By George Friedman
It is now apparent that Fidel Castro is dying. He is 80 years old, so that should not be surprising. The Cubans are managing his death as if it were a state secret -- hiding the self-evident -- but that is the nature of the regime, as it is the nature of many governments. The question on the table is whether the Cuban government can survive Castro's death -- and in either case, what course Cuba will follow.
The Communist regime, as we have known it, cannot possibly survive Castro's death. To be sure, Fidel's brother Raul will take over leadership; the Cuban Communist Party, the military and intelligence system, and the government ministries will continue to rule. But the regime that Castro created will be dead. It will be dead because Castro will be dead, and whatever survives him cannot be called the same regime. It will have been fundamentally transformed.
Fidel Castro's departure from the stage, then, leads to two questions. First, what will the future hold for Cuba? And second, will that matter to anyone other than the Cubans?
The Death of a Dream
Under Fidel, the Cuban regime had an end beyond itself. Fidel believed -- and, much more significantly, enough of his citizens and international supporters believed -- that the purpose of the regime was not only to transform life in Cuba but, more important, to revolutionize Latin America and the rest of the Third World and confront American imperialism with the mobilized masses of the globe. Fidel did not rule for the sake of ruling. He ruled for the sake of revolution.
Raul was a functionary of the Castro regime, as were the others who now will step into the tremendous vacuum that Fidel will leave. For Raul and others of his class, the Cuban regime was an end in itself. Their goal was to keep it functioning. Fidel dreamed of using the regime to reshape the world. His minions, including his brother, may once have had dreams, but for a very long time their focus has been on preserving the regime and their power, come what may.
Therefore, on the day that Fidel Castro dies, the regime he created will die with him and a new regime of functionaries will come into existence. That regime will not be able to claim the imaginations of the disaffected and the politically ambitious around the world. The difference between the old and the new in Cuba is the difference between Josef Stalin and Leonid Brezhnev. It is not a difference in moral character but of imagination. Stalin was far more than a functionary. He was, in his own way, a visionary -- and was seen by his followers around the world as a visionary. When the Soviet Union fell into the hands of Brezhnev, it fell into the hands of a functionary. Stalin served a vision; Brezhnev served the regime. Stalin ruled absolutely; Brezhnev ruled by committee and consensus. Stalin was far more than the state and party apparatus; Brezhnev was far less.
Brezhnev's goal was preserving the Soviet state. There were many reasons for the fall of the Soviet Union, but at the core, the fact that mere survival had become its highest aim was what killed it. The Soviets still repeated lifelessly the Leninist and Stalinist slogans, but no one believed them -- and no one thought for one moment that Brezhnev believed them.
It has been many years since Fidel's vision had any real possibility of coming true. Certainly, it has had little meaning since the fall of the Soviet Union. In some ways, the death of Che Guevara in Bolivia was the end. But regardless of when the practical possibilities of Cuba had dissolved, Fidel Castro continued to believe that the original vision was still possible. More important, his followers believed that he believed, and therefore, they believed. No one can believe in Raul Castro's vision. Thus, the era that began in 1959 is ending.
The ascent of Raul raises the question of what hope there is for Cuba.
Fidel promised tremendous economic improvements, along with Cuba's place in the vanguard of the revolution. The vanguard now has disintegrated, and the economic improvements never came in the ways promised. When Fidel took power, he argued that it was economic relations with the imperialists that impoverished Cuba. By the end of his rule, he had come to argue that it was the lack of economic relations with the imperialists that impoverished Cuba -- that the American embargo had strangled the country. That was absurd: Cuba could trade with Canada, the rest of Latin America, Europe, Asia and wherever it wanted. It was not locked out of the world. It wasn't even locked out of the United States, since third parties would facilitate trade. But then, Fidel was always persuasive, even when completely incoherent. That was the foundation of his strength: He believed deeply in what he said, and those who listened believed as well. Fidel was writing poems, not economic analysis, and that kept anyone from looking too closely at the details.
Now, the poetry is ending, and the detail men and bean-counters are in charge. They don't know any poems -- and while they can charge the United States with bearing the blame for all of the revolution's failures, it is not the same as if Fidel were doing it. Regimes do not survive by simple brute strength. There have to be those who believe. Stalin had his believers, as did Hitler and Saddam Hussein. But who believes in Raul and his committees? Certainly, the instruments of power are in their hands, as they were in the hands of other communist rulers whose regimes collapsed. But holding the instruments of power is not, over time, enough. It is difficult to imagine the regime of functionaries surviving very long. Without Fidel, there is little to hope for.
A Question of Control
The future of Cuba once meant a great deal to the international system. Once, there was nearly a global thermonuclear war over Cuba. But that was more than 40 years ago, and the world has changed. The question now is whether the future of Cuba matters to anyone but the Cubans.
Geopolitically, the most important point about Cuba is that it is an island situated 90 miles from the coast of the United States -- now the world's only superpower. Cuba was a Spanish colony until the Spanish-American war, and then was either occupied or dominated by the United States and American interests until the rise of Castro. Its history, therefore, is defined first by its relationship with Spain and then by its relationship to the United States.
From the U.S. standpoint, Cuba is always a geographical threat. If the Mississippi River is the great highway of American agriculture and New Orleans its great port to the world, then Cuba sits directly athwart New Orleans' access to the world. There is no way for ships from New Orleans to exit the Gulf of Mexico into the Atlantic Ocean but to traverse two narrow channels on either side of Cuba -- the Yucatan channel, between Cuba's western coast and the Yucatan; or the Straits of Florida, between the island's northern coast and Florida. If these two channels were closed, U.S. agricultural and mineral exports and imports would crumble. Not only New Orleans, but all of the Gulf Coast ports like Houston, would be shut in.
Cuba does not have the size or strength in and of itself to close those channels. But should another superpower control Cuba, the threat would become real and intolerable. The occupation of Cuba by a foreign power -- whether Spain, Germany, Russia or others -- would pose a direct geopolitical threat to the United States. Add to that the possibility that missiles could be fired from Cuba to the United States, and we can see what Washington sees there. It is not Cuba that is a threat, but rather a Cuba that is allied with or dominated by a foreign power challenging the United States globally. Therefore, the Americans don't much care who runs Cuba, so long as Cuba is not in a politico-military alliance with another power.
Under Spain, there was a minor threat. But prior to World War II, German influence in Cuba was a real concern. And Castro's Communist revolution and alliance with the Soviet Union were seen by the United States as a mortal threat. It was not Cuban ideology (though that was an irritant) nearly so much as Cuba's geopolitical position and the way it could be exploited by other great powers that obsessed the United States. When the Soviet Union went away, so did the American obsession. Now, Washington's Cuba policy is merely a vestige from a past era.
Without a foreign sponsor, Cuba is geopolitically impotent. It cannot threaten U.S. sea-lanes. It cannot be a base for nuclear weapons to be used against the United States. Its regime cannot be legitimized by the fact that the international system is focused on it. That means that since the fall of the Soviet Union, the Cubans, under Castro, have been trying to make themselves useful to major powers. Havana approached the Chinese, and they didn't bite. The Russians may be interested in the future, but they have their hands full in their own neighborhood right now. Countries like North Korea and Iran are in no position to exploit the opportunity.
The Cubans have had to content themselves with playing midwife to the leftist movements in Venezuela and Bolivia. The Latin American left in general continues to take its inspiration from Fidel's Cuba. Now, this does not create a new geopolitical reality, but it does create the possibility of one, which is what Fidel has been working on. If Fidel dies, Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and Evo Morales of Bolivia are not going to turn to Raul for inspiration and legitimacy. Rather, Raul is going to be looking to Venezuela for cheap oil, while Chavez claims the place of Fidel as the leader of the Latin American left.
So, if Cuba is no longer to be the center of the Latin American revolutionary left, then what is it? It will become an island of occasional strategic importance -- though not important at the moment -- with a regime of functionaries as inspiring as a Bulgarian Party Congress in 1985. Cuba with Fidel was the hope of the Latin American left. Cuba without Fidel is tedious method, a state with a glorious past and a dubious future.
Past as Prologue
Certainly, Raul and his colleagues have superb instruments with which to stabilize Cuban security, but these are no better than the instruments that Romania and East Germany had. Those instruments will work for a while, but not permanently. For the regime to survive, Cuba must transform its economic life, but to do that, it risks the survival of the regime -- for the regime's control of the economy is one of the instruments of stability. Raul is not a man who is about to redefine the country, but he must try.
We are, therefore, pessimistic about the regime's ability to survive. Or more precisely, we do not believe that the successor regime -- communism without Fidel -- can hold on for very long. Raul Castro now is reaching out to the United States, but contrary to the Cuban mythology, the United States cannot solve Cuba's problems by ending the trade embargo. The embargo is a political gesture, not a functioning reality. End it or keep it, the Cuban problem is Cuba -- and without Fidel, the Cubans will have to face that fact.
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