With the transition of Cuban leadership from Fidel Castro to his brother, Raúl, many policymakers have speculated about the future of the Cuban system, namely, whether the transition will birth a democratic movement.
Yale Professor Carlos M. N. Eire, who teaches history and religious studies, decided to put in his own two cents. On February 29, the Yale Herald interviewed the Cuban-born professor, asking him why the media had been hyping the Cuban leadership changeover. “What many of the news media fail to take into account is that Cuba is a highly abnormal place that doesn’t run by the same rules as the rest of the world,” replied Eire. He believes that there must be “generational change” before the Cubans will see “real freedom.” “When a different generation takes control and gets the power, changes happen. I think what it will take [in Cuba] is for this generation to die out,” he told the Herald.
Raúl Castro expert Brian Latell, assesses the situation quite differently, arguing that while he doesn’t foresee instability “in the short term,” nonetheless “a succession crisis could occur at almost any time,” given Raúl’s age and drinking habits. “Raúl has been elevating expectations, he’s been promising all kinds of change, he’s been actually leading Cuba in dramatically different ways as the ‘un-Fidel,’ but he’s playing with fire,” he told a Heritage Foundation audience.
Latell asserted that Fidel and Raúl are “profoundly, fundamentally different, in personality, in character, in leadership style—in almost every respect that’s in evidence these are profoundly different.” Eschewing Fidel’s “grand-standing” narcissism, Raúl is a pragmatic mastermind surrounded by loyal associates, argues Latell.
The author of After Fidel: Raúl Castro and the Future of Cuba’s Revolution, Latell currently serves as a Senior Latin American Policy Analyst at the University of Miami. Previously, Latell also taught as an adjunct professor at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service.
The author prides himself on being the only expert to have composed a biography of Raúl. “And I describe a lot of these differences, a lot of their unique personality traits in After Fidel, which, by the way, is the only biography of Raúl Castro in existence, even up until this moment,” he said. “There’s never been a biography written of Raúl Castro, not even a book-length—not even a chapter or a long essay, about the life and role of Raúl Castro,” continued Latell.
Among Raúl’s unique characteristics, Latell argues, are
• modesty (compared to Fidel)
• consensus-oriented leadership
• family values
• a willingness to debate Cuban policy
“He’s encouraged, invited so much new expression and participation that expectations, popular expectations on the island, have been rising to very, very high and different levels,” Latell said.
While Eire maintains that Raúl’s loyalty to Fidel will prevent significant policy changes, Latell argued that Raúl has inherited a domestic disaster and must now focus exclusively on domestic policies—especially Cuba’s economy. He envisions a move to integrate market mechanisms and encourage foreign investment. “Raúl, I do believe, is attracted to the Chinese model…I’m talking about the early, the original Chinese economic opening model, not the China model of today or of the 1990’s—the original model of Deng Xiaoping,” said Latell.
This leaves the country with the possibility of several divergent paths: the road to Chinese economic liberalization matched by political repression or the disintegration of the Cuban communist system. Or, more pessimistically, Raúl’s hardline successor could manufacture a bloody repression reminiscent of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, which was preceded by the Hundred Flowers Movement.
To reinforce the notion that Raúl’s current reforms are a pragmatic attempt to boost public support for his leadership, Latell noted that “Cubans on the island and off the island, they think of Raúl not in family terms, not as a gentle, compassionate person, but as a man with a lot of blood on his hands.” The blood, in this case, of hundreds of Cubans. “He may regret some of the more bloodthirsty things that he did fifty years ago…But he does know that he has very low acceptance credibility with the Cuban populace, and he knows he has to elevate it,” said Latell.
The author hinted at the possibility of an eventual state disintegration, pointing out some seemingly insurmountable problems:
1. Raúl is 76 years old, and his hardline successor is 78 years old. The average age of the seven most powerful leaders is slightly over 70 years.
2. There is growing disaffection between the younger and older generations. “This is a gerontocracy now running Cuba…uncharismatic, unappealing…What kind of appeal are those men, those elderly cronies of the communist party, of the military…going to have to that younger generation that’s so aggrieved, that I’ve been mentioning?,” asked Latell.
3. A hastily-promoted debate about Cuba’s governmental problems could spark widespread unrest.
One might be reminded of how Mikhail Gorbachev’s Glasnost quickly snowballed into a resounding defeat for the USSR. Some scholars believe that, in pushing for even faster reforms, the dynamic between Boris Yeltsin and Gorbachev caused the regime to fracture.
However, both Eire and Latell maintain that, in the short term at least, democratic transition in Cuba is unlikely. “There’s no telling where Cuba will be a year or two years from now,” said Latell. He argues out that, far from an idealist, Raúl has no grand plan to strengthen political freedoms or promote human rights.
Bethany Stotts is a Staff Writer at Accuracy in Academia.