Fighting Words

The Eighteenth Brumaire of the Castro Dynasty

Cuba’s military coup marks the end of the revolutionary era.

Raúl Castro

If there had been a military coup in any other Latin American or Caribbean country, even a fairly small or obscure one, I think it safe to say that it would have made the front page of the newspapers. But the military coup in Cuba—a nation linked to ours in many vital and historic ways—has not been reported at all. Indeed, in “Castro’s Younger Brother Is Focus of Attention Now,” by Anthony Depalma and James C. McKinley Jr., on Page 8 of the New York Times of Aug. 3, the very possibility of such an event was even denied:

[O]ne of the most telling aspects of his career is that in the nearly five decades that Raúl Castro has led the Cuban armed forces, there has never been a coup attempt or an uprising of rank-and-file soldiers against their officers.

Thus did the newspaper of record digest the interesting novelty that the new head of government in Cuba was, in fact, the five-decade leader of the Cuban armed forces! In other words, an overt military takeover was the main evidence that these things don’t happen in Havana. Perhaps Raúl Castro’s accession doesn’t count as a “coup attempt” (since it was successful), let alone a “rank-and-file” mutiny, but the plain fact remains that, for the first time in a Communist state since Gen. Jaruzelski seized power in Poland in 1981, the army has replaced the party as the source of authority.

The even more grotesque fact that power has passed from one 79-year-old brother to a “younger” one who is only 75 may have assisted in obscuring the obvious. So may the fact that—continuous babble about his “charisma” notwithstanding—Fidel Castro has never taken off his uniform (except for the tailored suits he dons for appearances at international conferences) since the day he took power. Even my distinction between the army and the party may be a distinction without much of a difference. Cuba has been a garrison state run by a military caudillo for most of the past half-century. More than anything, the maximum leader always based his legitimacy on his status as commander in chief. The dynastic succession of his brother only formalizes the situation. As was once said of Prussia, Cuba is not a country that has an army but an army that has a country.

Nor does this army confine itself to the stern questions of political and military power. Under the stewardship of Raúl Castro, it has extended itself to become a large stakeholder in the few areas of the Cuban economy that actually make money. A military holding company known as “La Gaviota” oversees perhaps as much as 60 percent of Cuban tourist revenues. Large farms and resorts are operated by serving and retired officers reporting to Raúl, and according to the Depalma/McKinley story, he has also “sent officers to business schools in Europe to learn capitalist management techniques.”

Awareness of all this makes it the more surprising that everyone seems to have forgotten the highly charged moment in 1989 when there did appear to be an important rift within the Cuban armed forces. On June 12 of that year, Gen. Arnaldo Ochoa Sánchez was placed under arrest and accused of extreme corruption, dereliction of duty, and narcotics trafficking. Ochoa was no small fry. He had belonged to the original band of guerrillas in the Sierra Maestra, was a member of the 26th of July Movement that formed the inner core of the revolution, had been among those Cuban internationalists who tried to raise the flag of revolt in Venezuela and the Congo in the 1960s, and had headed the Cuban military missions to Angola, Ethiopia, and Nicaragua. (To mention something of which Cubans can be proud, I should add that he was prominent in the military defeat of South African forces at the Battle of Cuito Cuanavale in 1987, which contributed handily to the independence of Namibia and the ultimate defeat of apartheid itself.) Perhaps he had seen too much of the outside world. Perhaps, in that year of 1989, he was one of many Cubans who saw promise in Mikhail Gorbachev’s program of glasnost and perestroika. Or perhaps he was simply guilty as charged—of colluding with the Colombian drug cartels in order to enrich himself and others. We shall never really know (or then again, we may be just on the verge of finding out), because the entire interval between his arrest and his death, and those of his associates, was a matter of four short weeks. His execution by firing squad was announced—after a special court martial—on July 13, 1989.

The man who made the long, rambling speech justifying the arrest and prejudging the verdict was Raúl Castro. Awarded the sort of TV time that was normally reserved for his brother, the head of the Cuban armed forces addressed the nation for two and a half hours instead of the allotted 45 minutes (one hopes he does not now fall into the habit of doing this) and amazed many Cubans who had been brought up to think of Ochoa as “sea-green incorruptible.”

The moment was a significant one, because, in general, Cuba had been able to avoid the spectacle of the Communist “show trial” that had been inaugurated by Stalin in Moscow in the 1930s and pursued in even more grotesque form in Prague, Budapest, and Sofia after World War II. The only arraignment of a “factional” group in Havana had been in the mid-1960s, and it was paradoxically directed at a bunch of Moscow-line Stalinists allegedly led by Anibal Escalante. However, the show trial of Ochoa in 1989 was not a protracted ideological inquisition. It was a swift, ruthless business that produced immediate confessions, was conducted by a military “honor court,” and concluded with an expeditious death sentence. All was decided within the framework of the military high command. Perhaps that should have been a warning of what was to come.

On the “new calendar” date of 18 Brumaire in 1799, Napoleon Bonaparte used his troops to seize power in Paris, proclaimed himself the nation’s first consul, and soon after announced that the French revolution had come to its end. (Karl Marx’s celebrated essay on “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon,” lampooning a much later and lesser French monarch than Bonaparte, gave us the overused jest about the relationship between tragedy and farce.) Now the 26th of July Movement has arrived at its own belated historical terminus. The new pretender, once again, is much less flamboyant and impressive. If we cannot yet say that Castro is dead and we cannot decently say “long live” to the new-but-old Castro, we can certainly say that the Castro era is effectively finished and that a uniformed and secretive and highly commercial dictatorship is the final form that it will take.