Dr. Brian Latell*
During a meeting in May, 1966 with Herbert Matthews, his favorite and
most pliable American journalist, Fidel Castro confided that the period
immediately following his demise "would be the most difficult."
Matthews's unpublished notes of the conversation, archived at Columbia
University, show that Castro believed the "difficulties" he
euphemistically referred to "would be overcome" and that Cuba "would
He was concerned that his successors would not be able to maintain
stability in his absence, perhaps that his brother Raul's legitimacy was
insufficient to smoothly consolidate a successor regime, and ultimately,
that there could be instability and violence. But indirectly he also
expressed confidence that the Cuban military would restore order and
that his revolution would go forward without him.
Today, more than forty years later, the same concerns are on the minds
of Cuban leaders. In the fourteen months since Castro's partial
abdication no uprisings or challenges to his brother's authority have
been reported. Yet, the two key variables that were at the heart of
Fidel's rumination with Matthews –the reliability of the uniformed
services and the depth of popular support for the regime— are still the
most crucial ones.
Once Fidel Castro's iron grip finally is released, his successors are
not sure what might occur in the streets, even though most Cubans by now
are prepared for the announcement of his death. Popular expectations for
liberalizing change already are high, especially among the youth,
although little of consequence has been achieved thus far in their
behalf. Given their frustrations and the hardships they endure, it is
possible that spontaneous demonstrations could occur following the
announcement of Castro's death. Certainly the regime is concerned about
In late July and August, 2006 following the announcement of Castro's
"provisional" abdication the regime took elaborate security precautions.
Similar, stringent measures are sure to be implemented again before his
death is announced. Security and military forces, including elite
military units, will be mobilized and dispersed to potential trouble
spots. Undercover intelligence and police will be put on high alert, and
preventive detentions and intensified surveillance of dissidents and
others will be likely.
Such precautions will be maintained for an extended period. Fidel
Castro's successors will not take any chances as they make preparations
for the funeral observances that will attract large numbers of
international dignitaries and media. With so many foreign witnesses and
international film crews present, any evidence of popular unrest would
undermine the legitimacy of the successor regime and could do lasting
Whether Fidel Castro actually believed it or not in 1966, he spoke
confidently to Matthews of the revolution's support with the populace.
Always Fidel's faithful scribe, Matthews said he "spoke with immense
enthusiasm of the fervor of the people" for the revolution. "It has
really got hold of them." After all, Castro is said to have
pontificated, "This is the only way we can make and sustain a
revolution. Its basis has to be in the people."
Certainly Castro, or Matthews, or both, were exaggerating the regime's
popular support at that time. Their conversation took place not many
months after the Camarioca refugee sealift, the initiation of the
Freedom Flights from Varadero, and the installation of the leadership
cadre of the new fidelista communist party. Popular discontent was
widespread. Rivalries and policy disputes within the leadership were
intense. Major purges had recently occurred and others would follow.
Today the regime probably enjoys even less popular support than it did
in 1966, and perhaps less than at any time since its inception. The
Castro brothers and other leaders have openly acknowledged the
dangerously profound alienation of Cuba's youth. Despite the
transitional regime's efforts to engage and assuage the under
thirty-five "Lost Generation," tensions seem certain to increase.
Instability could take many forms depending on how those conditions were
first ignited. At the lowest end of the spectrum isolated popular
disturbances in one or a few urban areas --sparked either by economic or
political triggers-- might prove to be relatively easily and bloodlessly
contained by the police and security forces.
Even then Cuban leaders would probably seek to ameliorate the underlying
animosities by enacting targeted reforms. Leaders will be intent on
preventing all forms of civil disobedience and disturbances, however,
fearing that once underway they could spiral out of control. But under
conditions of sustained popular unrest the regime could be faced for the
first time since the early and mid-1960s with an opposition that might
begin to coalesce.
Fidel Castro's successors would be uncertain and probably divided about
how to respond to such challenges. Without the implacable Fidel to order
merciless crackdowns and military campaigns to eradicate all opposition,
his successors would probably experiment with different means of
reducing or co-opting opposition elements. Moderates in Raul's circle
would advocate negotiations and concessions to pacify a rising
opposition. Hardliners, also in his entourage, would demand to do what
Fidel would, by brutally extinguishing all enemies of the old order.
Their different strategies and priorities would in all likelihood
generate discord and possibly open conflict.
As always, the armed forces will be the key. The generals will be loath
to order bloody repression of civilians in public places, and at least
some officers would be likely to refuse orders to do so. In such a
crisis atmosphere, generals could force change at the top almost at
will, even to the extent of backing a rival to Raul or his eventual
successor. Though both possibilities are unlikely now, the generals will
remain more powerful than any conceivable combination of civilian
leaders, that is, as long as command and control in their ranks remains
* Dr. Brian Latell, distinguished Cuba analyst and recent author of the
book, After Fidel: The Inside Story of Castro's Regime and Cuba's Next
Leader, is a Senior Research Associate at ICCAS. He has informed
American and foreign presidents, cabinet members, and legislators about
Cuba and Fidel Castro in a number of capacities. He served in the early
1990s as National Intelligence Officer for Latin America at the Central
Intelligence Agency and taught at Georgetown University for a quarter
century. Dr. Latell has written, lectured, and consulted extensively.
The CTP, funded by a grant from the U.S. Agency for International
Development (USAID), can be contacted at P.O. Box 248174, Coral Gables,
Florida 33124-3010, Tel: 305-284-CUBA (2822), Fax: 305-284-4875, and by
email at email@example.com.
The Latell Report September 2007
Welcome to The Latell Report. The Report, analyzing Cuba's contemporary
domestic and foreign policy, is published monthly except August and
December and distributed by the electronic information service of the
Cuba Transition Project (CTP) at the University of Miami's Institute for
Cuban and Cuban-American Studies (ICCAS).
The Latell Report is a publication of ICCAS and no government funding
has been used in its publication. The opinions expressed herein are
those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ICCAS
and/or the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).