Rome–Fidel Castro is dead and his passing, along with the rise of his brother Raul, are benchmarks in a long, banal story of harsh dictatorship.
The reign of the Castro brothers pretty much follows the trajectory of the other prominent Marxist revolutionary movements of the 20th Century. It moved from a brief period of raised, optimistic expectations, then quickly to repression and wacky economic practice, stagnation and finally an effort to hold to power by introducing highly un-revolutionary reforms to overturn policies that never should have been enacted.
Of course, the Cuban Revolution was supposed to be different. It’s worth remembering the excitement that Fidel created among leftists, would-be revolutionaries and their groupies everywhere when he came to power in 1959. The rebels who marched into Havana represented an alternative to the Soviet Union’s model of Moscow-led change, which in any case was already sclerotic. The exposure of the horrors of Stalin’s reign and then the USSR’s 1956 invasion of Hungary eroded the idea that the Soviets offered a route to far-reaching change.
The barbudos, as the bearded young rebels were known, seemed to offer a refreshing option. Fidel’s charm and fiery oratory electrified audiences at home and abroad. During his first year in power he promulgated sweeping land reform and reduced housing rents. The poor and peasantry thronged Havana to give thanks. To this day, achievements in medical care and education are regarded as key achievements of the Castro era. Plus, Fidel was defying Washington, the perceived root of all evil.
Fidel also nationalized foreign holdings in Cuba–US companies controlled oil commerce, nickel mines, hotels and the power and telephone companies–to meet a populist hunger for a Cuba for Cubans.
As a kid I experienced some of the early euphoria. My parents sent me to visit my grandfather in the cattle town of Camaguey in the summer of 1959–things had not yet turned sour between the US and Cuba and travel was normal. It was a happy time. Adults would show their gratitude to vendors selling sugar cane drinks and pork sandwiches by saying, “Gracias, Fidel.” Thanks Fidel. Crowds greeted the olive green-clad rebels euphorically. The dashing Ernesto Guevara, the Argentina physician and guerrilla, exemplified the romantic mood. He was made president of the National Bank of Cuba and signed Cuba’s currency, the Peso, with his nickname “Che.”
But the signs that the new order would be intolerably repressive had already emerged. First, there were the summary executions of remnants of the ousted dictatorial Fulgencio Batista regime. At some level, the executions were reminiscent of the impact of the killing of Tsar Nicholas and his family by the Bolsheviks: a sign that the new rulers could get away with anything. It was Castro’s special genius to entice common Cubans to be complicit in these human rights crimes. Trials held in a sports arena ended with mobs of thousands yelling, “To the wall.” Fidel obliged them by ordering up firing squads.
After liquidating Batista cohorts, Fidel turned to persons who were potentially more dangeroud to his rule than members of the discredited old regime: socialists and democrats. In Camaguey, I was introduced to the military governor of the province, Huber Matos, who was frequently on the city streets. He, along with Fidel and another rebel commander named Camilo Cienfuegos, were among of the most popular faces of the revolution. Matos, a socialist and former school teacher, indulged my ten-year old hero worship by pretending to know who I was when I repeatedly greeted him. That was in June, 1959.
In October, he was arrested for complaining that Communists were hijacking the revolution. He was put on trial in December, charged with treason and sentenced to 20 years in prison. Fidel himself testified against Matos for seven and a half hours. Other liberals and non-Communist rebels would follow the trail to jail.
Through the decades, imprisoning of so-called counter-revolutionaries mounted into the thousands. Other dissident Cubans, deemed “anti-social elements,” “scum” and “worms” were tossed in jail. Just being homosexual was a crime. Neighborhood spies, dubbed Committees for the Defense of the Revolution kept an eye on everybody.
Hostilities between the United States and Cuba, which included American attempts to kill Castro, the CIA’s organization of an exile invasion that failed at the Bay of Pigs and finally, a crisis over placement of Soviet missiles on the island, provided ready justification for repeated crackdowns on suspected dissidents.
Castro’s systematic repression produced its own Alexander Solzhenitsyn: Armando Valladares, a poet jailed for 22 years because he refused to put an “I’m with Fidel” sign on his desk at work. He described the horrors of Castro’s jails in his book “Against All Hope.” He detailed abuse and torture at the hands of guards, of being forced to eat other people’s excrement and being cooped up into “drawer cells” in which multiple prisoners were confined in a tiny space and not allowed to go to the bathroom.
Yet, many Cubans—and not just the rich who fled Cuba in the early 1960s—were uneasy. Periodically, Cubans undertook mass efforts to escape. In 1980, 150,000 traveled by boat across the Florida Straits, which had long functioned as a watery Berlin Wall, to escape to the US.
Few current accounts of Fidel’s domination of Cuba focus on the disasters he visited on Cuba’s economy, but there were plenty. He quickly embraced the Stalinist idea of squeezing wealth from farm and labor to fuel rapid industrialization. Agricultural prices were repressed, as were salaries. Castro tried to stimulate sugar production by forcing brigades of amateur cane cutters into the fields. This increased production for a while, but soon, the dislocation of forced labor was more trouble than it was worth. A failed 1970 sugar harvest spelled the end of this lunatic experiment.
Food rationing was eternal; consumer goods scarce.
The enforced savings by paying low wages provided funds for a welfare state, a huge government administration, health care and education and a big army. It didn’t provide a workable economy. Cuba depended on Soviet largesse, especially for fuel as well as military equipment. Cuba traded sugar, nickel, and citrus for Soviet oil, wheat, chemicals, and machinery. Problems were blamed on the US economic embargo.
When I visited Havana in 1985, I looked to buy some oranges and papayas, two ubiquitous homegrown tropical staples. The city’s central market was empty of produce. Goods from the farms were going to the Warsaw Pact to pay for Ladas.
For Moscow, Soviet generosity paid off politically. When, in 1968, the Red Army invaded Czechoslovakia, Castro supported it, to the horror of many of his admirers. Once seen as an alternative to heavy handed Soviet control of its satellites, Fidel was on board with it. The romance of the bearded revolutionary came to an end.
In 1990, Mikhail Gorbachev pulled the plug on Soviet aid and Cuba’s economy nosedived. In Orwellian fashion, Castro dubbed the ensuing period of hunger and stagnation the “Special Period.” Cuba needed another patron, and eventually found one: Venezuela, which sold oil cheaply to Cuba.
But gasoline was not enough. The economy went nowhere. The Castro brothers tepidly tried to fix things in a piecemeal fashion. Sporadic permission for farmers to sell their products at market prices were repeatedly scotched because the farmers suddenly had money to spend and little to buy. That imbalance, in turn, resulted in illicit commerce between the newly well-off peasants and administrators in control of such goods as building material and fuel. A horrified Fidel stopped liberalization every time farmers seemed to be getting rich.
Fidel took ill in 2006 and Raul took his place as president. He needed to shore up fading support, especially among the young who had no longer saw the connection between the government’s supply of universal education and public health access and the police state.
Younger brother followed in the footsteps of Soviet, Chinese and Vietnamese leaders and instituted wide ranging changes designed to stimulate the economy. Formerly despised bourgeois economic practices became revolutionary policy. Some seemed laughably obvious, a reinvention of the wheel. As Fidel faded, Raul let Cubans open small businesses, obtain unused land, buy and sell houses and cars, take out individual loans and travel abroad without government permission. If they can afford it, they can also buy computers, mobile phones and home appliances, enter and stay at luxury hotels without being accosted by police.
But big-ticket economic items are in control of the state and many of the most lucrative sectors are controlled by Raul’s family and his cronies from his days as defense minister. In effect, Cuba is now a state-run oligarchy, with the extended Castro family and friends poised to benefit. Raul somehow said that despite 50 years of mistakes, the Communist party should continue to lead Cuba.
If you want to do business in Cuba, you probably have to see Raul’s son in law, Luis Alberto Rodriguez. So happens Luis Alberto is also an army general. He controls a government organization called Grupo de Administración Empresarial SA, the “Business Administration Group,” which operates state-owned companies that account for at least half the business revenue produced in Cuba, including 40 per cent of foreign currency earnings from tourism and imports.
GAESA owns the best hotels, most retail store chains, rent-a-car companies and import agencies. It is preparing to build a tourist complex along Havana’s old harbor and to operate a new port and free-trade zone west of the city.
So with Fidel gone and the revolution already buried, Cuba is becoming a family business. A few years ago, a Cuban author in the official National Artists and Writers Union of Cuba wrote: “It has become evident that there are people in government and state positions who are preparing a financial assault for when the revolution falls. Others likely have everything ready to produce the transfer of state property into private hands, like what happened in the former Soviet Union.” (The critic was quickly kicked out of the Communist Party.)
This economic stranglehold appears be accompanying creation of a North Korea-style dynasty. On that score, Raul’s son, Alejandro Castro Espin, merits special attention.
Castro Espin is a colonel in the Interior Ministry, which runs Cuba’s General Intelligence Directorate, as well as the General Directorate of Counter-Intelligence and the General Directorate of Internal Order, each an internal spy agency. Last year, when Raul met with Obama at regional summit in Panama, Castro Espin was part of the small group in the room. He also accompanied Raul on his visit to the Vatican last year.
Raul has said he will leave power in 2018. Look for Castro Espin to take over. Rest in peace, Fidel. The island’s safe in family hands.