The Man in Havana

How has Fidel Castro stayed in power for so long?

Poster of Fidel Castro

Following a televised speech in October 2004, Cuban leader Fidel Castro fell from the stage, shattering his left knee, breaking his left arm, and leaving Cuba’s people breathless. Convinced that he must address the fears of some and the hopes of others that the moment had finally come to pass power to a successor, the comandante dictated a message. State-run media announced that during his more-than-three-hour operation, Castro had allowed doctors to anesthetize him only from the waist down and that he had never relinquished his authority.

If Castro’s story was true, it reveals his stubborn determination to hold off the inevitable hand-over of power. Or he may have lied about the anesthesia to persuade the Cuban people (and potential rivals at home and abroad) that he remained fully in command. Either way, Castro apparently feared that if Cuba were ruled by someone else—even for a few hours—his revolution might be challenged.

This story now has new importance. On July 31, just days from his 80th birthday, intestinal bleeding apparently forced Castro to undergo dangerous surgery—dangerous enough to compel him to hand power to his younger brother Raúl. Fidel may well survive. But never before has he ceded full power to someone else. We can safely assume that plans for the inevitable succession have gained new urgency, with or without Fidel’s involvement.

What does this mean for Cuba? To answer this question, we must understand how Castro has managed to remain in power for 47 years. In January 1959, Castro led a band of guerrillas out of the Sierra Maestra mountains and seized power from dictator Fulgencio Batista. Not long afterward, the charismatic young Castro nationalized banks and industries, collectivized agriculture, seized more than $1 billion in U.S. assets, jailed his rivals and critics, embraced communism, made new friends in Moscow, and captured the world’s attention. In 1960, alarmed by the emergence of a Communist state and potential Soviet satellite 90 miles from Florida, the United States imposed a trade embargo. In 1961, it cut formal diplomatic relations. The failed Bay of Pigs invasion in April of that year further burnished Castro’s credentials as a capable strongman and implacable U.S. foe.

Since then, the U.S. government has worked to undermine Castro’s regime by squeezing Cuba’s economy. For four and a half decades, many U.S. lawmakers have argued that Castro’s refusal to respect fundamental civil liberties compels Washington to destabilize his government on moral grounds. Sanctions, they insist, might encourage the Cuban people to oust their leader in favor of the prosperity that would flow from better relations with the United States.

Yet Castro has survived nine U.S. presidents, the collapse of his Soviet benefactor, and four decades of American attempts to undermine his government. By jailing or executing his most dangerous rivals, frustrating attempts by the Cuban people to generate the capital needed to challenge state power from within, and creating a siege mentality across the island, Castro has institutionalized himself as Cuba’s supreme leader. Castro and the United States have essentially worked together to isolate the Cuban people. In the process, Castro has created a remarkably durable cult of personality.

The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 provided Castro with his greatest challenge. Desperate to outgrow the hardship of what Cuban officials call the “special period” and aware of China’s success with limited market reforms, he reluctantly decided to experiment with capitalism. In 1993, he granted Cubans limited freedom to open small for-profit businesses in more than a hundred economic categories. But economic reforms bred demand for political reforms, most famously in the form of a petition from a movement called the Varela Project. In 2003, Castro jailed many of the group’s members. Since then, Castro has moved to again tighten central planning of the Cuban economy and to limit Cubans’ access to U.S. dollars and the Internet.

In general, authoritarian states are only as stable as the hold on power of an individual leader or small ruling clique. It is the personalities—not the institutions—that matter in such a country. Cuba, true to form, has a president but not a presidency. Fidel Castro is the revolution. Loyalty to the Cuban government is loyalty to Fidel. When he finally dies, the question of succession will generate tremendous uncertainty and potential instability.

If he dies soon, the script demands that his brother succeed him. Fidel formally designated Raúl his successor in October 1997, and as first vice president, Raúl is guaranteed the promotion by the Cuban Constitution. The younger Castro’s revolutionary credentials are second only to Fidel’s; in Cuba it is said that Raúl personally introduced Fidel to Che Guevara. Raúl Castro has many titles, but none is more important than that of defense minister, which allows him day-to-day command of Cuba’s army. By reputation, he is as reactionary as he is uncharismatic, a pale reflection of his remarkable elder brother.

What sort of president might he make? Given that he is 75 years old, he might well be a short-lived one. Four decades of frustrated ambitions and pent-up hunger for change are surely percolating beneath the surface. The next round of succession speculation won’t take 47 years to develop.

As a result, Raúl Castro’s first task as supreme leader would surely be to reinforce his own position by quashing real or potential domestic opposition. The regime’s best international friend, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, might prove helpful with financing. Chávez, who considers Fidel a revolutionary role model and valuable regional ally, already provides Cuba with substantial supplies of oil at bargain prices. He also does whatever he can to insist on Cuba’s inclusion in regional organizations, undermining U.S. attempts to isolate the regime politically.

How might Washington respond to the leadership transition? If Raúl is Fidel’s immediate successor, a major change in U.S. policy is unlikely. That’s too bad. Sanctions have accomplished three things since they were first imposed in 1960: They have inflicted hardships on the Cuban people, they have strengthened Castro’s ability to block citizens’ access to the resources they need to win some independence from their government, and they have alienated U.S. allies whose companies are penalized for doing business in Cuba.

The more interesting transition will begin when power is finally passed to a president whose name isn’t Castro. Fidel’s death—whenever it comes—will be jarring enough for the Cuban people, but a generational change in leadership will produce a considerable shock to the system. This change will force Cuba’s elite and its citizens, 70 percent of whom are too young to remember pre-Castro Cuba, to re-examine their relationship with the revolution. Once its living embodiment has passed from the scene, Cubans will have to reconsider why Cuba is governed as it is. And those in Washington who oppose the embargo will have a new opportunity to make their case.

Even if Fidel survives his current troubles, he can no longer persuade his people his command is unassailable. By passing decision-making power to someone else for the first time since 1959, even if the arrangement is only temporary, talk of succession can never again be fully quieted. Planning for Cuba’s future, both at home and abroad, has gathered new momentum.