Raúl Castro relinquishing power won’t bring change to Cuba anytime soon

Then-Cuban President Fidel Casto, left, and Minister of Armed Forces Raúl Castro participate in a Cuban parliamentary session in Havana on July 11, 2000. (Adalberto Roque/AFP via Getty Images)
Then-Cuban President Fidel Casto, left, and Minister of Armed Forces Raúl Castro participate in a Cuban parliamentary session in Havana on July 11, 2000. (Adalberto Roque/AFP via Getty Images)

The surname Castro has been synonymous with Cuba since January 1959, first under Fidel, and then, after 2006 , under his younger brother Raúl. Consequently, much is being made of the fact that Raúl Castro is relinquishing all power on the eve of his 90th birthday. It would be a mistake to think that this piece of kabuki theater will bring change to Cuba any time soon.

The reality is that the Communist Party in Cuba, which has had total control of the island for over 60 years, is not about to relax its grip. And since this party is controlled by the Revolutionary Armed Forces, Cuba is really governed by an old-fashioned Latin American military junta. It is an unusual junta, full of former rebels, but it is a junta nonetheless, as olive-green and medal-bedecked and ruthless as any other. All the pious talk one hears from Cuba’s oligarchy about the sacred “revolution” is but a clever smokescreen, spiced up with utopian incense, behind which hide the military men who run the party and the country. The country’s submissive legislature, the National Assembly, always votes unanimously for the directives of the Communist Party. It is purely decorative, a touch of magical realism, like the medals worn by Cuba’s generals.

Raúl Castro is stepping down from the throne, so to speak, but he will keep casting a long shadow as long as he can. Moreover, plenty of generals and colonels remain, ranging in age from their 50s to 80s. A top member of that exclusive circle is Raúl’s son, Col. Alejandro Castro Espín, who is only 55 and runs the country’s dreaded secret police. Official posts outside of the armed forces have a cosmetic sheen to them. The prime example is President Miguel Díaz-Canel.

Although Díaz-Canel has just been appointed first secretary of the Communist Party, he has yet to prove that he is anything but a figurehead. Real, raw power resides in men such as Alejandro Castro Espín and 60-year-old Gen. Luis Alberto Rodríguez López-Callejas, ex-husband of Raul’s daughter Deborah. A member of the Castro dynasty by marriage, he is one of the most powerful men in Cuba, totally in charge of the branch of the Revolutionary Armed Forces that runs most of Cuba’s tourist industry. Since tourism is the country’s main source of income, his clout is considerable. The two brothers-in-law are purported to be engaged in a fierce struggle behind the scenes for the throne vacated by Raúl.

Castro’s departure has been in the works for at least three years, and the Communist Party prepared for it by drafting a new constitution in 2019. Crafted to ensure that no changes can ever be made to Cuba’s communist system, its preamble states: “We, Cuban Citizens … started the construction of socialism and, under the direction of the Communist Party, continue said construction with the objective of building a communist society.” It also says “the people” are resolutely “committed to Cuba never returning to capitalism.” Many articles outlaw dissent, such as No. 4: “The socialist system that this Constitution supports is irrevocable. Citizens have the right to combat through any means, including armed combat ... against any that intends to topple the political, social, and economic order established by this Constitution.” Article 9 reeks of Prussian rigor: “All are obligated to strictly adhere to socialist law.” Article 229 seeks to drive a nail in the coffin of hope: “In no case will the pronouncements be reformed regarding the irrevocability of the socialism system established in Article 4.”

Such absolutist phrases are to be expected from a totalitarian regime, but the question cannot quite be erased: What will happen next? Is it possible that among the younger Cuban communists a Gorbachev lurks, itching to move forward with some tropical perestroika? Is it possible that the junta could be overthrown, somehow, in traditional Latin fashion? Theoretically, one must suppose, anything is possible.

The natives are restless, for sure, trapped in a nightmare scenario. The pandemic is raging and has all but killed Cuba’s tourist industry. The flow of free oil from Venezuela has become a trickle. The economy is in a nosedive; food is in short supply, and waiting in line has become an exhausting daily routine. Dissidents seem to be growing bolder, despite brutal repression. Daring young artists have staged protests, too, despite arrests and physical attacks on them from the minister of culture himself.

So, theoretically, yes, change is possible. But as any good historian or insurance actuary will tell you, theoretical possibilities fall into the realm of faith rather than reason, and it is safest not to expect miracles. Given all that has been set into place in Cuba, change is not likely any time soon, so the safest bet is to be highly skeptical.

Being Cuban, I must admit, my skepticism might be healthy. But it is tinged by equal measures of anger and despair.

Carlos Eire is the T.L. Riggs Professor of History and Religious Studies at Yale University.

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