A year since assuming power in his own right Raul Castro may be showing signs of leadership fatigue. That is not surprising considering his age (he will be seventy-eight in early June), the likelihood he suffers from undisclosed health problems, and a work load far more demanding than anything that was required of him in the past.
There are signs that he is confronting political challenges arising from the grass roots and, more ominously, from hard-line factions in the leadership. And as always since he joined his brother’s revolutionary crusade fifty-six years ago, he must deal with Fidel’s unpredictable demands and outbursts.
Fidel’s "reflection” published on February 12 during the visit of Chilean president Michelle Bachelet put Raul in a disturbingly difficult position. It once again highlighted Fidel’s insistence on retaining residual powers and prerogatives especially in areas of historic importance to him. Denouncing Chile’s "vengeful and fascist oligarchy" Fidel endorsed Bolivia’s claims to Pacific coast territories -- and access to the sea-- that were lost in a war with Chile in the 1880’s. The strident intervention set off a furor in Chile before Bachelet had even departed Cuba.
In the management of domestic affairs Raul has vacillated since assuming the presidency, becoming more cautious and dependent on hardened associates of his generation. After elevating popular expectations for liberalizing change in his inaugural address last February --and in earlier performances as provisional president-- he has retreated. Perhaps he realized that he was playing with fire, as hard line officials and his infirm brother all but certainly were telling him.
Cubans are no longer hearing the surprising promises Raul made until the middle of last year. His injunction to Cuban university students to "fearlessly debate" Cuba’s problems has not been repeated. The startling candor and innovative articles he allowed to appear in Juventud Rebelde, the daily paper geared to Cuban youth, have been curtailed. The slight opening he granted at first to Cuban artists and intellectuals has gone no further. Wage and monetary reforms he promised are still being studied.
Meetings across the island that were sanctioned by the regime as fora for discussing the country’s deep-seated problems have ceased. According to the party daily Granma, more than five million Cubans participated in almost 250,000 sessions of that kind. Many devolved, however, into angry gripe sessions, according to knowledgeable observers on the island, with people complaining bitterly about their daily plight. Even the deteriorating education and health sectors were targets of popular ire.
Raul’s promise in his inaugural speech to undertake “conceptual and structural change” has so far impacted most notably in agriculture. He admitted last July that cultivated land declined by thirty-three percent between 1998 and 2007 and clearly considers this an acute crisis area. Recently he moved one of his most trusted problem solvers -three star general and former chief of staff Ulises Rosales del Toro- to the agriculture ministry. The government claimed early this month that more than 1,800 square miles of idle land has been turned over to willing farmers. The state will continue to hold title but individuals will use the parcels for ten years.
Raul’s promise to “reduce excessive prohibitions and regulations” has brought superficial change popular with many Cubans. If the regime’s data can be believed, cell phone use has increased dramatically, now including almost a half million people. Two thirds of Cuba’s territory is said to be available now for cell phone users. Private taxis are more common. Private contractors are being licensed, under strict conditions, to haul goods and passengers. Yet, perhaps most of all in deference to the intransigent Fidel, none of these changes has crossed the historic ideological Rubicon by permitting genuine new entrepreneurial sectors to emerge.
Oddly, given Raul’s preferences and priorities, his most conspicuous successes in his first year were in foreign affairs. He made his first foreign excursions as president last December. Traveling first to Venezuela and then to Brazil, where he met in the city of Salvador with the presidents and prime ministers of all but two of the Latin American and Caribbean nations, he basked in Cuba’s new acceptance as a member of the Rio Group.
Earlier this month he traveled to Russia for the first time since 1985, and was feted by Vladimir Putin who extended credits that Cuba is already using to purchase Russian products. From Moscow Raul traveled onward to two other historical allies, Angola, and Algeria. And over the same three month period he addressed the leaders of the CARICOM nations in Santiago and met in Havana with a succession of five visiting Latin American presidents.
It pleased the Cuban leadership that none of the five were reported to have met with Cuban dissidents or democracy activists or to have raised those issues in official meetings. Cuban leaders took particular satisfaction too when Guatemalan president Álvaro Colom asked their forgiveness for his country’s role decades ago in permitting the CIA to train Cuban émigrés on Guatemalan soil in preparation for the Bay of Pigs incursion.
Although Raul is typically awkward and inarticulate in meetings like the ones with Latin American leaders, Cuba’s international standing, particularly in the Western Hemisphere, has probably never been higher than it is today. Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez met with Raúl in Caracas in December, shared the stage with him in Brazil, and was in Cuba again to meet with both Castros in late February. Concerns in Havana about Venezuelan reliability as provider of petroleum and other support were no doubt alleviated following Chavez’s win in the referendum that will allow him to remain in power indefinitely.
With Cuba’s legitimacy and acceptance at a historic high in the hemisphere, Raul has also been sounding a tougher, more intransigent line about relations with the United States. He seems to have concluded that Havana’s leverage with Washington is greater now than perhaps at any time in the past and that public opinion in the United States is shifting toward a more accommodating position with respect to the fifty year impasse with Cuba.
*Dr. Brian Latell, distinguished Cuba analyst and recent author of the book, After Fidel: The Inside Story of Castro’s Regime and Cuba’s Next Leader, is a Senior Research Associate at ICCAS. He has informed American and foreign presidents, cabinet members, and legislators about Cuba and Fidel Castro in a number of capacities. He served in the early 1990s as National Intelligence Officer for Latin America at the Central Intelligence Agency and taught at Georgetown University for a quarter century. Dr. Latell has written, lectured, and consulted extensively.
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The Latell Report is a publication of ICCAS and no government funding has been used in its publication. The opinions expressed herein are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ICCAS and/or the U.S. Agency for International Development, USAID.