It is a common American view that the death of Fidel Castro will be followed by democratic transition in Cuba. Much of the literature on transition, especially that which was written before Fidel turned power over to his brother Raúl, begins with the premise that a democratic transition—or at least an attempt thereat—is unavoidable. Americans expect that Raúl will lead as his brother did for some time, but that ultimately, he, either acting independently or under domestic pressure, will user in economic and political liberalization. This view is optimistic, chauvinistic and to some extent naïve.
The first underlying assumption is that Fidel’s passing will be the coup de grace of the regime. Rather, Raúl has been the designated heir since 1959. He was as much a revolutionary and guerrilla as his brother, and his recent assumption of authority from an infirm Fidel has highlighted the stability of his rule in the short term. For the past four and a half decades, Raúl has been the Minister of Defense, the longest serving defense minister in the world.
This brings into play the second assumption. Since the ongoing Cuban Revolution is professedly Marxist-Leninist in orientation, the Cuban Communist Party (PCC) is the principle governing instrument of the regime, as it is in all other Communist regimes. Logically, one would conclude that with the passing of strong leadership– and thus the entire regime–Cuba would become defunct just as Communist parties in Mongolia, Ethiopia, Albania, the former Yugoslavia, Cambodia and elsewhere became defunct.
The difference in Cuba is that the Cuban Revolutionary Armed Forces (FAR) has been the primary pillar of state authority throughout the revolution. The Castros formed the FAR from the remains of their revolutionary armies in 1959 at the inception of the regime. So while the PCC may immediately lose the confidence of the Cuban people–and it probably already has–the same is not true of the FAR.
For the duration of the regime, the FAR has been the most respected of Cuba’s government institutions. Obligatory military service has insured that a large proportion of Cubans have been uniformed for some substantial period, and the Cuban military has been covering itself in glory since the 1970s. The FAR has been described as probably the best trained and equipped small military in the world during the Soviet years, and it fought winning conflicts in Angola, Somalia, Guinea-Bissau and Nicaragua.
After the loss of Soviet subsidies, Fidel tasked the FAR to make-up for budgetary shortfalls through its own commercial enterprise under the Sistema de Perfeccionamiento Empresarial. FAR officers were sent to Western nations and to China to study Capitalist and free-market economics and were then brought back to manage a variety of business projects in Cuba. Raúl’s position as the head of the FAR gave these officers the umbrella of protection they needed to grow and experiment. The FAR now generates more than half of its own budget.
This is the organization that will be Raúl’s vanguard in Fidel’s passing. Raúl has already begun re-arranging the Politburo, a necessary move even if the Party does less on the ground than the FAR. He has done this by reducing the number of Politburo members from twenty-five to fifteen and replacing eight of the remaining fidelistas with loyal members of the FAR.
The military is the only part of the Cuban government with a body of technocrats trained in modern economics and trade. It is also Cuba’s most disciplined and loyal institution. By using the FAR, Raúl has the chance to follow the Chinese model of a gradual economic liberalization while maintaining the stability and continuity of the regime.
But the one point on which Raúl, even with the help of the FAR, cannot emulate the Chinese is repression. Raúl can maintain the types of restrictions on expression that are already in place, but he cannot bring to bear the level of violence committed by the Chinese Communist Party. While swift and brutal military action saved the regime in Beijing from suffering an Eastern-bloc-style collapse at Tiananmen, Raúl has said that similar behavior must not be repeated in Cuba. In any case, it is widely believed that Cuban officers would refuse to heed orders to fire on their own people.
Writing about regime change in Cuba is always a guessing game, no matter the degree of nuance to the discussion. But to assume that there will be an immediate Cuban popular appeal to enter the Capitalist world system is to misunderstand Cuban feelings and the relatively strong prospects for limited reform under the FAR and dedicated raulistas after Fidel has passed.
Jon Coumes is an editorial assistant of the Georgetown Journal Online and a junior in the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University.