If Raul Castro leaves day-to-day administration, he will only be looking for a “successful” way out of his greatest failure: the attempt to move the country towards a more efficient economic structure within an authoritarian regime.
By Alejandro Armengol (Cubaencuentro)
HAVANA TIMES — If Raul Castro finally leaves Cuba’s day-to-day management next year, not only will he be handing over a government position, he will also be passing on an attempt to try and evade (maybe hurried along by old age and exhaustion) a decade long failure.
By officially taking the political, ideological and administrative reins of control of the country, the younger of the Castro brothers sought or at least appeared to be looking to reduce the constant gap between the Cuba of ordinary citizens and the Cuba of duty, stability and progress: the vision that the Cuban government has always tried to offer foreign eyes.
In the beginning of what we can crudely label “Raulism” (although the concept is hard to defend because it has never got past the half-way mark), we could speculate that the failure or success of the second Castro leader would depend on the widening or reduction of this gap. Although even then people needed to be warned that this failure or success shouldn’t be confused with the regime’s fall.
The quest for greater democracy was never on the cards here in Havana; rather it was the attempt to move the country towards a more efficient economic structure within an authoritarian regime, with a government that would work with this end in sight. It was about overcoming the phase when the supreme leader decided whether to take part in a war as if it were a new flavor of ice cream.
From that moment onwards, the country began to drag itself between the need to multiply the number of supermarkets, houses and jobs, and the fear that all of this was impossible to achieve without really shaking the system and putting the nuclei of traditional power in danger or substantially reducing their importance. Not a lot of time was needed to verify that responses in favor of change were disheartened. Economic progress and job opportunities, the promises of past decades, were replaced by the promise to return to small private shops and the (still fueled) illusion of the arrival of providential foreign investments.
In the end, or rather from the very beginning, fear took a hold. Surrounding the indecision between remaining the same and change and the danger of chaos, Cuba continued to be stuck in its level of development and has ended up falling into a recession that the Government itself has had to recognize. In their favor, we must add that they have managed to successfully sell the image of stability, over and above any hope for greater freedoms for its citizens. This has worked in the international arena, both with governments that are more or less allies, permissive or even those hostile.
However, the appearance of stability shouldn’t let the Cuban government forget that what has ended up being the decision-maker when it comes to defining the fate of a socialist system (in nearly every other country that has faced a similar situation) is their capacity to multiply supermarkets and stores instead of thousands of different schools of thought.
Thus, between the two options (which don’t necessarily take the democratic ideal into consideration), the government chose to uphold a strict and outdated power, that survives because of its capacity to maneuver in the face of international circumstances and is sustained greatly by its repression and annihilation of individual will.
The other option was to develop a society that made economic advances and satisfied the population’s material needs better (based on the foundation of growing economic and social discrimination), but maintains authoritarianism’s classic political monopoly of power at the same time.
This second dilemma, which opened up a parallel path to the hope of adopting any of the existing democratic alternatives in the West, has never been foreign to Cuban reality, and there have been feeble displays of trial attempts in this regard, but there has never been a clear and decisive intention to really put this into motion due to the Cuban government elite’s innate incompetence.
Therefore, over these past ten years, unwillingness has been seen in Cuba in the face of needing to decide a path between the China of today, looking to the future, and North Korea, which still clings to the past. Of course both of these paths throw any illusion of democracy out the window, but that’s not why they were (and are) more real in the face of the opportunity of having to accept, albeit with feigned joy or grudgingly, the fact that political transformation on the island is a long-term process.
But, if Raul Castro could limit his ideological definitions to upholding the status quo during the first few years of his presidency, and used the “legitimacy of origin” (the insurrectional victory of the July 26th Movement) argument in his limited and brief speeches, thereby successfully avoiding that his place at the head of government began to be analyzed instead in accordance with “legitimacy by exercise.” Things began to get complicated in late 2010 when Fidel Castro famously said that “the Cuban system doesn’t even work for us anymore.”
These words from the late former head of state, which have been subjected to various analyses, (from an alleged display of support for his brother’s government to a display of senile dementia) put the need to make the system more efficient center stage. Meanwhile Fidel Castro kept for himself, absolutely and repeatedly, the detailed exhibition of his achievements, thereby singularizing the “legitimacy of origin” to his persona alone, by publishing two books which could have been considered his memoirs, La ofensiva estrategica and La victoria estrategica, both in 2010, as well as Guerrillero del Tiempo (2012), an autobiographical interview over 1000 pages long and two volumes with Cuban journalist Katiushka Blanco, as well as a relatively older text, the Biografia a dos voces (2006), with Ignacio Ramonet.
With Fidel Castro converted into the highest representative of the “legitimacy of origin”, his younger brother found himself forced to try and give examples that his marked pragmatism was right, and to prove his efficiency in the realm of “legitimacy of exercise”, which would have to be determined by his success in managing to increase the population’s quality of life to some degree, which he has sought to increase via considerable foreign investment and restricted economic liberalization.
However, even after finding himself in an exceptional and privileged situation after the rapprochement process was initiated by former US president Barack Obama, his fear (and to a great extent his still alive brother’s long extended hand) prevented him from making the most of that opportunity. The visible fear unleashed after Obama’s visit to Cuba – a bold act on behalf of the former US president-, but at this point of time could be considered counter-productive in this trial and error situation, and more as something that gave him personal satisfaction above anything else, or a display of vanity and naivety – which prevented further progress and time ran out: the same month Donald Trump was elected into office, Fidel Castro died.
Of course, we could argue that without Obama’s visit in the last moments of his presidency, the result would have been the same: the Cuban regime was never ready to give anything up in the slightest.
These factors still lack definitions to a great degree. First of all, there was the frustration as a result of the hopes stirred after Raul’s acceptance speech and the first measures of financial change didn’t continue at a growing rate, but the opposite in fact: they came to a standstill.
Then, there is the limbo created by Trump’s government which we are experiencing, where while it is true that the announced setback in Obama’s advances have been limited to nothing other than rhetoric for the time being, it doesn’t stop perpetuating a climate of uncertainty that has contributed to foreign investors’ growing fear and a real setback in diplomatic relations between Washington and Havana.
A deterioration in the island’s financial situation has been added to these two factors, a lack of liquidity that makes us doubt whether it will be able to meet the repayments on its renegotiated debt and a Venezuelan government in crisis, which appears to remain more firm in power than a few months ago but that doesn’t stop absolute financial collapse from looming over their heads.
With allies such as Russia and China who aren’t willing to take on Venezuela’s role as the country’s main economic supporter (Chinese exports to Cuba fell by 29.8% between January and October this year when compared to the same period from last year), the Island is depending more and more on its volatile international tourism sector. All of the above does nothing more than forebode an even more difficult next year in Cuba, when Raul Castro will allegedly pass onto someone else the responsibility of dealing with day-to-day problems in national government.
For a while, Raul Castro was able to lean on three pillars (three excuses, you could also say) to “justify” the delays in making the Cuban system more efficient.
The first was the crackdown on corruption, which has become the most repeated Raulista pillar in the Cuban press. The second was an extended organizational process, which sometimes showed some signs of making progress, but it in the long run has only meant a change in names to leave everything the same. The third continues to be a foreign investment plan, which would be the long-term solution to the island’s financial problems, but it has only shown poor results up until now.
Cuba is using the siege mentality argument again, which it tried to put to one side during the last stages of Obama’s government, but now with Trump in the White House it has taken off again with great force.
From this perspective, negotiations will only be carried out as a result of the crisis. It was Fidel Castro’s favorite (or better yet, only) practice. Up until now, both the United States and Cuba have avoided doing this, this year. The alleged “sonic attacks” aren’t the exception to but confirmation of the rule: in reality, the only people affected are ordinary Cubans on both sides of the Florida strait. But, noone knows how long things will remain as they are.
We can only hesitantly say (sometimes very hesitantly say) that the Cuban government has looked to North Korea as an example, although it wouldn’t be wrong to point out that there are a series of similarities (the role the armed forces play, privileges of the military leadership and personality cult) that links these two different countries distant geographically-speaking but similar sometimes in their politics. It’s also worth pointing out that the alternatives for Cuba are clear and lie between stability and chaos and nobody in Washington wants a chaotic situation just 90 miles away from the United States. However, the following question is just as relevant: What resources does the Cuban government have left for next year?