority that Castro exercises and the fear he instills among supporters and adversaries. However, all symptoms point to the existence of a sharp demoralization in the structure of power and a mixture of rejection and indifference among the population, especially among the young, to which must be added the sometimes heroic pressure exerted by the sectors of democratic opposition in the country and abroad, as well as the constant denunciations from prestigious international organizations, such as the European Parliament and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
The principal psychological and political elements are therefore in place for some very significant changes to occur after the disappearance of El Comandante, so long as that transformation of the system is seen as an opportunity with minimal risk and clear personal advancement for the great majority of the population, including those people who today hold the power.
A bit of history
Beginning in 1992, the Cuban society's already poor consumption capacity (Cuba suspended its international payments in 1987) was suddenly reduced by an additional 30 to 50 percent by the loss of the massive amounts of Soviet aid, while Marxism lost practically all moral legitimacy as a result of the collapse of the communist camp in Europe and the public display of the crimes, falsehoods and distortions committed by the so-called real socialism.
Faced with that unexpected situation, the Cuban ruling class, secretly and unofficially, split into three unequal parts with very imprecise profiles: the reformists, the "immobilists" or diehards, and those individuals who, accustomed to obeying docilely, simply awaited Fidel Castro's directives without expressing any kind of opinion.
The reformists (perhaps in the majority) thought that the revolution ought to adapt to the new world reality and allow a gradual change toward the market and pluralism. Many of them, though not all, longed for a recycled Fidel Castro who would direct that transcendental change in such a way that power wouldn't slip from their hands.
Who were those reformists? They could be found at every level of government, although they were not organized and did not share a common diagnosis. They harbored some hope for change during the Fourth and Fifth Congresses of the Communist Party in 1991 and 1997, (the last congresses held in Cuba) but couldn't make their voices heard. They were crushed. They included prestigious academicians, such as Manuel Moreno Fraginals; writers like Jesús Díaz; diplomats and analysts like Alcibíades Hidalgo, Juan Antonio Blanco and Hernán Yanes; and young university professors like Rafael Rojas and Emilio Ichikawa. Also among them were labor leaders, Communist Party officials, military officers, members of the MININT [Ministry of the Interior], parliamentarians, musicians and artists. Some went into exile, others stepped boldly into the dissident movement, like Raúl Rivero, and some remained in government or its environs without daring to protest. In general, they were part of the most enlightened echelon of the ruling class, although that didn't always mean they were part of the apex. They simply shared the power and in some cases enjoyed certain privileges.
The diehards, custodians of the regime's totalitarian essence, opined that the revolution had to resist unwaveringly, without substantially retreating from the collectivist model of a single party created in 1959. Who were they? Roughly speaking, some old members of the Communist Party or people renowned for their strict dogmatism, such as physician José Machado Ventura, journalist Lázaro Barredo and other functionaries who were also in tune with the security apparatus, convinced that any aperture would mean the beginning of the end of the system.
The people in the third group, bereft of criteria, meekly abdicated their ability to think and left it up to El Comandante to decide whatever course of action he might consider most convenient for all. That was the simplest way not to have any problems.
Unfortunately, Fidel Castro was among the diehards and said so very clearly from the outset of the crisis. "The island will sink into the sea before we renounce the principles of Marxism-Leninism," he shouted fiercely from the podium on several occasions, stifling with this words the message of the reformists, who -- like José Luis Rodríguez, Raúl Roa Khourí and Abel Prieto, even Eusebio Leal, Alfredo Guevara and Ricardo Alarcón -- then opted to remain silent, obey, applaud and wait for a better time (if it ever arrived) to air their ideas and deepest-held convictions.
The strategy of immobility
In addition to digging trenches, Castro took on the task of summoning his old "anti-imperialist" allies in Latin America, and, along with his Brazilian friend Lula da Silva, encouraged the international presence of an organization called the São Paulo Forum, which brought together all the groups that oppose democracy, the West and the market economy, from the narcoterrorist guerrillas of the FARC [Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia] to the Nicaraguan Sandinistas, including the Uruguayan Tupamaros and the Salvadoran FMLN [Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front].
Castro's purpose in promoting this group was quite obvious: to create an international mechanism that would shelter his government and compensate him, in the political arena, for the destitution in which he found himself after the disappearance of the Soviet Union. Like many of his supporters, Castro thought that the revolution could survive only within a group of allied countries and vociferous organizations that would protect the island in the event of an attack by the United States.
In the economic field, Castro made another decision: to accept the least number of reforms that still guaranteed the survival of the system, all the while making sure that those reforms were controlled by the military intelligence services while they were in effect, and that they could be reverted once circumstances changed. This exceptional stage he called "the special period."
To achieve these ends, for example, he placed military officers or former officers in the joint ventures created with foreign capitalists and limited all contracts to short terms. If he accepted foreign partners it was because he needed capital and know-how, not because he was willing to dismantle the communist system. Several times he stressed publicly that capitalism was profoundly repugnant to him.
As part of that "special period," Castro accepted dollarization, authorized a few unimportant private activities, opened the doors to tourism, tried to revitalize the sugar industry and permitted the development of biotechnology. According to his own predictions, within five years those measures would turn the economy around, including the supply of food. He appointed himself the leader of a "food plan" that supposedly would end forever the chronic shortage of food afflicting the Cubans.
The results were not what Castro had expected. The dollarization alleviated the crisis but simultaneously allowed hundreds of thousands of Cubans to evade the state's economic control thanks to the cash remittances they received from their relatives abroad or the small private businesses they set up. The sugar industry collapsed to such an extent that dozens of sugar mills were dismantled and production plunged to the low levels of the previous century. Biotechnology never became a truly important segment of the nation's economy. Food remained scarce and priced far above the purchasing power of the population. Only tourism showed a clear gain, as the number of visitors rose from a few thousand in 1990 to two million in 2005.
However, that strategy began to produce some results in the late 1990s. At that time, the economy stabilized, although the levels of production and consumption were considerably lower than in 1989, when the Berlin Wall was torn down. In 15 years, Castro had not achieved the economic recovery he promised, but society had lowered its expectations and had resigned itself to live in worse conditions. Nevertheless, the price paid for that failure was a general waning of the people's enthusiasm toward the revolution and its leader, whom they perceived as a stubborn and inflexible man, indifferent to reality, and directly responsible for the disaster.
Castro's interpretation was different, of course. According to El Comandante, the experience of this stage of minor reforms had caused serious moral damage to the population and the leadership. According to his inflexibly collective view, the Cubans -- particularly the young people -- had become individualistic and had distanced themselves from the revolution; their only goal was the consumption of material goods obtained in the decadent western world. The ruling class, in El Comandante's implacable judgment, had become corrupt and hedonistic, more interested in the good life than in keeping the revolutionary fires burning.
Enter Hugo Chávez
It is in this context that, with Castro's backing and the blindness of the Venezuelan people, Hugo Chávez was elected in Venezuela in 1998 and the region saw the emergence of the first ally of the Cuban government since the disappearance of Sandinism in 1990. From that moment on, the amount of Venezuelan aid to its island neighbor grew as quickly as Chávez could dismantle the legal limitations that he inherited from the "bourgeois" republic. Cuba, the lieutenant colonel said, was situated in a "sea of happiness" toward which the Venezuelans sailed.
The personal ties established by both rulers tighten exponentially after the failed and brief coup d'état in April 2002. After that dramatic moment, in which the Cuban government plays a high-profile role to enable Chávez to regain power, the Venezuelan lieutenant colonel places the security of his regime and the strategic direction of Bolivarianism in the experienced hands of the Cuban DGI [General Directorate of Intelligence] and Fidel Castro.
It is then that Venezuela multiplies its subsidy to Cuba, with daily deliveries of about 100,000 barrels of crude oil. Some of these the island sells on the international market, acquiring some substantial income that is hard to quantify. But it's enough so Cuba can publicly spurn European aid and cancel some of the timid reforms it began in the 1990s. The possession of dollars is again rendered illegal; the greenbacks must be changed into "convertible pesos," popularly called "chavitos." Many small and mid-size foreign companies are ordered out of the country and self-employed workers are pressured to abandon their activities. In effect, Castro -- as euphoric as he was in the days of the Soviet Union -- now has an ally willing to finance his unproductive collectivism.
But it is on the political and ideological arena where the Castro-Chávez alliance produces its most substantial and worrisome results. As these two characters, both tinged and united by Messianism and narcissism, strengthen their personal and political ties, they generate a certain ideological vision that ends up becoming a doctrine of struggle.
This symbiosis finally is channeled into a historic explanation that is transformed into a prophecy, as usually happens in Marxist tradition. The theory was unveiled by Cuban Foreign Minister Felipe Pérez Roque in a speech delivered in Caracas in December 2005. In that revealing text, Pérez Roque announces that:
- The world has recovered from the sinking of Soviet communism, which occurred as a result of perestroika. Therefore, it is again reasonable to desire the construction of a worldwide socialist model.
- As a consequence of that disaster and the betrayal of European communism, the heart, brain and brawn necessary to perform that task and bury Yankee imperialism are transported to Latin America.
- In Latin America, the Cuba-Venezuela axis has the responsibility to carry out that grand adventure.
- That means that Castro-Chávez are the couple entrusted with leading the worldwide revolution although, because of Castro's age, the final touches of the feat will be left to the Venezuelan. Castro sees himself as the founder of a radiant future world -- on a par with Lenin and Mao -- and anoints as his successor the garrulous Venezuelan moneybags who is willing to finance the glorious Utopia.
Immediately after that speech, Cuba's second vice president, Carlos Lage, whose importance has diminished as Fidel Castro's favor has swung toward Pérez Roque, added another key bit of information: "Cuba has two presidents, Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez," he said. That statement was something more than a metaphor. It was the announcement of the future creation of a true federation that is being created in the shadows during the interminable talks between Castro and Chávez, two enlightened men who are intent on altering the world's history.
Castro-Chavism versus a post-Castro succession
To the reformists -- crouched and silent in government since the second half of the 1980s, the period when Carlos Aldana, Ricardo Alarcón and the officers surrounding Raúl Castro dreamed of a more rational and efficient administration, less dogmatic and pugnacious -- this new twist in the revolution was the worst possible news. Even in death, Fidel Castro would not allow them to govern the country with even a smidgen of common sense, because he would bequeath to them a new leader, a foreigner in this case, maybe because he hadn't found anybody in Cuba with enough stature to replace him.
But in addition to the foreign leader -- someone the reformists didn't respect at all because they saw him as a long-winded clown -- Castro was bequeathing to them something more onerous: the task of continuing the battle against Yankee imperialism and capitalism incessantly, till the end of time. To this, he added the sacred commitment of devoting the nation's whole energy to the conquest of Latin America -- but only as a first step on the road to worldwide victory.
Fidel Castro was not aware that he imposed this absurd sacrifice on a society exhausted by half a century of international adventurism and economic failures at home, a society that had lost decades and thousands of lives fighting in foreign wars, while the country became gradually poorer, amid squalor and repression. Like Chinese emperor Qin, Castro buried terracotta warriors so he could continue to wage battles beyond death.
The possible transition
It is very difficult to win battles after death, however. The examples of dictators who futilely attempted to design a future after their lifetimes are many and diverse, as shown, among other instances, by Stalin, Trujillo, Oliveira Salazar, Franco and Mao. Almost immediately after the disappearance of the caudillos-dictators come the critical recount and the profound reforms. When the political model is exhausted, as in the cases of Portugal and Spain, that reform becomes a regime change.
In Cuba, the situation will not be different. After Fidel Castro has died, a reform will inevitably occur and from them on -- hopefully in an orderly and peaceful manner -- a regime change will take place, leading to a system of political and economic freedoms. How will that transformation develop? There are at least two likelihoods: the political formula, which arises from the very institutions of state, such as happened in Spain after Franco's death or in the entire Eastern bloc after the collapse of communism, and the military formula, in the event Cuban politics is unable to shake off the inertia of totalitarianism.
The key to political change is held by the reformists, who until now have been silenced by Fidel's autocracy. Those thousands of mid-level and high-ranking officials, civilian and military, embedded in all the institutions and organizations of state, know that it is absolute folly to try to prop up by force a model that is secretly repudiated by the people, that has failed totally, and that keeps the population in poverty and backwardness.
After Fidel Castro dies, those reformists will have to step forward in the National Assembly of the People's Power, the CTC [Cuban Federation of Workers], the Communist Party, and the other agencies of power that exist in the country, and demand a great national debate, open and transparent, with the participation of the democratic opposition both on the island and abroad. At that very moment, fueled by a vigorous first breath of freedom, the transition will begin.
Why would the reformists do such a thing? First, because they are aware that the Cuban dictatorship has become a profoundly unpopular government that keeps itself in power by means of repression and fear. No psychologically healthy person likes to be part of a gang of abusers. Second, because the reformists, after half a century of experience, learned that authoritarian collectivism is an infallible prescription to live in misery, shortage of goods and lack of hope. All Cuban officials have spouses and children, parents and siblings who tell them the truth. All of them, in the privacy of their homes, hear constantly that daily life in Cuba is a hell of violence and shortage of supplies, lack of goods and inconveniences arbitrarily imposed by a petty and incompetent bureaucracy. And they all accept that the fundamental cause of that disaster is a system that doesn't work because it is contrary to human nature and has never worked anywhere for reasons beyond the clumsiness of its administrators.
In any case, if the civilian apparatus on which the Cuban state rests is not capable of initiating the transition, the predictable next step is a transition that begins in the military barracks, triggered by the widespread protests. Any Cuban officer in the Armed Forces with a minimum of analytical savvy can see that -- with Fidel Castro dead and given the deep dissatisfaction pervading the Cuban population -- the military officers who overthrow a diehard government determined to maintain the status quo will be received with cheers and general applause, as happened in Portugal in 1974 during the so-called "carnation revolution."
Why would an officer or group of officers do something like that? Because many of them feel that they didn't choose their careers to protect a failed and unfair state. Because they did not swear they would defend the country by beating up dissenters, harassing defenseless "Ladies in White" and stuffing the prisons with innocent people accused of writing critical articles, lending books from independent libraries, or collecting signatures for a referendum. Because when someone swears an oath over a flag, he does so to serve heroically, not to join a gang of hated oppressors.
What no one in his right mind should expect is that, after Fidel Castro dies, the regime will remain in place indefinitely. Shortly after El Comandante is buried, the dictatorship, too, will be interred.
The role of the democrats
Naturally, the opposition democrats on the island and abroad -- two sides of the same coin -- and the international allies should not fold their arms, waiting for the dictatorship to implode after the death of the "Maximum Leader," as some pompously continue to call Castro.
It is very important that the civilian and military reformists within the structure of power in Cuba know that the internal and external opposition -- while continuing to pressure on all fronts where it can possibly act -- is willing to negotiate ways of cooperation that lead to a peaceful transition toward political and economic freedom, with neither winners nor losers, and with room for all political positions that can be defended reasonably and legally.
- Within those formulas, there should be a referendum that legitimizes a general amnesty for all acts committed with political intention.
- Funds should be made available for the honorable and decorous retirement, inside Cuba or outside, guaranteed by international organizations, of those functionaries who request it, as has been done in other countries.
- Assurances must be made that there will be no reprisals and no one will be condemned to a life of indignity.
- An agreement should be reached that the Armed Forces and the forces needed to maintain order will be transformed and placed at the service of democracy, same as was done in Spain and in most of the Eastern bloc countries. Those forces will not be abolished, however.
- A formal commitment should be made that no one will lose his or her home when private property is restored.
In short, guarantees should be made that the change will be to the benefit of the whole of society, not for the enjoyment of a few.
During our entire republican history, we Cubans have been incapable of finding peaceful solutions to the major political crisis. That happened to us in 1906, 1933 and 1959. This is our great opportunity to show that we have matured and can overcome our differences by means of negotiation, acting in a rational and sensible manner. If we achieve this, the road to reconciliation, peace and prosperity will open permanently before us.
February 13, 2006
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The Alliance Between Reformists and Democrats: The Key to a Peaceful Transition in Cuba