Why Cuba Will Still Be Anti-American After Castro

In totalitarian regimes, the road to bureaucratic success is not through hard work but through loyalty.

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Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez listens to his Cuban counterpart Raul Castro in Havana in this November 8, 2010 file photo. (Reuters)

Dressed in an impeccable, custom-tailored suit and a Versace tie, instead of his usual military fatigues, General Raul Castro addressed the Cuban Parliament on February 24. He did not discuss political or economic reforms. Instead, he announced he would be stepping down from power at the end of the five-year term for which he had just been elected. If the Pope retires, "I can also retire," he explained. Yet the Cubans would have to wait for the "younger" brother to reach 87 years of age to see the end of the Castro dynasty.

But not so fast. There are other Castros in the wings. In particular, Raul's son, Alejandro Castro Espin, a colonel in Cuba's intelligence apparatus, could be groomed in the future by becoming a general and a member of the Communist Party Politburo, Cuba's ruling body. In the meantime, Raul appointed a younger Communist, Miguel Diaz Canel, as first vice president among five other vice presidents. A hardline party apparatchik, Diaz Canel, a 52-year-old engineer and former Minister of Education, grew up under Fidel's and Raul's shadow as an obedient and disciplined Marxist. A protégé of Ramon Machado Ventura, an old communist and (till Sunday) first vice president, Diaz Canel mirrors the ideological rigidity of his mentor.

A second appointment followed. This one for President of the National Assembly (Cuba's Parliament). Raul picked another old and loyal Communist, Esteban Lazo. Lazo has been the only prominent Cuban black to occupy any high-ranking position in the predominantly white-controlled Cuban government. A bland, obedient bureaucrat, Lazo will follow the Parliaments' tradition of rubber-stamping the laws issued by the leadership.

The two appointments seemed more symbolic than significant. Raul Castro wanted to send a double message: that the octogenarian Cuban leadership was now giving way to a new, younger generation of leaders. Also, aware of the unhappiness among Cuba's black population, impoverished and neglected by the regime, Castro wanted to elevate a loyal supporter to the ceremonial position in the Parliament. It is doubtful that the majority of Cubans (more than 60 percent of whom are black and mulatto) will be appeased by these appointments or renew their belief in the Cuban revolutionary leadership. Similarly, the appointment of a young hardline bureaucrat is unlikely to gain much favor with Cuba's youth, hoping for deeper political and economic changes.

Raul Castro seemed to have overlooked legal requirements in his own constitution, which calls for the Party's Political Bureau to be the key group to recommend a post-Castro successor. If Raul dies or becomes incapacitated, the Politburo will recommend and the Council of State will decide who will be Cuba's new president. Since the Politburo is dominated by the military, it's obvious who will make the final decision. Not only does the military control the Party's Politburo, but more than 60 percent of the island's state enterprises, including the all-important tourist industry, are in the hands of the military.

Diaz Canel's tenure as first vice president may follow the fate of other younger leaders promoted earlier by Fidel Castro. Former Czars of the economy Carlos Aldana and Carlos Lage and former foreign ministers Roberto Robaina and Felipe Perez Roque were all promoted in the past to those key positions, only to be removed by Castro when he doubted their loyalty or resented their prominence.

It is one of the ironies of totalitarian regimes that the road to bureaucratic success is not through efficiency or hard work but through loyalty. Perhaps Diaz Canel has learned this lesson in his short career. Without any popular support or base of power in the military, his future may be as precarious as those of his comrades fired from their jobs and now living in oblivion.

In the meantime, Raul Castro will still rule with an iron fist. Some Cuba observers expect that Raul will open up the economy and even provide some political changes. Not so soon. With Fidel alive, or even when he is dead, it would be difficult for Raul to reject his brother's legacy of political and economic centralization. His legitimacy is based on being Fidel's heir. Any major move to reject Fidel's "teachings" would create uncertainty among Cuba's ruling elites - party and military. It could also increase instability as some would advocate rapid change, while others cling to more orthodox policies. Cubans could see this as an opportunity for mobilization, demanding faster reforms.

For Raul Castro, the uncertainties of uncorking the genie's bottle of reform in Cuba are greater than keeping the lid on and moving cautiously. For the past 52 years, political considerations have always dictated economic policies. He had been the longest serving Minister of Defense (47 years). He presided over the worst period of political repression and economic centralization in Cuba and is responsible for numerous executions after he and his brother assumed power, and some while in Mexico and the Sierra Maestra before reaching power.

During his speech to Parliament, Raul Castro scoffed at any idea that the country would soon abandon socialism and embrace profound economic changes. "I was not chosen to be president to restore capitalism to Cuba," he emphasized. "I was elected to defend, maintain and continue to perfect socialism and not to destroy it."

General Castro faces significant challenges in his second term. A non-productive and highly dependent economy on Venezuela and other foreign sources, popular unhappiness, the need to maintain order and discipline among the population and the need to increase productivity. Raul is critically dependent on the military. Lacking the charisma of his brother, he still needs the support of key party leaders and technocrats within the government bureaucracy.

The critical challenge for Raul Castro will be to balance the need to improve the economy and satisfy the needs of the population with maintaining political control. Too rapid economic reforms may lead to an unraveling of political control, a fact feared by Raul, the military, and other allies keen on remaining in power. A partial solution may be to provide more consumer goods to the population, including food, but without any structural economic changes.

Similarly, any serious overtures to the U.S. do not seem likely in the near future. It would mean the rejection of one of Fidel Castro's main legacies: anti-Americanism. It may create uncertainty within the government, leading to frictions and factionalism. It would require the weakening of Cuba's anti-American alliance with radical regimes in Latin America and elsewhere.

Raul is unwilling to renounce the support and close collaboration of countries like Venezuela, China, Iran and Russia in exchange for an uncertain relationship with the United States. At a time that anti-Americanism is strong in Latin America and the Middle East, Raul's policies are more likely to remain closer to regimes that are not particularly friendly to the United States and that demand little from Cuba in return for generous aid.

Raul does not seem ready to provide meaningful and irreversible concessions for a U.S. - Cuba normalization. Like his brother in the past, public statements and speeches are politically motivated and directed at audiences in Cuba, the United States and Europe. Serious negotiations on important issues are not carried out in speeches from the plaza. They are usually carried out through the normal diplomatic avenues open to the Cubans in Havana, Washington and the United Nations or other countries, if they wish. These avenues have never been closed as evidenced by the migration accord and the anti-hijacking agreement between the United States and Cuba.

Raul remains a loyal follower and cheerleader of Fidel's anti-American policies.

The issue between Cuba and the U.S. is not about negotiations or talking. These are not sufficient. There has to be a willingness on the part of the Cuban leadership to offer real concessions - in the area of human rights and political and economic openings as well as cooperation on anti-terrorism and drug interdiction - for the United States to change it policies.