Cuba’s Packed Crypts

Haroldo Dilla Alfonso (*)

Colonel Alejandro Castro Espin of the Ministry of the Interior, son of President Raul Castro. Photo:

HAVANA TIMES, Feb. 17 — It’s difficult to imagine Raul Castro as having any particular sophistication in the exercise of thought.  They say he’s a straightforward person who neither in his public speeches nor in his personal conversations attempts to demonstrate intellectual adaptability, and one has to admit that he’s achieved this in every respect.

But there’s one field in which the General/President is a competent practitioner: in the uncontested exercise of power.

That’s why, barely after his brother’s retirement was confirmed, he took charge of reconfiguring the political elite.  This was because the General/President knows that in rigidly hard but fragile political regimens (such as Cuba’s), the existence of an absolutely loyal elite — without splits — is a condition for survival.

The first thing he did was to secure a conservative alliance with the party bureaucracy, headed by the least pleasant politician the island has known: Jose Ramon Machado Ventura, who he named first vice-president.  Raul then led a charge against cadre backed by Fidel Castro.

At first the victims were a series of political and administrative figures, but now it seems the cannons are aimed at the members of the managerial technocracy, who had served as the linchpin for coordinating the national economy with various sectors of the globalized economy.

Some with uncontestable “revolutionary” pedigrees, others with immaculate managerial credentials, they have all fallen after being accused of disloyalty, corruption or incompetence, according to their specific cases.  They have left the national public sphere in different fashions, with the most unfortunate having gone to jail and the more fortunate having made it to Miami.  Most remain stuck in that limbo state of “punished-but-still-comrades,” which converted them into pariahs condemned to hopelessly slinking about the temple grounds.

Vifredo Pareto once said that history is a cemetery of aristocracies, where some were victims of cannibalism and others succumbed to revolutions.  The history of post-revolutionary Cuba has not been an exception.  But over the last four years, they have packed the crypts.  And consequently, today it’s very difficult to know what is happening, who’s who in the new political and administrative matrix, and in what direction the policies are moving.

We Barely Know Their Names

Fifteen years ago it was possible to know who was in the inner circle.  It was enough for a person to be in two institutions, or three at the most — the Political Bureau, the Council of State and presidency of the Council of Ministers — to suspect that they were insiders, or at least very close.  But in 2000, Fidel Castro began dynamiting these structures, which culminated in the creation of a quasi-parallel government called the “Battles of Ideas.”

President Raul Castro and First VP Machado Ventura at the Cuban parliament session last December. Photo: Jorge Luis Baños Hernandez

Raul Castro, convinced that some institutionalization was necessary, dissolved the Battle of Ideas and reactivated executive and administrative institutions, but he produced adaptations and began appointing dinosaurs and social climbers, without us knowing exactly the shares of power they enjoyed.  The Political Bureau of the PCC is still a warehouse of cadavers — politically and biologically speaking — and it can be expected that the PCC congress will produce new information about the alteration of the elite.

To this is added another problem.  In previous years, the leaders who were elected or coopted to join the political top were previously known.  Characters like the frivolous minister of Culture, Roberto Robaina; energy minister Marcos Portal or the unpresentable foreign minister ousted in 2009 were people who had acted in the public arena and were known as soft or hard, clumsy or intelligent, ambitious or overshadowed, etc.  Based on that, it was possible to expect something from them – be it good or bad.

But the new appointments are people about whom we know only their names, ages and what they studied.  The most important come from the dark corridors of the armed forces, while others — the less and lesser important — come from no less obscure party corridors.  As was noted earlier, this has been the result of the “successoral” pact that consummated these two elitist factions (the military and party bureaucrats) blessed by Fidel Castro and the old guard who continue to occupy increasingly symbolic positions (but ones that are necessary in a country where the government cannot afford the luxury of losing even symbolic support).

But if the changes produced by the General/President and his military supporters have been able to salvage the unity of the elite in a transitional moment, it doesn’t mean they have reached an effective long-term agreement, although there can be others.  Let me briefly explain two reasons why.

The first is that — at least if there appear new “black swans,” meaning anything like the subsidies from Chavez in 2000 or the appearance of oil in the well-drilled marine platform — the system will have to confront an even more radical revision of its relationship with the population.

Fifty years ago a founding pact was established that exchanged political loyalty for protection.  For a long time that protection has been exposed to the erosion of already-limited resources and of the coming of younger generations.  In tandem with this, the population intensified its practices of resistance by working less and less, “appropriating” what they could and systematically violating troublesome “socialist legality” (where anything important that is not obligatory is prohibited).

If in the past the system was being decimated by erosion, today it is suffering from a clear lunge into the heat of adjustment.  In that same vein, as this adjustment calls for efficient economic rationality, it cannot tolerate the social impudence that — together with remittances — has allowed people to survive.

When Cuban leaders denounce paternalism, the same thing occurs as did with the bourgeois gentleman of Moliere: as they speak in prose without knowing it, and they denounce a system that derives from their own all-embracing power.  This will be even worse in 2011, and although some improvement is expected for 2012, it will not be the restoration of the pre-existing order, which has gone and will not return.  But it would be naive to think that Cubans will accept the incomplete binomial for much time.

The second reason is that Raul Castro has carried out a hand-picked promotion of people, meaning that there lacks a regular mechanism of elitist circulation.  Certainly this latter had never existed in post-revolutionary Cuba, because while Fidel Castro was at the helm and the “historical” generation was still young, this was not a big problem.  But today the former “maximum leader” uses his time to predict an apocalypse and to visit the national aquarium, while those other “historicals” have begun to perilously round the corner into their 80s.

Today one can perceive the reinforcement of the armed forces as the hegemonic institution, to the detriment of others such as the party.  Moreover, within it, a clan of the Castro family could be consolidating, which while not proposing a dynastic succession could indeed condition decisions in this respect.  But none of that is in itself a proven and accepted mechanism.

And if the system doesn’t guarantee that regular mechanism of circulation and renovation of the elite, it is predictable that fractures will be generated in which a political system such as Cuba’s cannot take without very costly ruptures.

The matter is clear for Cuban politicians and technocrats: the elite will restore capitalism but it needs a bourgeoisie able to link them to international capital from their own positions in government.

Whoever is not positioned now will not hold a position in the future.  And according to what position they have now, the better will be their opportunities to participate in the feast of capitalist restoration.  There are new motivations for a revolutionary family that has never had scruples about placing the indicator toward the left and turning it to the right…without the slightest feelings of guilt.

(*) An authorized Havana Times translation of the original article posted by