The Challenge of a Government without Fidel / Dimas Castellano

Machado Ventura, Fidel and Raúl Castro.

Diario de Cuba, Dimas Castellano, 15 December 2016 — Fidel Castro spent decades leaving his personal imprint on Cuba. Wielding absolute power and imbued with a high degree of of messianism, populism and voluntarism, he determined the fates of several generations. He undertook important social projects but hampered the economy and rolled back civil liberties. The government under his leadership anchored the country in the past and missed the opportunities for change provided by his various and continued failures. His death, given the time and conditions in which it occurred, will undoubtedly have a strong impact on Cuban society.

Due to their limitations, slow pace and the contradictions inherent in a kind of power sharing arrangement, the reforms implemented since 2008 under the leadership of Raúl Castro did not yield positive results. A 1% drop in GDP in the first half of 2016, a projected recession in 2017 and an increase in the mass exodus of Cubans in recent years are confirmation of their failure.

These timid and limited reforms did, however, give birth to an embryonic private sector that the government cannot afford to ignore. Relations with the United States, even if tense under the incoming administration of Donald Trump, established areas of mutual interest that preclude their being reversed. Finding a new godfather in the international arena to replace Venezuela is not an option. And the package of measures put together by the Obama administration, which breathed life into Cuba’s relations with the West, revived tourism and created expectations that will not continue without changes in Cuba itself.

Under this scenario, the government has only two options: to slam on the brakes, which amounts to leading the country into total ruin, or to go forward. The latter is the more likely choice since choosing the former means we would all be losers, including those in power. Even if the political will is lacking and this turns out the be the chosen option, change will come soon enough. We will then see if the current leadership is capable of handling the complexities of getting the country out of stagnation and moving it forward. In any event, any chosen path will, sooner or later, inexorably lead to the democratization of the country.

Given the magnitude of the challenge, what is most important and urgent now is to refrain from judging the actions of the past. Though necessary, the results are already clear for all to see and will, in time, be subject to the implacable judgement of history. Instead, the task at hand is to define the path ahead and to move forward. It is this path that, in the absence of alternative forces capable of imposing rhythm and direction, the Cuban government will have to first define. With no maximum leader or two heads of state, it alone has the resources to initiate any transformation.

With the exception of the fledgling private sector, very little in the economy is working. Dependent on tourism, the Port of Mariel Special Development Zone and a few factories, it is concentrated in the hands of the Business Administration Group (GAESA) under the direction of Major General Luís Alberto Rodríguez López-Callejas.

As for the Revolutionary Armed Forces (FAR), the Cuban constitution stipulates that the president of the Council of State is supreme commander. His principal deputies are army generals Leopoldo Cintra Frías, Álvaro López Miera, Ramón Espinosa Martín, Joaquín Quinta Solas. There are also Brigadier General Lucio Morales Abad, Raúl Rodríguez Lobaina and Onelio Aguilera Bermúdez, who trained under the command of Raúl Castro when he led that institution. All of them are members of the Communist Party Politburo and Central Committee.

Additionally there is the National Defense Council, which can be summoned by the  president of the Council of State at will. In special circumstances, it can become the main organ of governmental and and political power, to which even the provincial and city party secretaries are subordinate.

As a result, the current President holds all the reins of power, allowing him to take Cuba down the necessary path with little or no opposition.

Since the unfeasibility of the current political and economic model is the root cause of people’s apathy and despair, of the mass exodus and of economic inefficiency, any reform that is implemented must attack this fundamental cause. Adopting measures aimed at changing things in order to avoid change, as happened before, would be totally useless today.

Time has completely run out. Although it holds all the reins of power, the government cannot afford to use them for anything other than to effect profound transformation. This is as necessary for resolving the crisis as it is useless for making cosmetic changes or trying to hold onto power in the long term.

Time has been lost but the new scenario, though more complex than those before, offers one last chance for those in power to effect significant change to in a orderly fashion. Totalitarianism is utterly spent. Therefore, regardless of what the government wants, change is inevitable for the government itself. This is the unique feature of the new scenario, which is the ultimate outgrowth of process begun in 1959.

Among the many difficulties are the need for large investments and, therefore, a large influx of foreign capital, which would require new revisions to the country’s investment law; implementing constitutional changes to give legal legitimacy to successors who did not participate in the 1959 revolution; an economy capable of reassuring a dissatisfied populace; changes to property laws to allow producers to own their means of production. For these transformations to be beneficial, they have to be accompanied by transformations in the area of human rights and freedoms.

One of the most feasible possibilities is for the government to take the Vietnamese route. The dilemma of such an approach is that Vietnam’s reforms did not address civil and political freedoms. Given Cuba’s history and culture, this is something that will be impossible to ignore once economic reforms are under way.

In the short term, what happens from this point on will be decisive for Cuba and its society but also for the current government. It is a difficult but inescapable challenge in a landscape without godfathers, without Fidel, with an economy in freefall, and for a people without hope.