WHAT HAPPENS AFTER FIDEL?
By Rafael Aguirre Sacasa
Few books are as timely as Brian Latell's "After Fidel: The Inside Story of Castro's Regime and Cuba's Next Leader." The book, which was recently released, but has been in the works for many years, is a masterful and insightful analysis into the personalities of and relationship between Fidel and his younger brother Raul, Fidel's designated successor.
Few people are as qualified to write on this subject as Brian Latell. A 35 + year CIA veteran, he spent much of his career studying Castro and his actions; he attempted to "get into his shoes" and, after many years, became the foremost expert on Fidel in the United States Government. He culminated his career by becoming the National Intelligence Officer for Latin America, the crown jewel for an intelligence analyst.
The book is engaging, well crafted and researched. From the outset, it draws the reader into the private life of the Castro Ruz family. It provides the reader with an intimate view into the lives of both Fidel and Raul. It's full of personal anecdotes, which provide a unique and unvarnished insight into their personalities, emotional underpinnings, motivations, and thought processes. This peek into their private lives weaves a rich tapestry that permits the reader to get a real feel for the Fidel behind his "public persona" and sheds light into the very secretive life of Raul. Whereas Fidel has always strived for attention and is jealous of anyone who tries to upstage him, Raul has shunned publicity, carefully working behind stage. Whereas Fidel has proven to be an unparallel political strategist and propagandist, Raul's strengths lie in his organizational and managerial abilities. Latell has come to the conclusion that in order to understand Fidel and his success in consolidating his position of power and the revolution you must understand the relationship between the two brothers. As he says early on in the book "the truth is that if the depths of the brothers relationship could ever be understood, the secrets-the innermost workings of the Cuban Revolution through its entire history- would become transparent. Each brother demonstrates unique leadership qualities, personalities and character traits that seamlessly compliment the other's. They fit perfectly, like the stone walls built by the Inca civilization in Peru hundreds of years ago."
The book is timely because it deals with a topic that is getting more and more attention with every passing year....what happens in Cuba after Fidel. Watchers of Fidel have noticed that he is showing signs of accelerated physical deterioration. After more than 46 years in power it is becoming evident that his final curtain call is approaching. Since 1959 he has been a thorn in the side of 10 US Presidents, brought the world to near nuclear Armageddon, survived the collapse of the Cold War, seen the demise of the Soviet Union, his staunchest allie, and more recently been the guiding force behind Hugo Chavez. If his goal has been to defy the United States he has been successful. Fidel remains in power and is still viewed by many as the noble David who has stood up to the "Yankee Imperialist" Goliath. Despite his age this image is still strong. I have vivid memories of seeing Castro's triumphal entrance into a standing room only auditorium during the 2002 UN sponsored summit on Financing for Development held in Monterey Mexico, his speech being continuously interrupted by loud and sustained applause of many delegations.
The book should be read by not only from a historical perspective but more importantly by those who are interested in the future. Will his demise be followed by succession, transition or chaos? This question is more than just an intellectual exercise. With a population of more than 11,300,000, the majority who have known no Cuba other than the one ruled by Castro, less than 90 miles from the United States coastline, what happens in Cuba after Fidel will definitely impact both Cuba and the US as well as other countries in the Caribbean basin. Latell explores the most likely scenario, a succession by Raul, Minister of Defense and First Vice President of the Council of State, supported by the military, the institution, which he has led since the early days of the revolution, and the one institution that is the "nearest thing to a true meritocracy among Cuba's revolutionary institutions." However Latell cautions that "a praetorian regime dominated by Raul and the generals seems all but certain to succeed Fidel, though for how long is impossible to know." Cuba is a powder keg; it has undergone a revolution, it has been under despotic rule for over 46 years, there are few working institutions other than the military and security forces, and there is much popular discontent. It is being held together by a mixture of charisma, fear, repression and nationalism. The death of Fidel will be a traumatic event.
From a US government perspective Cuba has slowly evolved from being a foreign affairs issue to a domestic issue. The Cuban exile community has made Cuba policy a litmus test for their domestic political support and for obvious reasons, no administration is more beholden to it than the current Bush administration. The recent establishment of a Transition Coordinator within State Department "whose mandate it is to design and implement a comprehensive strategy for advancing freedom in Cuba" is a tall order, particularly in light of poor track record that the US government has had in trying to deal with Castro. I hope that US policy makers read Latell's book carefully so as to avoid repeating the mistakes that went into the planning for a post Saddam Iraq. Faulty assumptions about what would happen in an Iraq free from Saddam were based on faulty assumptions and unrealistic expectations. Rather than being showered by roses and received as liberators as was being touted by many Iraqi exiles, US forces are suffering casualties on a daily basis with no end in sight. Far from being the panacea the removal of Saddam did not lead to a democratic society, rather the latent tensions that existed have surfaced and have made governing tenuous at best and costly both in terms of blood and gold.
The challenge will be for the US to base its policy not on preconceived ideas of what the Cuban people want or what is in their best interest but rather to find a way to assist the Cuban people during this critical period. As Latell says "whether a raulista regime will survive for just a few months or for many years will likely depend on how skillfully he and his associates deal with this coalescing independent civil society." The main threat to stability in his opinion will be "that the country's new leaders will miscalculate as they deal with an increasingly restive population desiring change." Like it or not,US policy will play a major role in a post Fidel Cuba. The question is: will it play a stabilizing role or will it permit Fidel to continue to plague the US beyond the grave?