Goodbye to the Castros

Fidel and Raúl Castro have left their surname branded in blood and fire on the history of Cuba of the last sixty years (EFE)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 22 April 2018 – One impulsive and the other pragmatic, one charismatic and the other lacking any magnetism, the brothers Fidel and Raúl Castro have left their surname branded in blood and fire on the history of Cuba of the last sixty years. This week the generational relay knocks on the door of the powerful family clan that plans to leave the spotlight but not to let themselves get too far from power.

There was a time when Cuban children calculated how old we would be when the new century arrived. We imagined becoming adults in a millennium dyed red with the Communist flag, where money and misery did not circulate. However, the Berlin wall fell, the illusion broke into a thousand pieces and our personal arithmetic shifted to counting how old we would be when Castroism fell.

That day has arrived, but not as we thought. Instead of an epic overthrow with people waving flags in the streets, the Cuban regime has been fated to fade away like an old photograph: without grace or romance. That process began twelve years ago when Fidel Castro fell ill and transferred the command of the country through his bloodline to his younger brother.

Raúl Castro had to contend with the complex inheritance he received. A nation in numerous reds, with an increasingly apathetic citizenry, an exodus that rejected the supposed socialist paradise narrated by the official propaganda, a network of prohibitions suffocating daily life and a deficient institutional framework languishing under the whims of the Commander-in-Chief.

“Without haste but without pause” was the motto chosen by Raulismo to attempt to fix some of those wrongs. The General came to win the ironic moniker of “gradual revolutionist” because in the face of most of the country’s pressing problems he revealed himself more in the style of a cautious and rancid conservative than someone with the urges of a former guerrilla.

The first thing he did was dismantle Fidelismo, that personal system his brother built in his own image and likeness: capricious, violent, adamantine and vociferous. Without lifting the repressive hand, the second brother put an end to several “absurd prohibitions,” as he called them then, which left the bars of the national cage more visible and rigid.

Oriented in the right direction, but with the speed of tortoise and only skin deep, Castro II authorized the sale of homes, frozen for decades; he allowed Cubans to contract for cellphones, until then a privilege enjoyed only by foreigners; and launched travel and immigration reform on the prison island.

Under the euphemism of self-employment the private sector was encouraged by his hand; the country opened to foreign investment and thousands of acres of land, left fallow for years, were leased to those who would work them. Even public ideological demonstrations lessened, the mass political campaigns to which his brother was addicted were buried, and a process of comptrollership was launched to try to stop waste, corruption and inefficiency in state enterprises.

In those years, between July 2006 and January 2013, Raúl Castro spent all of his political capital, exhausting a government program that had very clear limits: maintain the socialist system, avoid increasing social inequalities at all costs, and stop any attempt toward political plurality.

As Raulism began to languish, on 17 December 2014 came the news of the diplomatic thaw between the White House and the Plaza of the Revolution. For almost three years the world believed that the “Cuba problem” was solved, when it saw Chanel parading on the Paseo del Prado, Madonna dancing in a Havana restaurant, and the Kardashian family driving around the island in an old car.

But the dream of normalization was short-lived. Raul Castro was afraid of losing control and did not respond to the measures taken by Barack Obama with the necessary complement from the island. After the official visit of the US president, the official media intensified criticism of Washington and the honeymoon ended. A divorce was inevitable with the arrival of Donald Trump to the White House.

Fearful of the thousand-headed hydra he had unleashed with his ‘capitalist’ reforms, Castro backed down or froze several of the flexibilizations that had earned him the label of “reformist.” As of August of last year the issuing of most private sector licenses is frozen, travel bans decreed against opponents have increased in recent months, and the official discourse has turned its criticism against local entrepreneurs.

The ruling octogenarian could not solve two of the biggest problems: unifying the two currencies circulating on the island and increasing the paltry salaries paid to the majority of the population. He also failed to stop the exodus of Cubans from the island, or to implement effective policies to raise the birth rate, a serious problem for a nation that is expected to be the ninth oldest country in the world by 2050. Nor did he manage to clean up the state sector corroded by corruption and the lack of efficiency.

However, the greatest failure of the General during the decade of his two terms was his inability to push the necessary political reforms needed to deliver a more orderly house to the generational change. Faced with the dilemma of keeping all power or ceding a part to avoid a dramatic fracturing in the future, the younger Castro was not very different from his brother; he chose absolute control.

He knows that although he methodically planned the succession and chose a docile and manageable heir in first vice president Miguel Diaz-Canel, the personal system he inherited from his brother does not lend itself to a division of responsibilities.

As long as he maintains control over the Communist Party, which the Constitution establishes as the leading force of the country, Raul Castro will be able to keep an eye on this technocrat, who was raised in his shadow and is well aware that any attempt at autonomy could mean his fall. But the old guerrilla knows that the end of his life is approaching and that favored sons become unpredictable when their mentor no longer breathes.

The successor inherits a country in crisis and a society discouraged, an unfavorable international context whose clearest signs are the shift in the ideological course across Latin America and the almost unanimous rejection of his Venezuelan ally, Nicolás Maduro. It is up to him to end the dual currency system, deepen the economic reforms to attract investors and expand the private sector.

Unlike his predecessors, he did not participate in the conflict waged in the Sierra Maestra or in the assault on the Moncada barracks. He will have to build his legitimacy on the results of his management and the realization of real and broad political reform. The myth has ended and for the historical generation, which prevailed with terror and charisma, the days are numbered.

The Castro era concludes and we children of yesteryear are in the maturity of our lives. Many of us fell along the way without knowing another system. Now we return to our personal arithmetic: how old will we be when Cuba is truly free?


This article was originally published in the Spanish newspaper El País.

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