Feb 21st 2008
From The Economist print edition
Rue the damage he has done. But lift the embargo against a sad,
HE HAS been the great survivor of world politics. When Fidel Castro
marched into Havana in January 1959 at the head of his troop of bearded
revolutionaries, Dwight Eisenhower, Harold Macmillan and Nikita
Khrushchev were all in power, and the Beatles were yet to come.
Ensconced in his Communist-run island, Castro has weathered ten American
presidents and their economic embargo against him. He has outlasted by
almost two decades the cold war and his former sponsor, the Soviet
Union—long enough to benefit from a new era of anti-Americanism in which
Hugo Chávez in oil-rich Venezuela has come to his aid. And now, at last,
he is stepping down as Cuba's president, for reasons of age and
ill-health, but of his own volition and with what he clearly hopes will
be an orderly succession that preserves his revolution.
He will probably be replaced by his brother, Raúl, who has been running
the government since Fidel underwent abdominal surgery in July 2006.
Raúl Castro has given many signals that he intends to restart reforms
that in the mid-1990s introduced some market mechanisms into the
sclerotic, centrally planned economy (see article). Yet reform will at
first be slow—not least because while Fidel remains alive, he will have
something of a veto over change.
Look a bit further ahead, and two broad scenarios seem possible in Cuba.
The first is one in which the Communist Party oversees the introduction
of capitalism while retaining political control—in the mould of China,
Vietnam or, closer to home, Mexico in the heyday of the Institutional
Revolutionary Party. That seems to be the route favoured by senior
figures in the regime, few of whom show any signs of being closet
democrats. The other scenario is the one long dreamed of in Miami and in
Washington, of the regime's sudden collapse and, it is assumed with a
confidence many Iraqis may find worryingly familiar, a swift move to
The first prospect stems from the notion that Cuba is somehow
different—its people won't want democracy. The second argues that the
only exceptional thing is Mr Castro: remove his evil genius and the
regime will crumble. In fact, the truth seems somewhere in between. To
get a sense of what might—and should—happen, start by cutting through
the fog of propaganda surrounding Fidel himself.
The man and the myth
Apart from its tropical ambience, Cuban Communism always differed from
that of Eastern Europe in being the product of a national revolution,
not of foreign conquest. Mr Castro was inspired first and foremost by
his country's frustrated search for nationhood. As an island on the
doorstep of the 20th century's superpower, Cuba's sad history was
moulded by geography. Insularity meant that Spanish colonial rule
survived far longer there; then came subjection to the United States as
a neo-colony and misrule by a string of corrupt strongmen.
Having won power, Mr Castro had no intention of giving it up. It was not
the American trade embargo that pushed him into the arms of the Soviet
Union; he went willingly. Yet the embargo, the CIA-organised invasion at
the Bay of Pigs and the agency's repeated assassination attempts against
him all gave him the perfect—if false—justification for dictatorship.
Mr Castro's supporters point out that he used his power to give Cubans
world-class health and education services, at least until the Soviet
subsidies dried up. Those achievements were genuine, but often
exaggerated. In 1959 Cuba was already one of the five leading countries
in Latin America on a variety of socio-economic indicators. And along
with the schools and clinics came the dreary economic failures of
central planning, the absence of political freedom and a police state.
Cuba is outranked today in the UN human-development index by democracies
such as Argentina, Chile, Uruguay and Costa Rica, while Mexico is not
So forget the cigars and the posters: Cubans have had a rotten deal from
a miserable regime—and they know it. Scratch the surface of the regime's
propaganda, and profound discontent wells up. But that does not mean
they will automatically push out the Castros. Sadly, unlike much of
South America, the island has no democratic tradition to speak of.
Two-thirds of Cubans have known no ruler other than Fidel. They may
yearn for change but they also fear it: although their lives are poor,
they are also peaceful. If Fidel's successors fix the economy, Cubans
may acquiesce in their rule.
That, however, is a big if. Raúl lacks his brother's charisma and it is
not clear how he will deliver the "structural and conceptual changes" he
admits the economy needs. Without reform, wages and productivity will
remain miserable; but reforms would bring more inequalities and
resentments as well as benefits. That is why Raúl is proceeding with
Raise the embargo and help change through
The question now is a familiar one: whether to keep pressure on a
dysfunctional dictatorship in the hope of dispatching the Castros
quickly, or to try to lure Raúl forward by dropping America's trade
embargo. The first option has its logic: why let a repressive, demeaning
system modernise itself slowly? But there are more powerful reasons to
drop the embargo now.
To begin with, a policy that has failed to hurt the Castros for four
decades is unlikely to work now. America risks leaving the field to Mr
Chávez, who wants Venezuela to become more like Cuba rather than the
other way around (he is already giving Cuba fast internet access because
America won't). And what if pressure "worked"? The result at the moment
could be chaos and violence. Cuba needs not just to dismantle Fidel's
Communism but to construct the state institutions that might underpin
capitalist democracy. The country can prosper only if the two Cubas—the
entrepreneurial diaspora of 1.5m Cuban-Americans and the 11m on the
island—work together, rather than against each other. But that, too,
will take time.
Real change in Cuba will start only after Fidel's death. But that is all
the more reason for outsiders to make constructive use of his
retirement. He has stubbed out Cuba's freedom once; it would be tragic
if hatred of him led to more pain.