Fidel hell: USSR is dead, but Castro’s iron grip on Cuba endures

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By John J. Metzler

UNITED NATIONS — For as long as I can remember, the phrase Castro’s Cuba was synonymous with a Caribbean island ruled by one Family.

Indeed for sixty years the phrase had a certain, if unfortunate, political ring. So when Raul Castro, the second member of the ruling dynasty, stepped down from formal power in Havana, the linguistic modifier of Castro’s Cuba entered the past tense. Or did it?

Cuba’s National Assembly of People’s Power picked Vice-President Miguel Diaz-Canel as Raul’s successor and a reliable candidate to lead the country in the post-Castro era. He won with a respectable 99.83 percent of the vote. At the start of his tenure, Diaz-Canel stated that there was “no room in Cuba for those who strive for the restoration of capitalism.” But will this relatively young man (58) as compared with the Castro brothers Raul (86) and now deceased Fidel at (90) really be more than a communist Party cutout for caution and conformity?

School children participated in the official mourning period for the death of Fidel Castro.
School children participated in the official mourning period for the death of Fidel Castro.

Since Fidel Castro’s triumph in the Cuban revolution back in 1959, the Castro family along with the dictates of the Communist party has ruled the island with a mix of terror, coercion and paternalism. In the early years, Cuba’s Communist experiment was supported by the former Soviet Union as a kind of classic Cold War showdown between a Fidelista David and the Goliath of Uncle Sam.

Contrary to media myth the early years of Fidel’s regime were replete with mass arrests, executions, property expropriations and crackdowns on dissent. More than a million would flee.

As years turned into decades, Castro’s socialist policies eroded a once reasonably prosperous country into a moribund Marxist economy sustained by Soviet largesse, Venezuelan oil, and Canadian tourists.

Conventional wisdom, which is usually wrong, assumed that with the collapse of the Soviet Union, Castro would soon fall. Certainly Cuba suffered additional economic hardship in the wake of Moscow’s aid cutoff but the island was able to slog on with the cultivation of new allies in socialist Venezuela and China.

Yet, the Cuban revolution which has outlasted a dozen American presidents and ensuing political hostility from Washington appears entrenched.

The Obama Administration changed what had largely become a mantra of American foreign policy; isolation of Castro’s Cuba to a hopeful political opening. In late 2014 Barack Obama stated characteristically, “we will end an outdated approach that, for decades, has failed to advance our interests.”

In July 2015 the United States re-opened diplomatic relations with Cuba; the once shuttered American Embassy on Havana’s majestic seafront Malecon was re-opened by the Secretary of State John Kerry in a moving if slightly awkward ceremony with John Kerry standing on crutches. Ties had been cut during the Eisenhower Administration in January 1961.

Obama’s reengagement with Cuba rested on the wishful assumption that Cuba had “changed” and that the bi-partisan confrontational policies between Washington and Havana were counterproductive. Part of the commercial calculus involved opening American business ties and allowing expanded tourism, long constricted by complicated regulations.

Though formal two-way trade remains barred by the long standing Embargo dating from 1962 when President John F. Kennedy slapped economic sanctions on Cuba, nonetheless American farmers are able to send agricultural exports to the island. In 2017 U.S. exports reached a high of $283 million.

As the human rights watchdog group Freedom House asserts in their current assessment of civil and human rights, Cuba stands clearly in the “Not Free” category. Moreover, regime control of the media remains stifling.

But as is historically the case in Washington’s controversial Cuba policies, sea change comes unexpectedly. Speaking last year in Miami, Florida, the epicenter of the Cuban-America exile community, Present Donald Trump brought a dose of realism in the new relationship with Havana; “We will not lift sanctions on the Cuban regime until all political prisoners are freed, freedoms of assembly and expression are respected, all political parties are legalized, and free and internationally supervised elections are scheduled.”

In the wake of Raul Castro stepping down as leader, U.S. Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) called the move “a charade” which will not bring change to the island as the system is controlled exclusively by a single party. The Florida Republican added, “If Castro truly wanted democratic change for Cuba, he would allow the Cuban people to determine their fate through free, fair, and multi-party elections.”

Indeed the aged Raul Castro remains at the helm of the communist party. Though Cuba has witnessed cosmetic change, the central issue remains suffocating one party rule and Castro’s shadow.

John J. Metzler is a United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He is the author of Divided Dynamism the Diplomacy of Separated Nations: Germany, Korea, China (2014). [See pre-2011 Archives]

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