Hold the reforms — Castro is back
Cuba’s leader is reasserting some leadership roles. That’s bad news for
those who hoped to ease economic strictures.
By Carol J. Williams, Times Staff Writer
April 28, 2007
Nine months after falling victim to an illness that many U.S. analysts
assumed would prove fatal, Fidel Castro appears to have come back from
death’s door to resume some leadership responsibilities and rein in
Cuba’s would-be reformers.
He’s receiving visiting dignitaries, not just friends such as Colombian
writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez but
official delegations, including one last week led by a senior figure in
the Chinese Communist Party, Wu Guanzheng.
Castro’s name is again attached to editorials for Cuba’s state-run
media, ones in which the U.S. government is lambasted for freeing an
accused terrorist and Brazil is criticized for using food crops for
ethanol production when they could be feeding Latin America’s poor.
And, to the alarm of veteran Cuba-watchers who sensed a new degree of
openness to economic change during Castro’s absence, the apparently
reinvigorated revolutionary is now believed to be blocking moves to let
Cubans open small businesses.
U.S. analysts of Cuban developments acknowledge that they know little
about Castro’s illness or the degree of his recuperation. His personal
secretary said he was suffering from intestinal bleeding when he handed
over power last summer to his brother Raul. U.S. intelligence sources
have speculated that he has cancer.
But the Spanish newspaper El Pais reported the most detailed and
plausible version of his prolonged medical attention, citing
unidentified doctors familiar with Castro’s case. The newspaper said the
Cuban president had undergone three surgeries to remove infected
intestinal tissue and became gravely ill when the incisions failed to
heal and the infection spread to his stomach.
Since July 31, when Raul Castro, the defense minister and first vice
president, took over for his older brother, state-authorized media
exposes on rampant corruption and the younger Castro’s public criticism
of shortages in food, transportation and housing have hinted at internal
review of Cuba’s political and economic system, said Phil Peters, vice
president of the Lexington Institute near Washington and a veteran
analyst of Cuban affairs.
Raul, the pragmatist
Raul Castro has a reputation for pragmatism about private enterprise
within the state-run economy, having inaugurated many of the island’s
most successful hard currency-earning joint ventures in tourism in the
early 1990s, when the country was reeling from the sudden cutoff of
After Fidel Castro was too sick even to make an appearance at the
September summit in Havana of the Non-Aligned Movement or at his delayed
80th birthday celebrations in December, the government said that a
thorough review was underway to identify, and presumably correct, flaws
in the communist ideology guiding the country.
“Now it looks like cold water’s getting poured over all that,” Peters
said. “That, to me, is the clearest sign that Fidel Castro is getting
better and getting closer to coming back to office.”
Castro remains staunchly critical of income disparities among Cubans,
including the estimated $1 billion in annual remittances from relatives
abroad that are believed to benefit as much as a third of the island’s
State salaries average about $15 a month for most workers, so the $100 a
month that Cubans in the United States can legally send their relatives
in Cuba has created a class divide between those who receive dollars and
those who do not.
Also prospering out of proportion to those in state enterprises are the
thousands of entrepreneurs who secured licenses during the early 1990s
that allowed them to open private restaurants, pensions and consumer
services that cater to the 2 million foreign visitors to Cuba each year.
Castro revoked many of those private-enterprise licenses three years ago
and imposed withering taxes, just before he ordered the removal of the
U.S. dollar from circulation in Cuba and replaced it with a new national
currency called the convertible peso, which has no value outside Cuba.
Hopes of an expansion in self-employment were buoyed last fall when Raul
Castro began speaking out in interviews and speeches against the
government’s inability to properly provide for its 11.2 million citizens.
Those hopes were dashed, at least for the short term, this month when
Cuban Vice President Carlos Lage, architect of the early 1990s reforms,
parroted Fidel Castro’s condemnation of “social distortions” in a speech
to a Communist youth group. Cuban media also reported recently that the
academic commission assigned to examine problems with state ownership
wouldn’t deliver its verdict for three years.
Peters believes the debate opened late last year will continue “airing
out all kinds of dirty laundry” and putting pressure on the leadership
to make course corrections.
“Carlos Lage also said, ‘We, the Cuban government, no longer pay a just
wage that allows people to cover their basic needs,’ ” Peters said. “You
can only say that so many times before you have to come up with a
solution to the problems.”
Damian J. Fernandez, head of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida
International University in Miami, agrees that a Pandora’s box of
ideological debate has been opened that will eventually lead to change.
“People are talking in Cuba. When the talk is going to materialize into
action, I don’t know. But this moment of succession, the transfer of
power, has broadened the parameters of what is discussable, what is
permissible,” he said. “There are still parameters, but the borderlines
Cubans remain patient
Still, Castro’s return to the power structure would put a damper on the
debate, he said.
“To have an open, full-fledged discussion on the future, Castro would
have to be gone,” Fernandez said.
Other analysts say the seesawing on reform could threaten Cuba’s
relative social peace. Although Cubans privately express a hunger for
more opportunity to improve their living standards, they have remained
patient throughout Castro’s rigid opposition to capitalist activity,
including the types of business now allowed in allied Vietnam and China.
“He’s in the way,” Frank Mora, a professor of national security strategy
at the National War College, said of Castro’s apparent return to the
policymaking arena. “He’s prolonging a real transition. Whatever support
Raul has been able to build can run out quickly if he’s not able to
deliver the goods.”
However, he said, Cubans have shown little inclination to challenge
their system in the way Eastern Europeans did two decades ago with
pro-democracy marches and protests. There also is no discernible divide
in the Cuban political or military elite, Mora said, that could be
exploited by pro-democracy advocates, who are few and fearful since a
major crackdown on dissent four years ago.
Although Cuba-watchers differ in their forecasts of whether Fidel Castro
will resume full power, they agree he is making at least a partial
leadership comeback. By Communist protocol, the head of the Cuban party
hould have received the Wu delegation — a role Castro signed over to
his brother nine months ago.
“At least the PR campaign is that he is trying to get back in the
saddle,” Fernandez said. “Can he mount the horse as totally as in the
past? I think that’s unlikely. But he can still have a lot of influence.”
What is the elder Castro’s motivation for reasserting control despite
advancing age, persistent infirmities and his own stated need to groom a
new generation of leaders?
“Once a micromanager, always a micromanager,” Fernandez said.