February 20, 2008
"ARULING group is a ruling group so long as it can nominate its successors," George Orwell wrote in "1984." "Who wields power is not important, provided that the hierarchical structure remains always the same." Mr. Orwell's words have eerie relevance to Fidel Castro's announcement yesterday that he is turning over the presidency of Cuba to his brother Ra¿l. Nothing could be more consistent with the ailing Mr. Castro's 49-year dictatorship than the manner in which he has (at least formally) ended it.
By now it's a cliche that Mr. Castro outlasted nine American presidents, some of whom tried to oust him, some of whom tried to negotiate with him -- and all of whom were unlike him, in that they faced elections and term limits. Mr. Castro survived the plots of Cuban exiles; repeated waves of mass emigration; and near-catastrophic economic decay brought on by his Soviet-style policies. To be sure, the benefits of Mr. Castro's revolution, such as national health care and universal education, bought him the loyalty -- or the dependency -- of many Cubans. But the key to his success was systematic political policing. Though all Cubans feel its effects, Mr. Castro's repression often fell most harshly on his inner circle. Repeated purges have refined it to a hard core that Mr. Castro apparently trusts to perpetuate his regime.
Mr. Castro has been lucky, too. The Soviet Union subsidized him until its collapse in 1991. Then, just when it appeared that the Cuban regime might crack because of its own incompetence and a U.S. trade embargo, a new ideological ally, President Hugo Ch¿vez of oil-rich Venezuela, bailed it out. Thus, Mr. Castro retires without being held accountable for turning one of Latin America's most developed economies into a bankrupt sugar plantation. He escapes accountability, too, for killing hundreds of political opponents and imprisoning thousands more; for sending Cuban soldiers to kill and die in wars between African tyrants; and for arming and training violent Latin American guerrillas. Nor will he ever answer for the deaths of those who perished fleeing his rule by sea.
Will Ra¿l Castro be any different? Nothing fundamental in Cuba has changed in the almost 19 months since Fidel, 81, temporarily handed the reins to his 76-year-old defense minister. Ra¿l Castro is thought to be more practical than his brother on economic issues, and less ruthless. He has called on university students to debate Cuba's problems "fearlessly." In 1989, when Fidel ordered the executions of allegedly disloyal senior officials, including Ra¿l's favorite army general, the younger Castro admitted weeping over the purge. Yet he backed it unequivocally. Still committed to one-party rule, Ra¿l may hope to use what's left of his life to build Chinese-style market communism.
The changes in Cuba will set off renewed debate over U.S. policy toward Cuba. While the discussion is appropriate, it's important to remember that, by the measure of the most fundamental goal of U.S. policy -- that Cuba become a democracy that respects human rights -- nothing has changed with Mr. Castro's retirement. Any U.S. strategy for Cuba must be aimed at giving Cubans the leverage to demand that transformation, in spite of what Mr. Castro and his heirs might intend.