Thursday, January 25, 2007

Jan 25/07 | On Cuba as cause and Venezuela as consequence: Inheriting your way to trouble

Annointed by the hand that has destroyed a nation

PMBComment: One of the most credible theories for the suddenly maddening pace of Chavez’s “revolutionary” announcements is related to the struggle for power purportedly underway inside of Cuba.

It has been more than apparent for some time that Chávez is intent on being acknowledged around the world as Fidel Castro’s favored pupil and effective heir. It is safe to assert that in the international arena he faces little competition for this infatuated aim.

However, where there is a great deal of competition and even growing opposition to such airs is within Cuba itself. Trying to sideline Raul Castro and his hand-picked cadres is the daily job of the last faithful – or should one say sycophantic - ring around mythical but moribund Fidel. Brother Raul (who is yet to be referred to as Acting President, or the like, by the Cuban Press – 100% official of course) seems to prefer a swift shift towards something akin to the Chinese model – economic opening to the world, including conciliatory stance towards the US, and robust domestic political control buttressed by a compliant and entrepreneurial military. On the other hand, the diehard ‘fidelistas” or “tropical talibans”, see their own claim to power legitimized by paying homage to Fidel’s eternal vision of world revolution and, most importantly, by their unfettered access to Venezuela’s easy-come-easy-go wealth. To counter years of expected brotherly succession they must tie their future to the current enfant terrible of world politics, and allow him a level of interference in domestic Cuban politics that runs counter to the very grain of a nationalistic zeal unrivaled in the region.

The almost daily tirades and shows of blatant authoritarism by Hugo Chávez could therefore be intended for a different audience and for a very different purpose. Producing a schism among the Cuban military might dash the hopes of those who have been promoted into positions of civilian and armed power by Raul Castro and who have reportedly always resented the fact that Chávez’s limitless largesse brought about a reversal of long overdue, and quite popular, reforms. The most obvious early loser, if the “fidelistas” were to succeed aided by Caracas, could be the Vice President Carlos Lage, who most likely would be the top man in a Raul dominated “transition”. His unexpected visit to Caracas yesterday looked like an obvious assertion of his own claims. If in effect Fidel’s prolonged sickness has allowed time for the historically unified castrismo to split along creases made crisper as a result of Hugo Chávez’s officiousness then all notions of an orderly or even peaceful transition might have to be taken off the table.

If the above were a credible explanation for the events that are rattling Venezuela, then there is a great deal of incremental instability coming our way. Becoming “truly revolutionary” after 8 years of quasi absolute power seems suicidal for the Bolivarian regime since they are the status quo, they are THE establishment, and as such, the heads of some among the up-and-coming “Boligurgesia” must roll first if you want to instill the requisite fear into a country all too comfortable with the material comforts delivered by a dual bonanza: high oil prices and unabated drug money laundering. On the other hand, inserting themselves with narcissistic obsession in what will be a political hypercharged transition might mean having to be ready to confront nationalistic and foreign dynamics much mightier than their whim and more formidable than anything they have faced in the domestic front to date. PMB

Note: In the fascinating article I post below Bernd Debusmann from Reuters coins the term “tropical talibans” to tag, among others, the following diehard Fidelistas: Otto Rivero, vice president of the Council of Ministers for the Battle of Ideas, Hassan Perez, vice president of the Union of Communists, Miriam Yanet Martin, president of the Jose Marti pioneers youth group and Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque

FEATURE-Fidel Castro fades out. Tropical Taliban next?

17 September 2006

Reuters News

(c) 2006 Reuters Limited

By Bernd Debusmann, Special Correspondent

HAVANA, Sept 17 (Reuters) - No matter whether Fidel Castro returns to office or not, diplomats and dissidents say the post-Fidel era has already begun and some foresee an ideological tug of war between "tropical Taliban" and proponents of Chinese-style economic reforms.

Castro, 80, handed over power to his brother Raul, 75, on July 31 after undergoing emergency surgery for intestinal bleeding blamed on overwork. While officials said the elder Castro was recovering well, he was too ill to make an appearance at a summit of 116 Third World countries in Havana last week.

The Castro brothers hold world records for years in power: Fidel is the world's longest-serving head of government, Raul the longest-serving defense minister -- both 47 years.

"It is difficult to envisage Fidel running the country as he used to, and with the same vigor," said a Latin American diplomat. "He is on the way to becoming a symbol and a figurehead."

More than 70 percent of Cuba's 11 million population were born after Fidel Castro seized power in 1959 and tend to be reluctant to talk about a future without him. But a number of dissidents speak out frankly and on the record.

"Cuba has not been the same since July 31," said Miriam Leiva, a co-founder of the Ladies in White, a group of women whose husbands were arrested, tried and convicted in a large-scale crackdown on dissidents three years ago.

Her husband, economist Oscar Espinosa Chepe, was released for health reasons 19 months later. Most of the others are still in prison and the Ladies in White stage a silent protest march every Sunday. Espinosa Chepe and Leiva aired their views in an interview in their tiny apartment in Havana.

Both see economic reforms managed by the Cuban Armed Forces headed by Raul Castro as the best hope for the near future, a sentiment echoed privately by many Cubans who tend to complain more vociferously about economic misery than the political system.


"What would be disastrous would be for the tropical Taliban to run the country," Espinosa Chepe said. The phrase refers to a younger generation of officials mentored personally by Fidel Castro.

The phrase Taliban is borrowed from the Afghan militants whose narrow interpretation of Islam caused them to ban music and stone adulterers to death.

To hear Cubans tell it, the list of true believers includes Otto Rivero, vice president of the Council of Ministers for the Battle of Ideas, Hassan Perez, vice president of the Union of Communists, Miriam Yanet Martin, president of the Jose Marti pioneers youth group and Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque.

They are all in their 30s and early 40s and their views are reflected by a banner along Havana's fabled Malecon seafront boulevard. "Fidel Forever!" it says.

The true believers versus potential economic reformers scenario has gained so much currency it prompted questions at a news conference during the non-aligned summit that ended on Saturday.

Economy Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez, responding to a reporter's question, said: "In the hypothetical case that Comandante Fidel remains ill, would there be a change in Cuban policy toward a market opening? I can categorically say that is not foreseen, the Cuban people do not want that."


Castro initiated a limited economic opening in the early 1990s but rolled it back three years ago, cutting licenses for services that private individuals can provide, including clowns and masseurs.

Why do some Cubans place their hopes for reforms on the Armed Forces? They were the first to introduce capitalist business practices into Cuba and now control technology and computing firms, beach resort hotels, car rental firms, an airline, a fleet of buses and a large retail chain.

The Cuban sugar industry is run by a general, as is the ports administration and the lucrative cigar industry.

"It is difficult to see political change but Raul will have to introduce economic reforms if he wants to avoid a social explosion," said Espinosa Chepe, the dissident economist. "The Armed Forces are the best organized entity in the country and much more flexible than any other."

Outside experts agree the Armed Forces would be a better agent of change, if it were to come, than any other institution. "Unlike the Communist Party, the armed forces are widely popular," said Hal Klepak, a history professor at the Royal Military Institute of Canada and author of a book on the Cuban military.

Change in Havana, diplomats say, depends to a considerable degree on attitudes in Washington and Miami, where Cuban exiles have been relentlessly hostile toward Castro and instrumental in maintaining a 44-year-old economic boycott of Cuba.

Critics of the embargo, including prominent dissidents, see it as a chief reason for Castro's long survival. "Without it, he wouldn't have been able to foster nationalism the way he did. Without it, he couldn't have blamed the U.S. for his disastrous policies," said Espinosa Chepe.

Most of the world agrees. The embargo is regularly put to a vote at the United Nations. Last year, the margin was 182 in favor of a resolution to end the embargo, four against.