Jorge G. Castañeda
What Else Ends With Castro
Aug. 21-28, 2006 issue - As always in countries like Cuba, speculation is by definition idle. No one knows whether Fidel Castro is alive and well, dead or dying, recovering or permanently incapacitated. The biological outcome of the current drama in Havana is for now unfathomable. But the political conclusion seems increasingly clear—the age of Fidel Castro has come to an end.
The real question about Cuba's future is not Fidel's role in it, but what happens "after the wake," as Cuban-American author Marifeli Pérez-Stable has aptly put it. The first mystery is whether Raúl Castro will prove to be the reformer that many surmise he is. This would lead to the so-called Chinese option, in which Cuba would open up its economy, attempt to normalize relations with Washington (though not with Miami) and modernize its social policies. There is reason to believe that the younger Castro (so to speak: he is 75) could be a sort of Yuri Andropov—an authoritarian, modernizing, transitional figure.
The other question, directly linked to this first one, is whether Raúl and the rest of the designated leadership can get away without holding authentic elections any time soon. They're certain to try: one can wonder if Fidel would have won the landslide support he always predicted had he put his charisma to a vote, but the question is almost absurd regarding his successors. Economics Vice President Carlos Lage and Foreign Minister Felipe Pérez Roque could probably not get elected to their own offices. Pressure to hold elections immediately will undoubtedly mount in Miami, Washington, Europe and many countries in Latin America. At the same time, there is a case to be made for waiting: a Cuban soft landing, without bloodshed, revanchism and an exodus to Florida and the Yucatán, will not be easy to achieve, yet is in everyone's interest.
Indeed, Castro's absence from power will be felt not only in Cuba. He has exercised enormous influence on the left in Latin America since 1959. At that time the movement had largely given up any revolutionary ambitions. But after Fidel, Raúl and Che Guevara entered Havana, the notion of revolution—socialist, nationalist, anti-imperialist, whatever—moved to top the left's agenda. Ever since, the Latin American left has been sundered by endless debates and tensions between its reformist, social-democratic, peaceful components and its revolutionary, radical, often violent members. Even today, Bolivia's Evo Morales and Venezuela's Hugo Chávez portray themselves as revolutionaries, seeking to overhaul the economic and social order. Michelle Bachelet in Chile and Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in Brazil, on the other hand, view their goals and the means to achieve them as reformist. They are striving for a status quo "plus"—one with significantly less inequality and poverty.
Without Castro, the age of revolution will also come to an end. First, because no possible successor—Raúl at home, Chávez abroad—can dream of replacing him in this context. Second, because the transition in Cuba will inevitably include an assessment of the regime's fiascos—its failures, its deceptions and disappointments, its complicities and crimes and also, undoubtedly, its presumed accomplishments in education and health. That balance will be largely negative, and how can one continue to be a Latin American revolutionary without a revolution to look up to?
Historians can argue whether injecting the idea of revolution into the Latin American left made sense half a century ago. But today, putting an end to this chapter in the left's history can only make the movement stronger and more democratic. The more leaders like Ricardo Lagos (Chile's former, immensely successful president) and Tabaré Vázquez (Uruguay's current president) there are, the better. The end of revolution will make their sort's life much easier.
The best case in point is Mexico. The Mexican left is perhaps the most pro-Havana and revolutionary chapter of the Latin American left, and those unfortunate attributes are doing it enormous harm today. Many of left-wing candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador's followers are openly proclaiming their revolutionary fervor; at his rallies, one of the most prominent slogans is "If there is no solution, there will be a revolution."
His party is not demanding a recount or a new election; it is, increasingly, calling for a total overhaul of Mexico's admittedly flawed society. The transformation of the Mexican left into a truly social-democratic one cannot happen until it lays the idea of revolution to rest. With Fidel, revolution's midwife in Latin America, passing from the scene, now is the time.