Castro brothers’ resistance to change could test renewed U.S.-Cuba
Castro brothers’ resistance to change could test renewed U.S.-Cuba
By Nick Miroff December 18 at 10:25 PM
During the 47 years that he ruled the island, Fidel Castro was a
dominant and near-daily presence in the lives of ordinary Cubans. He
cajoled, lectured and admonished them, feuding with enemies — especially
the United States — in looping, animated speeches that lasted hours. On
television, on the radio and in the Communist Party newspaper Granma, he
was always there, talking, talking, talking.
Beyond the debate over whether the reforms enacted in recent years by
the younger Castro — who is 83 — are meaningful, his style has brought
an important shift that has done just as much as anything to dial down
hostilities with Washington and set the stage for President Obama’s
normalization announcement Wednesday.
That move will test a theory that has been popular for years in
Democratic circles — and a few Republican ones, too:
Where U.S.-Cuba relations stand and what may change VIEW GRAPHIC
The Castro government doesn’t fear the embargo and interminable
hostilities with the United States; it has thrived on them, so the
thinking goes. What worries the island’s control-minded leaders far more
The response of Cuban officials to this argument has always been: Try
us. But a new relationship with the country Fidel Castro used to call
“the colossus of the North,” and its wealth, influence and power, could
put significant pressure on the communist government whose post-Castro
future remains murky.
“In the medium and long term, this is a challenge for the Cuban system,
because it undermines the climate of hostility that has long been used
to justify the one-party state,” said Arturo Lopez Levy, a former Cuban
government intelligence analyst who is an adjunct faculty member at New
Since taking over after his brother fell ill in 2006 and nearly died of
diverticulitis, Raúl Castro has treated Cuba’s presidency as more of a
burden than a calling. He gives only a few speeches a year, reading from
written text and wasting no words. He does not stay up late into the
night charming visiting diplomats or Hollywood celebrities. Cubans go
weeks without seeing him.
He is a lifelong military man, not a natural politician. He was 26 in
1958 when his elder brother ordered him to open a second guerrilla
“front” in the Sierra Maestra mountains of eastern Cuba, and he has
spent his life in the older Castro’s shadow.
“In the end, Raúl Castro will be remembered not for the communist ideals
that he espoused as a young man, but for having achieved a landmark
agreement with the United States to reestablish relations,” Lopez Levy
“Relations with the United States were central to Cuba long before its
founding as a republic,” he said, “but they have never been relations of
dialogue or with respect for sovereignty, and Raúl has achieved that,
which is something very important to Cuban nationalism.”
In his address Wednesday on Cuban state television to inform the country
of the deal, Raúl Castro’s military style was on full display.
He read a 10-minute statement, seated at a desk in uniform, with the
portraits of Cuban independence heroes in the background and a
wood-paneled wall that looked like something out of a Nixon-era suburban
“President Obama’s decision deserves the respect and acknowledgment of
our people,” he said, as stunned Cubans looked on. “The progress made in
our exchanges proves that it is possible to find solutions to many
problems,” he said. “As we have reiterated, we must learn the art of
coexisting with our differences in a civilized manner.”
Castro has said he will step down in 2018. His ailing brother is 88 and
virtually absent from public life. Miguel Diaz-Canel, the 54-year-old
vice president who would be in line to succeed him, remains very much in
the shadow of the Castros and their circle of aging army generals.
The Cuban government has long defended its strict political and economic
controls with the argument that the United States would use any opening
as an opportunity to stir unrest. But if tensions with the United States
ease, Cubans will increasingly look inward at the shortcomings of their
anachronistic system and Soviet-style planned economy.
“I want to see who they blame now for the economic collapse and lack of
freedoms that we have in Cuba,” dissident activist Yoani Sanchez wrote
on Twitter after the White House announcement.
The narrow market opening permitted by Raúl Castro over the past few
years has already shattered many of the ideological underpinnings of his
elder brother’s brand of socialism. Where private enterprise is allowed
— food service, repairs shops, hair salons — Cubans flourish. In dingy
state-run factories, they see stagnation and ruin.
His version of carefully managed change is guided by what Cubans have
come to see as his catchphrase: “Without haste, but without pause.”
Many Cubans — especially the younger generation — want a faster pace.
As part of the rapprochement, U.S. officials say Cuba has agreed to
expand Web access on the island, which has one of the lowest Internet
use rates in the world. That will bring additional challenges, as Cuban
officials have long feared the type of Web-enabled activism of the Arab
Spring and its potent cocktail of social media, smartphones and
frustrated young people.
Obama’s moves Wednesday were the type of breakthrough many of them hoped
for after he won the presidency in 2008. Cubans knew he’d questioned the
long-standing U.S. trade embargo and thought his message of “change”
might include them.
The new president began to deliver in 2009, making it vastly easier for
Cuban Americans to visit relatives on the island and send money. The
island’s Cold War overtime, it seemed, was finally winding down.
Then the government threw Alan Gross in jail and snapped the thaw back
Cuba was once again in control of the relationship and the pace of change.
Wednesday’s announcement puts the weight back on Cuba and Raúl Castro.
Aside from the prisoner swap and the symbolic importance of renewed
diplomatic relations, the president’s executive orders make clear that
more substantial change to the relationship will come only if Castro
continues to open its closed economy and political system.
“The normalization of diplomatic relations will offer an opportunity and
a challenge to deepen and accelerate the reforms,” said retired Cuban
diplomat Carlos Alzugaray, reached in Havana. “Cuba will have to take
advantage of the opportunity but guard against other effects that new
investment may bring.”
Senior U.S. officials said Wednesday that the move will not end the
democracy-promoting USAID programs that Gross was working for at the
time of his arrest in December 2009. Instead, they will operate from
within a future U.S. Embassy in Havana, and the Cubans will be watching
and almost certainly trying to thwart them.
But those programs could switch from what was essentially undercover
political activity to more aboveboard American training and assistance
programs for the emerging small-business sector permitted by Raúl
Castro’s reforms, said Cuba analyst Phil Peters. That would be a
trust-builder, if the Cubans allow it.
Cuba has yet to permit its small businesses and worker-run private
cooperatives to engage directly with foreign companies and import the
technology and goods they need, Peters noted. “It would be problematic
if Obama has opened a door to significant business engagement and Cuba
doesn’t accept,” he said.
With nearly 80 percent of the economy under state control and key
industries such as tourism and retail largely operated by the military,
the government stands to profit, too, of course, from more robust trade
ties permitted by the Obama measures.
“For a government that denies economic freedom and property rights, it
seems clear that the changes proposed will first benefit the state
apparatus,” said José Daniel Ferrer, leader of the Cuban Patriotic Union
dissident group in Santiago, the island’s second-largest city. “Only in
the medium or long term will we know the effect on the Cuban people.”
Nick Miroff is a Latin America correspondent for The Post, roaming from
the U.S.-Mexico borderlands to South America’s southern cone. He has
been a staff writer since 2006.
Source: Castro brothers’ resistance to change could test renewed
U.S.-Cuba diplomacy – The Washington Post –