If Cuba were normal, the news reports from there in late February would have been the object of international ridicule: The 81-year-old president of a one-party state had been reelected for another five-year term, which, he says, will be his last. And to prove it, he named a successor, the first person in 54 years without the last name Castro-Ruz. (By the way, the Castros are the wealthiest family in Cuba by far, with a fortune estimated by Forbes Magazine to be in the billion-dollar range.)
And so, in his ninth decade on earth, Raul Castro will continue to preside over the diminishing economy, crumbling infrastructure, and shrinking population whose only hope is to live in another country. In the 1950s, before the rise to power of the Castro brothers, with their history of violence, destructive ideology, and class hatreds, Cuba ranked among the top three nations of the Western Hemisphere in practically all socioeconomic indicators, including infant mortality, doctors and hospital beds per capita, and protein consumption per capita.
Half a century later, Cuba is a pauper state, having survived mostly on handouts: hundreds of billions of dollars, first from the late, unlamented Soviet Union (for about 30 years, at approximately $5 billion per year) and, more recently, from Venezuela (for 14 years, at about the same annual amount). Partly as a result of gifting to Cuba such a high percentage of its potential income (over 110,000 barrels of oil a day), Venezuela itself is now experiencing the severe scarcities of food and medicine, accompanied by police repression, that Cubans recognize as the “achievements of the Revolution.”
The putative “successor” that Raul and Fidel named at last month’s “election” is a 52-year-old engineer and Cuban Communist Party (CCP) apparatchik, Miguel Díaz-Canel, who was promoted to the position of vice president of council of state. Of the little that is known of Díaz-Canel, the most important fact is that, since his name is not Castro, it is highly unlikely he will ever be president of Cuba. Why is that? Because Cuba is run like any other organized-crime family. In the crowded auditorium where Díaz-Canel was anointed by Raul were many others — including generals, cabinet ministers, Communist-party ideologues, assorted hit men, and other officials — who, while loudly cheering Díaz-Canel, were thinking that they, and not this tall, athletic former military man, deserved much more the reins of Cuba’s power and the privileges that come with that power in socialist societies. They will wait for the demise of the “anointers,” however, before making a move, since political ambition in Cuba, outside the Castro family, is punishable by prison, internal exile, or death.
Frankly, I have long thought that we would know more about Cuba if we supplemented our Cubanologists with people such as Rudy Giuliani and other U.S. crime fighters. Giuliani’s law-enforcement experience would enable him to understand the Castros. Having dealt with the Mafia (and besting it) in New York, he could tell us how the Castros think, what motivates them, and how Cuba might finally be rid of that pesky family. But I digress.
When Raul Castro succeeded his older brother Fidel as the self-ratified leader of Cuba’s Communist party five years ago, his selection as “president” (by his brother, of course) was accompanied by a flurry of equally breathless media reports, similar to those that last month predicted “reform in Cuba.” We forget, because the developed world’s news agenda is so full, that when the infirm and antediluvian Fidel finally relinquished power five years ago, while near death in his hospital bed, some foreign observers noted what they took to be harbingers of great reforms to come under Raul. They reported that Raul quickly moved to establish trailblazing changes such as “allowing” Cubans to own cell phones, to swap their dilapidated homes for other dilapidated homes, and even to set foot in a few of Cuba’s many hotels that are off limits to Cubans. (By the way, how many of us recall ever reading an article in the “prestige press” about Cuba’s virtual apartheid whereby Cuban citizens are forbidden to enter a tourist hotel unless accompanied by a foreigner, who must show his or her foreign passport to the Castro police? That experience is as humiliating to Cubans as racial apartheid was to South African blacks.)
Those observers missed the irony of Cubans being allowed to own mobile phones 20 years after the rest of the world had them and of being allowed to enter certain commercial establishments in their own country for the first time. (How did a Cuban veteran of the Angolan civil war feel when, after returning from his “internationalist duty” in Angola, where he helped the communist guerrillas defeat the South African “racists,” he was forbidden to enter a hotel in his own country?)
The designation of Díaz-Canel to succeed Raul Castro has changed nothing in Cuba, really, just as nothing really changed there when the fawning media told us that “change had finally come to Cuba” five years ago. Change can come to Cuba only with what the Cubans have long called “the biological solution,” which will finally take the Castro brothers to their reward in the place that Dante poetically described in the Inferno.
— Otto J. Reich is former ambassador of the United States to Venezuela and assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs.