CHANGES IN CUBA?
Por Marcelo Fernandez-Zayas
Tentative Contacts and Plans for the Future
If one were to say today that Cuba is stepping gingerly onto the path of privatization, responses would be of extreme disbelief. After all, Cuba and its leadership have remained steadfast in their communist ideals. This doctrinaire approach to reality persists in the face of overall economic decline, steadily growing hardship for most of the population, and the dollarization of those few parts of the economy that show promise of growth and provide room for individual initiative.
Yet there are signs in Cuba and the United States, that some influential players on the Cuban side, and some eager residents of the US, are looking to position themselves for what may be a massive turnabout in the way the island is organized (and probably governed) after the departure of Fidel Castro.
Although Fidel officially designated his brother Raul as his heir, there is not much depth, experience or skill in the higher ranks of the Cuban government below Castro. With his collapse before television cameras on July of this year, the world finally saw a graphic demonstration of something the Cuban government has tried to hide for a long time: Fidel Castro is not a well man.
His illness was not a new issue for Cuban leaders nor for those who follow Cuba day to day, but the leader's health issue was brought before the world in a surprising and dramatic way.
This event triggered a wave of speculation. Castro might not be close to death but physically he is a mortal man and politically a lame duck. A charismatic and skillful leader is difficult to replace in any country under any circumstances. In Cuba there is not a suitable heir in sight who might have the skills and leadership qualities approaching those of Fidel.
His brother, Raúl, at 70, is a person with minimal charisma who lacks popularity on the island. The state of his health is also open to question. Ricardo Alarcón, President of the National Assembly lacks a strong personality and is considered a good second-in-command but not a man who could aspire to the post of "número uno." Carlos Lage, Second Vice President, and 49 years old, is considered a good follower but not a leader. In the Armed Forces, the highest-ranking officer is General Abelardo Colomé, an able but obscure military figure. In other words, Castro has not planned or prepared for a successor who would rank high on any scale.
Nature dictated that Fidel, in his brief interlude of TV drama, would physically alert the Cuban population and the world at large to the idea of succession, and the need for Raúl to be nearby at all times as his official heir.
Speculation about Castro's health has helped to hide one of the biggest problems affecting Communist Cuba: corruption. A few months ago, Castro found it necessary to create a new Ministry for Anti-corruption Practices.
Everybody in Cuba is living under the attraction of the powerful dollar that swirls around the tourism sector. The effects of this dollarization are pervasive, affecting Cubans from the highest government positions down to the average man or woman in the street. Corruption is rampant, as all Cubans seek some way to obtain dollars just to maintain the bare essentials of a civilized life.
The steady deterioration of Castro's health has prompted speculations about the future of Cuba. Intelligence Report has prepared the following brief scenario as a point to begin further discussion.
CASTRO'S SUCCESSION - WHAT MIGHT HAPPEN?
Immediate Successor: First Vice President, Raul Castro
Assessment: For years, Raúl Castro has been the second man in power in Cuba. Unless he dies before Fidel, Raúl will take immediate command. Raúl has two options for governing:
Those around Raúl (Military and Cuban Communist Party leaders) may press Raúl to depart Cuba to enable a transitional government to negotiate an agreement with the internal and external opposition. Raúl could facilitate the departure from Cuba of members of Fidel's family, his own family and those persons most seriously compromised during Castro's dictatorship.
The likely models for the transformation of Cuba's economy and government would have to come from Russia or its former Soviet client states in Eastern Europe. Admittedly, there are significant variations in what has led to the present conditions in Russia and countries like Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Bulgaria.
But perhaps the personal ties between Cuban party and military leaders and their colleagues in Russia would tend to drive Cuban events along the lines of recent Russian history.
Members of the Cuban military and the party might see certain advantages, both from the standpoint of doctrine and personal advantage, to devise a Russian formula for privatization of the country. Leaving aside the powerful "oligarches," in Moscow, many of Russia's current leaders in government and business are doing quite well after coming from the ranks of younger staff in the Soviet party, military and security services.
The levels of respect, power and affluence of today's Russian leadership must seem attractive to their counterparts in Cuba, who are on the same level in terms of skills, collegial contacts and desire to succeed. In Russia, one does not have to be called a "new millionaire" to enjoy the pleasures of a fine apartment, a nice car, fine clothes and challenging work environment with tangible intellectual and monetary rewards.
It is a fact that Cuban military and political leaders are trying to establish contacts and business alliances with their Russian counterparts. They are also looking further afield to similar ties to Cuban entrepreneurs living abroad. Should the contacts result in a near-term boost to the Cuban economy, these younger leaders could climb rapidly to firm positions of economic and political power. A major rationale and selling point to justify this fast advance would be that this path to change under authoritarian control is the only way to avoid bloodshed as the island faces a post-Fidel transition under a senior leadership that is hollow at its core.
Perhaps this new leadership structure would see itself as one point of a triangle: Havana-Moscow-New York. There are certainly enough Americans lobbying now to "end the embargo," with motives ranging from liberal doctrine to visions of massive agricultural exports and agribusiness investments in the devastated Cuban infrastructure.
The selling job will be facilitated by an already established lobby of American and Cuban-American politicians who will represent themselves as neutrals or moderates with bipartisan connections to Capitol Hill.
Those opposed to the idea would run the risk of being labeled "Miami Cold Warriors." Those in favor of business with the new Cuban rulers could be called "New York Moderates." This scenario is based on the pragmatic experience of Russia in recent years.
Military and Party leaders in Cuba presently believe that this sort of formula might be bought by Washington and Miami. Actually, Cuban military leaders and others from Havana have been quietly positioning themselves for the business and political transition of the future.
Is there some formula of transition from Communism to Democracy that would not involve some degree of corruption? That might depend on the imagination of overseas Cubans in Miami and elsewhere. Cuban-American political organizations could have a significant role to play in the future transition now on the minds of many in Havana. If handled with tact and political skill, overseas Cubans could contribute a great deal to an orderly transition. While a scenario of change on the Russian model anticipates a degree of corruption and dirty politics, a careful contribution from the US side might help the Cubans avoid the nastier aspects of change "in the Russian way."
This is not a very optimistic scenario, but many in the Cuban-American community are preparing for it. And, although Castro may not be aware of the details, many in his government have been putting out feelers: traveling in person, or sending emissaries to the USA for informal discussions. Cuban Communist Party, military and diplomatic leaders are contacting their friends abroad, in former Socialist countries and the US to prepare for Castro's passage from power.
There are several key players who will be worth watching in this process as the scenario unfolds, and transition plans proceed to remove the dead hand of state control from Cuban enterprise. General Álvaro López Miera, Historian Eusebio Leal, Diplomat Fernando Remírez de Estenoz and Minister Adolfo Díaz Suárez could turn out to be major players.
From the US side, some seem to have rushed in prematurely to pick fruit from the Cuban economic tree: They include Mariano Faget Jr. and Pedro Jesús Vidaurreta Font. New York entrepreneur, Font, had a close call with the FBI, but has apparently resolved his issues in a cooperative and businesslike manner. The FBI sting operation, "Operation False Blue," resulted in serious difficulties for INS officer Mariano Faget and his contact, Cuban diplomat José Imperatori. Nevertheless, the root of their problems seems to have been just a desire to gain attractive partners and good positions on the dance floor as the band strikes up for the tango of Cuban economic privatization.
Stay tuned, as we identify the musicians, the dancers and the lyrics to the music.
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