The emergence of Cuban dictator Fidel Castro from his medically enforced semi-retirement has provoked considerable excitement among his most loyal constituency — the mainstream media in the United States and Western Europe. CNN even chose to carry a full half-hour of Castro’s speech to Cuba’s puppet parliament, presumably denying itself $100,000 or more in paid advertising. What could be so newsworthy about this event, other than the fact that a decrepit Fidel Castro can apparently walk (with some help from others) and speak (in a voice that is more like a death-rattle than his old resonant tenor)?
The only possible answer is that it raises interesting questions about just who is in charge in Cuba. When Castro resigned the presidency several years ago in favor of his younger (79-year-old) brother Raúl, the public prints were full of reports that change was in the air. The junior member of the pair even hinted as much. This was not wholly idle speculation. Raúl is known to be more pragmatic and more realistic than his brother, and may even on good evenings fantasize about becoming Washington’s man in Havana — a kind of approved dictator who protects foreign investors, keeps labor unions neutered, and guarantees control over a potentially restless population, much of which would otherwise head for the boats. Also, lately Raúl’s adult children have surfaced as public figures in their own right (in contrast to Fidel’s offspring, legitimate and otherwise, most of whom keep a very low profile). There might be a Castro dynasty in the making, much like the Somozas in Nicaragua. The fit between this and an American president best described as a kind of unofficial member of the Non-Aligned Movement would seem to be perfect.
Except for one thing: Fidel Castro isn’t dead yet and has no intention of allowing his brother to pursue such a course of action. Castro has resigned the Cuban presidency but is still head of the Communist party, and as far as his supporters both at home and abroad are concerned, remains the ultimate iconic figure of the Cuban revolution. From his point of view a normalization of relations with Washington would skew the preferred narrative — which is that to the very end Cuba (that is to say, Fidel Castro) stood up against the United States. Or as the late Gen. Vernon Walters once put it to me, “If we had full diplomatic relations with Castro, he would be no more important politically than the president of the Dominican Republic.”
To be sure, none of this means that the Castro brothers would necessarily oppose measures that fall far short of full normalization — lifting the ban on tourist travel or allowing Cuba to purchase food on credit (which is to say, ultimate stiffing the American taxpayer who guarantees the loans through the Commodity Credit Corporation). Such measures would no doubt throw a temporary lifeline to a revolution that has, once again, entered into deep economic crisis. But at the end of the day, the antagonism to the United States and all its works will define the regime and force even the most realistic of its personalities — in this case, Raúl Castro — to step back from what would otherwise be the most logical route to his survival and that of his progeny.
– Mark Falcoff is an adjunct scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and author of Cuba the Morning After: Confronting Castro’s Legacy (AEI Press).