After Castro

Anti-Castro Cubans call it the "biological solution," the inevitable moment when mortality catches up to their self-proclaimed Maximum Leader. That moment has arrived. Cuba’s post-Fidel era began last week, with or without the actual death of the world’s longest-ruling dictator.

Power over Cuba’s 11 million people passed from an ailing, aging Fidel to his slightly younger brother Raul, long El Jefe’s designated successor. For the first time since the "triumph of the Revolution" (as Havana puts it) in January 1959, someone other than Fidel Castro rules Cuba.

Without a single free election in 47 years, the inexorable biological clock has finally traded the Fidel we know for the Raul we don’t. Change, one hears, is on the way.

Would that it had happened, say, 40 or so years ago. In 1959, per capita income in Cuba was roughly equal to that of Italy, which was still struggling to recover from World War II. Today per capita income in Italy exceeds $25,000 a year even as the average working Cuban (those without access to dollar remittances from relatives in the United States) subsists on a cash income of about $20 per month beyond the state subsidies for shoddy housing and rationed food staples.

Even with the new subsidies of Venezuela’s oil, Cuba’s economy remains a chronic ruin.

Raul, 75, is said to admire China’s model: a Communist Party that keeps its political dictatorship while scraping brain-dead socialism for a version of state capitalism that fascists would approve. In Havana as in Beijing, the important thing is to preserve the Communist Party’s "leading role," which means that the ruling clique gets to keep its power.

Red capitalists would have appalled Marx, Mao and Che, but Cuban communism was always first and foremost about Fidel’s megalomania. Now that the colorless but ruthless Raul, apparently, is to rule, the emphasis will be on the leadership’s survival after 47 years of economic failure. As for ordinary Cubans, even those who have come to hate the revolution and the regime that so dismally failed to end their poverty, may tolerate a Raul era, for a time, if it delivers a better economy.

Castro cronies, who in their worst nightmares might picture themselves dangling from lampposts, must ardently hope that economic reform can buy them some time.

But don’t expect Raul to emerge as a Cuban Gorbachev. The author of glasnost and perestroika was an idealist who imagined, wrongly, that communism could be saved by reforming it. Raul is a much harder fellow. In the early years of Cuba’s revolution, Raul was Fidel’s enforcer. On his personal orders, thousands were shot and tens of thousands imprisoned. As Cuba’s longtime defense minister, Raul has presumably molded an army and internal security forces obedient to him.

In any power struggle – and one is now inevitable in Cuba – those with the guns start with a huge edge.

Fidel, a control freak and obsessive micro-manager, is said to have personally made every important decision in Cuba for 47 years. Raul has discretely signaled a different tack – a collective leadership in which he will be first among equals at the top.

This new scheme wasn’t hatched last week. When a visibly aging Fidel fainted in the middle of a speech in 2001 and later shattered a kneecap and broke an arm in a public pratfall, it was obvious to all that the transition few dared mention aloud was already beginning. During the past year especially, Raul is reported to have played a more prominent role in the regime’s decision-making as Fidel faded.

Cuba’s brave pro-democracy dissidents, including the 300 or so that Human Rights Watch now estimates are in prison, hope for something far better than a new dictatorship. They want multiparty politics, free elections, a free press and a restoration of the civil and political rights abolished by Castro’s revolution.

So, too, does the United States government. The latest draft of the Bush administration’s plan for promoting a free and democratic Cuba in the post-Fidel era was released, ironically, just weeks ago. The Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba, chaired by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, provides $80 million to help non-government groups inside Cuba promote a transition from dictatorship to democracy.

It’s a controversial plan. Some Cuban dissidents welcome it. Others oppose it as counterproductive because it would allow a post-Fidel but still communist regime to brand them, and then imprison them, as "mercenaries" in the pay of the United States. These latter dissidents want a democratic solution crafted and promoted exclusively in Cuba.

They may learn soon enough whether that is feasible. A Raul Castro government dedicated to maintaining itself in power will still wield Cuba’s extensive state security apparatus. Barring a massive popular uprising, which hardly any Cuba watchers predict, Cuba could remain an authoritarian state for quite some time.

And then there is the question of the U.S. trade embargo, first imposed in 1961 after the Castro government confiscated $1 billion in American property in Cuba without paying compensation. The 1996 Helms-Burton Act bars lifting the trade embargo so long as Fidel, Raul or anyone they appoint remains in power and until Cuba schedules free elections and releases its political prisoners.

Good luck with that.

Some in Washington will now urge that Helms-Burton be repealed, the trade embargo rescinded and the U.S. travel ban lifted. Flood Cuba with American tourists, trade goods and yanqui entrepreneurship and culture and watch Castroite orthodoxy crumble.

Good luck with that, too, at least while the dictatorship persists.

For Cubans and Americans alike, the long struggle for a real Cuba Libre continues, but with this saving grace: Fidel is, mercifully, history.