Forbes, April 26, 2018   

The End Of The Castro Era. Really?

By Néstor Carbonell

The announcement that aging Cuban dictator Raúl Castro was stepping down as president triggered considerable media speculation that the oppressed, impoverished island of Cuba might experience a new era of liberalization. Alas, this is wishful thinking, argues Néstor Carbonell, at least as long as Castro and his hardline cronies are still alive. Carbonell, a refugee from this terrible regime, provides here a clear-eyed assessment of the current scene and what the U.S. should do to foster a better future for Cuba. He knows whereof he speaks. Always an opponent of the communist takeover, Carbonell participated in the unsuccessful 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion to topple the regime. He subsequently rebuilt his life in the United States. - Steve Forbes , Forbes Staff

TWO SENSATIONAL headlines recently flashed around the globe: “Cuba Now Has the First Non-Castro President in Nearly 60 Years” and “This Marks the End of the Castro Era.” Neither is true.

From January to July 1959 Cuba had a non-Castro president, Judge Manuel Urrutia, who was hand-picked by Fidel and who had upheld the rebels’ right to fight against the Batista dictatorship. Since Urrutia was only a figurehead with no effective power, Cubans dubbed him the “spoon” president, because he could neither pinch nor cut.

In July 1959 Urrutia dared to warn the nation that the communists were increasing their nefarious influence over the government. Prime Minister Fidel Castro responded by lambasting Urrutia in a four-hour television harangue, accusing him of divisiveness and treason, and forcing him to resign. Following this TV coup d’etat, Urrutia sought diplomatic asylum in the Venezuelan embassy and refuge in the U.S., where he died in 1981.

Fidel appointed another non-Castro replacement as president, Osvaldo Dorticos. A longstanding Marxist attorney, Dorticos didn’t deviate from the Party line and remained subservient to the Maximum Leader (Fidel) during his presidency, from mid-1959 to 1976. Suffering from a spinal ailment and depression, Dorticos shot and killed himself in 1983.

A few days ago another non-Castro was anointed president of the regime’s Council of State and Council of Ministers: a 58-year-old electrical engineer and submissive apparatchik, Miguel Díaz-Canel. Raúl Castro had selected Díaz-Canel as his replacement, and the rubber-stamp National Assembly promptly ratified the appointment with totalitarian obeisance—but for a single exception, the vote was unanimous.

Born one year after the Castro brothers seized power in January 1959, Díaz-Canel lacks revolutionary credentials, leadership standing and gravitas. Rising discreetly through the ranks of the Communist Party, from provincial posts to minister of higher education and first vice president of the Council of State, the opaque Díaz-Canel has left no trail of independent thinking or salient achievements. Perhaps because of that, he gained the full backing of Raúl, who will continue to call the shots as head of the Communist Party and army supremo until 2021.

Some have described Díaz-Canel as a level-headed pragmatist and consensus-builder, not tied to the past, who will introduce substantial political and economic reforms to unify and revitalize the country.  Is there any basis for that belief? Not really. In fact, consistent with his communist militancy and ideology, Díaz-Canel blasted the U.S. in a speech last year for its insistence that the regime usher in a democratic transition. “Imperialism can never be trusted, not even a tiny bit, never,” he asserted. And in a leaked video of a Communist Party meeting, he lashed out against self-employed entrepreneurs and vowed a crackdown on dissidents and independent media, saying that they were paid by foreign actors to spike dissent.

In his acceptance speech Díaz-Canel pledged “preservation of the [updated] communist system, continuity of the Cuban revolution and [readiness] to confront imperialism.” An unabashed sycophant, he swore unconditional allegiance to the first secretary of the Communist Party (Raúl Castro), who “will lead the decisions about the future of the country.”

Although Raúl Castro, in his valedictory speech, outlined a plan that envisages the rule of Díaz-Canel through 2031, Raúl continues to groom his son, Colonel Alejandro Castro, and his former son-in-law, General Luis Alberto Rodríguez, for the highest leadership positions. Alejandro, who headed the Cuban team that secretly negotiated the restoration of diplomatic relations with the Obama administration, currently runs the intelligence services. And Luis Alberto, who was married to Raúl Castro’s daughter Deborah, heads GAESA, the huge military conglomerate of state enterprises that controls a large part of the national economy. So we shouldn’t rule out an attempt to prolong the Castro dynasty.

Raúl Castro’s gambit is to muddle along behind the scenes, with perhaps encouraging some minor economic changes, like reunification of the multiple currencies, but without fostering any true openings that could endanger his totalitarian grip. And as he further strengthens economic and strategic ties to Russia, China and Iran, he will induce his friends in Washington to press for the lifting of U.S. sanctions on Cuba and the renewal of the one-sided 2014–2016 thaw. That thaw oxygenated the regime with U.S. dollars, while enabling Castro and his minions to increase the harassment and arrest of peaceful dissidents (which reached a high of nearly 10,000 in 2016), halt the licensing of self-employed enterprises, pocket more than 90% of the hard-currency salaries paid by foreign investors, harbor dozens of U.S. fugitives and terrorists and accelerate the Cubanization of Venezuela.

But despite the dark clouds over Cuba, there is light ahead. The biological clocks of Raúl Castro and his octogenarian diehards are ticking, and it’s unlikely that their successors (whether Díaz-Canel or others) will be able to forestall a schism within their ranks led by those demanding real change. The economic and financial crisis facing the island, aggravated by the drastic cutback in life support from Venezuela, is not peripheral or transitory. The rot is so pervasive that the only real cure lies in removing the state’s stifling corset to open the economy and unleash the nation’s creative energies.

As a well-informed Cuban economic analyst noted, foreign-investor interest in Cuba may be waning. Of the 400 investment projects in the touted Mariel Special Economic Zone that were registered a few years ago, only 35 remain outstanding and 10 are actually operational.

Moreover, the Castro revolution is virtually exhausted, its relevance and mystique a distant memory. Today few embrace, or even invoke, Marxism-Leninism in Cuba. And while the regime’s security and spying forces, along with the thugs of its Rapid Response Brigade, have so far been able to preempt or quash major mass demonstrations, the anger and frustration of large swaths of the population are bound to increase.

The island’s pro-democracy dissident leaders and human rights activists are braving the regime’s onslaught to broaden their reach and kindle the flames of resistance. Their goal, over time, is to coalesce into a national movement, like Poland’s Solidarity, with an inspiring message of freedom, inclusion and prosperity that would draw the backing of the emerging civil society and of young reformists within the government and the army. The dissidents don’t lack foresight and courage; what they need is external stimulus and sustained technical and financial support to jump the censorship firewall and rally the militants across the island.

The U.S. could and should help to bring about a peaceful, democratic transition in Cuba. But this won’t be achieved by coddling Castro or his successors with unilateral concessions, or by relying solely on the soft power of diplomacy. Even with a true reformist like Gorbachev (not comparable to Havana’s deceitful despots), Reagan combined engagement with maximum pressure, including bolstering dissident movements in conjunction with Pope John Paul II and Margaret Thatcher.

Unshackling Cuba will be tough, but not impossible (particularly once Castro is gone). As central and eastern Europe have shown, failed totalitarian regimes eventually yield to the clamor for freedom--if the oppressed are united and supported, and the oppressors have no choice but to leave or change.

--Nestor T. Carbonell, author of the forthcoming book Cuba: The Grand Deception—How the Castros Trapped 11 Million Cubans and Defied (at Least) 11 U.S. Presidents

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