Rare is the tyrant that manages a graceful exit.
In Cuba, the second tyrant in a row is attempting just that.
At the announcement of his re-election as Cuba’s president, Raul Castro, who took over from his brother, former president Fidel Castro, announced that he will step down as leader when his new term ends in 2018. It is part of the slow process of handing over power over Cuba’s socialist system to a generation of leaders with no connection to the 1959 Cuban Revolution.
Yet even more surprising is the follow-up. Castro planned some serious changes for Cuba’s political system: term limits, age caps (even for president), even constitutional amendments subject to popular consent via referendum.
Have the Castro brothers thrown in the towel? Hardly.
Over the past decade, as the 26th of July generation have died off one by one, young apparatchiks within Cuba’s Communist Party have been jockeying for position in the new order. Those disloyal or harboring counterrevolutionary sympathies were cast aside, as young loyalists gradually filled in top jobs in the Politburo, the armed forces and the cabinet.
Miguel Díaz-Canel Bermúdez, the new top vice president selected by Raul, is a perfect example of the tumult among the cadres. An electrical engineer, Diaz-Canel’s 52 years make him a fetus to the gang that fought in the Sierra Maestra toppling Batista. He rose quickly, as a local party boss in tourist-heavy Villa Clara and Holguin provinces where important connections were made. Diaz-Canel was formerly minister of higher education, and has already been influential in talks with key ally Venezuela.
So the new blood is simply that…new. It doesn’t necessarily mean a change in mentality, unfortunately.
This transition reminds me of another blood-soaked tyrant that attempted a gradual fade: Augusto Pinochet. His conditions to step down were ludicrous in hindsight: commander-in-chief of the armed forces for another ten years, and a senator for life, free from prosecution. In the face of growing popular opposition, the general wanted to make sure the future governments would be under his ideas, if not his more velvet-gloved iron hand.
It didn’t help him, though. We saw him for the tyrant he was.
Castro’s announcement, honestly, left me with more questions than answers. In the end, I’m left with two conclusions:
First, the Castros have an even worse situation than Pinochet. To be sure, the move to gradual withdrawal seems shrewd. However, unlike Pinochet’s Chile, which was severely polarized, Cuba’s rank and file has been fed up with the Castros for at least two decades. The loyalists can hold the socialist line to a point—that point being the end of Fidel and Raul’s funeral procession. I just don’t see how Diaz-Canel can command the loyalty of a people who were clearly betrayed by two predecessors more powerful—and more charismatic (at least in Fidel’s case)—than he.
Yet even more important, as the list of potential reforms rings in my head, I cannot help but glimpse at Raul’s little sneer. The whole reform process, even the constitutional changes, seem less a transformation of Cuba and more a stalling tactic to keep the Castros and the Communist Party in power.
The reason? If these reforms—age caps, term limits, referenda—were so important to Cuba’s body politic, what took the Castros so long to introduce them? Are the Castros special? Do they not merit the same guarantees AND limitations placed on all Cubans through their constitution?
Part of the success of the American system is the realization by our founders that dictatorships don’t work—even for those who blaze the trail. George Washington relinquished command of the Continental Army after the American Revolution. He only served two terms as President when he could’ve been in office for life.
To make a republican system work, its founders needed to lead by example: an example of restraint.
The Castros are hardly a model in this case. For most of its history, their regime lacked any hint of restraint institutionally, legally and practically. Restraint meant a loss of power, at least in Fidel and Raul’s mind. It ultimately cheapened the Revolution into a personality cult where the Castros were above any law even they conceived.
Therefore, to saddle the future generations of loyal Companeros with institutional burdens the founders lacked makes the whole exercise seem ingenuous.
These so-called reforms will turn the house of cards into a bigger house of cards—one that can fall much more easily.