Gavin O-Toole, "THE LATIN AMERICAN REVIEW OF BOOKS" , Oct. 28th, 2006 :
The absolute Cuban
Volker Skierka’s biography of Fidel Castro is an elegant forensic examination of whether history really will absolve the Cuban leader when he is gone
DESPITE THE ever-present menace from across the Florida Straits, it is likely that the gastric surgery carried out on Fidel Castro in July will remain the most invasive threat faced by Cuba for the foreseeable future.
While animated by the setback to its most implacable foe, Washington is unlikely to do much more than redouble the rhetoric supporting the largely unsuccessful efforts to provoke a transition favourable to US interests that have distinguished its policy towards the Caribbean island since the 1990s.
Noises in October that it will crank up its aggressive pursuit of those who violate its trade embargo with Cuba and travel restrictions say more about US domestic politics than about any changes in policy. The comments were a tried-and-tested means of strengthening Republican support ahead of congressional elections. Cuban complaints about the threat of US aggression aside, the status quo is far more valuable to a White House now beset by foreign policy irritants and on the ideological defensive than an ill-conceived military adventure in its own back yard.
That said, the stature of Castro and his importance to Cuba’s political system mean that the country’s greatest state secret has become the ailment afflicting its president and, while apparently recovering from his illness, it remains unclear exactly what that illness is. Such morbid attention to Castro’s health recalls the kremlinology of the Soviet era and, indeed, seasoned observers of Havana such as Volker Skierka use the term castrology in similar vein to refer to this expert scrutiny of Cuba’s most powerful man.
Latin American mood change
Yet there the parallels end: Havana’s revolutionary government has outlived Moscow’s; Castro has retained absolute power, and a good deal of legitimacy among his people, for 47 years; Washington seems no further advanced in its efforts to secure change than it was a decade ago; and, most importantly, the mood of the Latin American region has swung discernibly if not decisively away from implied friendship with the US based on the notional relationship between the triumph of capitalism and democratic reform of the 1980s, and back in the direction of leftwing populist nationalism of the kind that Castro is so comfortable with. Sympathy in Latin America towards Cuba is a product of its steadfast anti-imperialism - a posture that could be attributed only in theory to the ageing autocrats of the Soviet Kremlin.
If it has done anything, then, Castro’s illness and decision to cede power to his brother Raúl heading a collective leadership, temporarily or otherwise, has focused attention even more closely on the question that the castrologists have been juggling with for several decades already: what next? The most remarkable feature of Castro’s position in Cuban society means that, in spite of his stepping back, we are still not much closer to determining the shape and direction of Cuban government in his aftermath.
Despite being a highly readable yet admirably balanced portrait, Skierka’s biography makes only a limited a contribution to this debate, foreseeing solely in terms of broad trajectories either rigid continuity or a continued, gradual opening, Chinese style. It would be unfair to expect more from a volume published in 2000 and first printed in translation in 2004 but re-released by Polity in the wake of Castro’s illness. However, Skierka does go through the motions of examining the main contenders for leadership after Fidel and draws attention to the role Castro himself may be playing in this process. Perhaps being more aware of his mortality than anyone else, the Cuban leader has long insisted that a succession is planned and it is likely that the first tentative steps had already been taken before he fell ill. Yet such is the inescapable gravitational pull of Castro’s presence - around which all Cuban life has revolved for so long - that it has been impossible to discern any clear mechanisms for succession beyond Castro’s own designation of his brother.
The first stage envisaged in the succession process was a period of collective leadership of the kind now in fact being exercised under Raúl by Carlos Lage, Ricardo Alarcón and Felipe Pérez Roque, to name the usual suspects. Collective leadership is notoriously fragile and whoever prevails or emerges as dominant will be crucial in setting Cuba’s course at a turning point in its history.
The youngest of the three Castro brothers, Raúl, 75, has held most of the top positions in the Cuban executive: first vice president of the Council of State (and acting president since July 2006), vice president of the Council of Ministers, vice-secretary of the politburo and central committee of the Communist Party and head of the armed forces. Steadfast, loyal and pragmatic, he is nothing if not a safe pair of hands in a transitional period. In particular, his control over the security apparatus - greatly strengthened since the late 1980s by the militancy of the Miami exiles - is seen as an essential element of any transition. Security policy is already playing a key unseen role in the immediate post-Castro aftermath, hence Raúl’s current prominence. However, according to Skierka even by 1999 it was acting as a barometer of rising tensions in the island’s internal political situation. But as Skierka makes clear, Raúl is uncharismatic and unloved, and his detractors see little but a political hardliner dedicated to maintaining the Communist Party’s unchallengeable monopoly and his sinister side, associated with the persecution of dissidents and homosexuals. There is speculation that Raúl would be more willing to adopt market-oriented economic reforms, perhaps within a form of Chinese political and economic model that maintains communist power.
Cuba’s de facto prime minister, Carlos Lage, a member of the politburo and the executive secretary of the Council of Ministers, is from the next generation of the leadership. Just eight years old when the revolution triumphed, he has carved out a reputation for his innovative approach to economic policy, and has been pivotal in determining energy relationships that have brought much relief to the besieged island, such as the concessionary oil deal made with Hugo Chávez in Venezuela. The Chávez-Lage relationship will be a factor in strengthening his profile as the shape of post-Castro Cuba becomes clearer, although Chávez’s own grip on power appears increasingly flaky. Most importantly, Lage has acknowledged the role of economic globalisation and sought ways of adapting a communist society to it. In the special period of belt-tightening in the early 1990s he devised the reforms that allowed for new land-holdings and the creation of small business ventures.
Ricardo Alarcón de Quesada is closer in age to the Castro brothers and is president of Cuba’s national assembly. He has carved out important links internationally in his longstanding role as a diplomat with an academic disposition. Alarcón knows the mind of Washington perhaps better than any other government figure, and has been a vociferous and feisty defender of Cuban nationalism, not hesitating to denounce US allegations and propaganda on the international stage and drawing himself into several scraps within the US itself as a result. His accusation that US officials were lying about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction prior to the American-led invasion were perspicacious, to say the least, and boosted his standing among non-aligned colleagues. Behind Lage, Alarcón is the most likely powerbroker in any transition, bringing with him the contacts of those key international players that will, without doubt, play a role in the country’s future.
Only one figure can match Alarcón in terms of international stature and that is Felipe Pérez Roque, Cuba’s foreign minister. The difference between the two men is one of age: Pérez Roque was born after the Cuban Revolution and became the youngest member of the executive when he was appointed in 1999. He is also extremely well-connected within the state apparatus and Communist Party as a prominent member of the Council of Ministers, Council of State and party central committee. It might be assumed, as Fidel Castro’s former personal secretary, that he was a shoo in for the top job, and some veteran Cuban watchers have suggested that Pérez Roque was chosen by Castro to head a succession panel under Raúl’s supervision. However, public perceptions of Pérez Roque have been shaped more by his role as a spokesman than a leader, and detractors suggest he is too single-minded and, indeed, unimaginative, to inherit the leadership of a society that is clearly evolving.
The real issue
In a rapidly changing world, however, whoever takes over from Fidel Castro may not be the real issue in seeking to ascertain the island’s immediate future and policy options. As Skierka points out, Castro’s heir will inherit a Cuba that is slowly but surely undergoing a metamorphosis. Space is developing for new political voices, the state is increasingly less able to monitor its citizens, and there have been subtle signs of rising tension since the early 1990s. That said, there is still no domestic opposition on the island and no real alternative vision for it in the medium term short of the atavistic reversal demanded in Miami, suggesting that the key variant when it comes to policymaking in the Raúl Castro era will be the Cuba’s relationship with outside powers and the role they choose to play. In a post-Castro Cuba, the most important determinants of change - or the lack of it - will be the US-European relationship and how Latin America as a region rises to the challenge of completing a foreign policy triangle with the Atlantic powers.
Alternatively battered by disputes over the Middle East and trade, the US-European relationship is one in which the vested interest of these regions has ultimately prevailed over broader commitments to democracy and human rights. While EU policy towards Cuba provides plenty of evidence of an independent approach - and, indeed, even of hostility to the extra-territorial pretensions of US laws such as Helms-Burton - EU interest in Latin America, nonetheless, remains qualified by the reality of its relationship with the US. Moreover, Europe does not speak with one voice and has at times appeared to be divided over such issues as human rights. The recurrent “banana wars” have demonstrated that EU-Latin American relations are often a triangular affair in which the US is a silent but dominant partner, and both Europe and Latin America itself continue to make relations with the US a priority.
This is why Latin America’s lurch leftwards is a factor in the forthcoming Cuban equation, although one that may not be as important as at first seems.
There is no doubt that Castro remains a lodestar for the Latin American left - it is a remarkable feature of his profile that today he commands as much admiration from generations born well after the Cuban Revolution both in Latin America and beyond. Such is this appeal that, as Skierka points out, the Cuban veteran socialist-nationalist drew larger crowds in a 48-hour visit to Buenos Aires in May 2002 to attend the inauguration of Argentina’s new president Néstor Kirchner than the Argentine leader himself.
Yet Latin America’s leftward drift is as fragile as it is rudderless . The many setbacks encountered by Lula in Brazil, and his electoral embarrassments in October 2006, confirm the fragile grip of the electoral left. This has been amply demonstrated by the vigorous performance of Lula’s centre-left rival Geraldo Alckmin in this year’s presidential elections, and the difficulty Lula has had shaking off concerns about corruption within his party. Washington, meanwhile, has been busy trying to halt the tide, welcoming with palpable relish the election of conservative allies in Colombia and Mexico, and straining at the leash to hail resurgent criticisms of Chávez within Venezuela as a revival of the right.
Castro’s personality and motivations
Given the complexity and indeterminacy of all these questions, and the potential pitfalls of trying to predict what will happen in Cuba after the old man has gone, the wise path chosen by Skierka in this elegant biography is to refrain from prediction - beyond pointing to the dangerous pressure that has built up behind autocracy and Cuba’s “depressing” backwardness - and to suggest that what comes next is less important than our understanding of Castro the man and his legacy and contribution to history. The role Skierka assumes, therefore, is one of forensic psychologist, examining Castro’s personality and motivations and how they inform our judgement of him.
Behind the public persona, the real Castro is really rather a strange, and to some who have met him, dislikeable, individual. What comes across from Skierka’s portrait is an image of an obsessive man who, despite concentrating more power than any Latin American leader before and since, betrays at times a surprising self doubt. We learn, for example, about Castro’s conviction that Che Guevara was more ideologically mature, and his refreshing humility that has eschewed a personality cult derived from the belief that others were as fit to lead as he. Skierka leaves us in little doubt, however, that what Castro has refined over nearly 50 years has been a highly developed philosophy of leadership, and it is this that marks him out as an exceptional figure both in revolutionary history and theory.
Nonetheless, Skierka argues that the Cuban leader, while fired by an insatiable hunger for historical recognition and an unshakeable belief that history will “absolve” him, has still had to assume he will end his life “without the consolation of public gratitude” for failing to deliver material gains - although the physical achievements of Fidelismo, “tropical socialism”, count for little next to the role Castro has played delivering Cubans from colonial status. But although the fulfilment of Martí’s unfinished task of creating a national identity and of retaining the upper hand in US-Cuban relations for half a century mean that Castro clearly does stand a greater chance of acquittal than perhaps any other figure in modern history, as Skierka so pitilessly points out: history acquits no-one and does not know mercy.
Gavin O’Toole is Editor of the Latin American Review of Books