Fidel Castro, president of the Republic of Cuba, is the world’s longest serving leader. But after 47 years in power, illness has forced him to hand over the reins of power to his brother Raul. Despite constant assurances from the state-controlled media that he is improving daily, Cuba is abuzz with whispers about a post-Castro future. At the age of 80, the end cannot be far off for El Comandante, no matter how good his doctors are.
To foresee the future, look to the past. In 1959 Castro seized power from the corrupt dictator Fulgencio Batista. With the rallying cry of "socialism or death", he transformed the country, in some ways for the better. He embarked upon a national literacy campaign, introduced universal health care, gave back privates beaches to the people, did away with prostitution and gambling, and introduced ambitious social reforms. Nowadays, despite the shabby infrastructure, the UN’s 2003 Human Development Index rates Cuba amongst the countries with "high development", ahead of Mexico and Malaysia — although, to be sure, all the statistics are supplied by Castro’s government.
As a convinced Marxist-Leninist, Castro swiftly moved to organise the first Communist state in the Western hemisphere. Although some of the strict controls have been relaxed in recent years, it is still a totalitarian state with hundreds of political prisoners. To maintain control, Castro created a national network of " Committees for the Defence of the Revolution" which keep an eye on possible dissidents. Telephones are monitored and internet access restricted.
Dissident Cubans describe the regime as extremely repressive. "Real socialism came with a culture of fear," Oswaldo Payá, a Cuban dissident who lives in La Havana and leads the Christian Liberation Movement told MercatorNet. "The government can point to thousands of people marching in support of Castro, but the regime does not allow them to choose or make decisions. Despite all the clapping, slogans and affirmations of unconditional support, there is no freedom,"
With his enormous charisma and absolute control of the media, Castro appears to have popular support. But Payá denounces this as a sham. “Cubans have endured the regime, not accepted it. There is a superior force, a cobweb of lies, a web of control, and a propaganda and repression system that invade all Cuban life, in every aspect. It has some positive features, but if you don’t know what a totalitarian state is, you can’t understand the reality of life in Cuba today.”
Apart from repression, Castro has managed to survive this long because he has always been propped up by sympathetic regimes. Until 1991 Soviet subsidies supported the Cuban economy. When the Soviet Union dissolved, Castro was aghast. In the so-called "special period", between 1989 and 1993, GDP actually fell by at least 35 percent as Cuba lost four-fifths of its trading partners and the Soviet subsidies.
The economy staggered on by dint of introducing a smidgen of capitalism. Tourism has become a major industry and is probably the biggest source of foreign currency. In recent years, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and his Bolivarian revolution have come to the rescue with cheap oil in exchange for Cuban medical teams. Cubans living in the United States remit US$500 million per year. At the moment, fortunately, the Cuban economy is growing — last year saw an estimated 8 per cent growth in GDP.
"The island will sink into the sea before abandoning Marxist-Leninism," Castro has often insisted. But change seems inevitable in a world where revolutionary Cuba has become an ideological Jurassic Park. Raul is 75 himself and lacks the charisma with which his brother held the country together.
“I believe that nobody can stop change. Sooner or later, they are going to show up. It will be impossible for Cuba to lift itself without political and economic changes. I’m sure that if today we were able to take a genuine poll, 90 per cent of Cubans would be in favour of reforms, from high up in the government to the humblest village. But this has been kept under wraps by Fidel Castro’s intolerance”, says a former commandant in the Cuban revolution Eloy Gutiérrez Menoyo. He spent 22 years in jail in Cuba but after 17 years in Miami, he returned to Havana in 2003 to claim “a legal space for the Cuban independent opposition”.
The question is how to manage the transition to a Cuba without Castro.
The president of the Christian Democrat Organization of America, Gutenberg Martínez, a Chilean, told MercatorNet: “The path must be a peaceful transition which responds to democratic characteristics and decisions of the Cuban people. They must decide freely and without interference or limitation on how to achieve democracy.” Even for the US, gradual change is the best outcome. With Castro firmly in control, at least Cuba has been stable. If his government were overthrown violently, it is estimated that two million Cubans would pack their bags for Miami.
"I support change, not revolution," Vladimiro Roca, of the Cuban Social Democrat Party told the Spanish newspaper ABC. "I don’t want more revolutions. Revolutions bring blood and violence and I want everything to be calm.”
For the Catholic Church, the death of Castro will bring immense changes. The visit of Pope John Paul II to Cuba in 1998 inspired many to become more religious, but the state’s tight control over the Church was not significantly loosened. About 47 per cent of Cubans are said to be Christians, most of them Catholic. But since being a practicing Catholic invites discrimination in a country where all jobs are government jobs, it is hard to know what the true figure is.
The Catholic bishop of Pinar del Río, José Siro González Bacallao, says that Cubans have freedom of worship, but not freedom of religion. “The Church in Cuba has no access to the media, to newspapers or to television. It cannot run schools. We lost everything in 1961 when the government deprived us of education, care for the sick — everything but the seminary”, he told the Spanish newspaper La Voz de Galicia. However, he claims that “the Church has great prestige among the common people, because it is the one which helps the poor and children with Down syndrome.”
The biggest challenge for the Catholic Church after Castro’s demise will be restoring the morale of the people. As in the formerly Communist countries of Eastern Europe, 50 years of socialism has cast a wet blanket over their lively, entrepreneurial character. According to the archbishop of Santiago of Cuba, Pedro Meurice Estío, “collectivism imposed by the state has damaged many Cubans. There is a lack of personality and widespread discouragement. That’s the reason why many of us don’t work towards a freer society and don’t take responsibility for our lives and national history… Re-establishing personal autonomy will cost much more time and work than restoring the economy and political structures”.
Pedro Dutour is a journalist with the El Observador newspaper in Montevideo, Uruguay.