Did you ever wish you could attend your own funeral to see what people say and do when you’re gone?
When the world learned last week that Cuban President Fidel Castro’s surgery forced him to pass some duties to his brother Raul and other officials, and later received a series of unverifiable signals about his medical condition, many reacted as if Castro was already deceased, or at least would never return to office.
The result is that Fidel Castro, if indeed he is making a slow recovery, has witnessed a dress rehearsal for his own death, a matter of no small importance for the security of the Cuban revolution.
After ten days, what have we seen?
* Reports from Cuba indicate that Cubans are curious about Castro’s condition but go about their business normally.
* In Miami, there was celebration followed by relative quiet. County officials were on alert for only 18 hours. At local marinas, some activists readied their boats but none took to sea, sparing the U.S. Coast Guard the task of interdicting southbound traffic. Democracy Movement leader Ramon Saul Sanchez protested that the U.S. government should not restrict his right to travel to Cuba.
* Cuba’s vague medical reports and the lack of an appearance by Fidel or Raul Castro continue to feed speculation. Where is Raul Castro, the first vice president of Cuba’s Council of State and the constitutional successor on the day when Fidel definitively leaves office? Why no public appearance? Is Raul keeping a respectful distance while his brother recovers, or does his absence indicate that his brother is not recovering well? Would economic czar Carlos Lage be traveling in Bolivia and Colombia if Havana were in a political crisis?
* Miami political leaders such as Representative Lincoln Diaz-Balart called on Cuba’s dissidents and the Cuban people to begin massive civil disobedience to bring about a new government.
* Initially, the Bush Administration echoed those ideas but with mild rhetoric. The State Department spokesman implied that the “imposition of Raul Castro” as a caretaker chief executive was illegitimate. Secretary of State Rice urged Cubans “to work at home for positive change.” Other officials explicitly urged Cubans not to attempt to cross the Florida Straits. President Bush issued a written statement saying Cubans were engaged in an “effort to build a transitional government,” and promised to “take note of those, in the current Cuban regime, who obstruct your desire for a free Cuba.”
* On Monday, speaking to reporters, the President’s tone had changed. He said Cuba has “a possibility” of political change. “The people on the island of Cuba ought to decide,” he said, after which “Cuban Americans can take an interest in that country and redress the issues of property confiscation.” His spokesman Tony Snow said, “The U.S. has absolutely no designs on invading Cuba,” and added that if there is “dramatic change in the political situation in Cuba,” then “Helms-Burton and other things are going to be revisited.”
* Cuba’s dissidents made no direct response to Diaz-Balart’s appeal, but Oswaldo Paya called for “dialogue and tolerance” and said that “the exile community should not encourage actions that threaten social peace on the island.” Vladimiro Roca said dissidents were avoiding meetings due to the risk of arrest; “We have no way to mobilize,” he said. Wives of jailed dissidents directed their Sunday appeal for clemency to Raul Castro instead of Fidel.
* Cardinal Jaime Ortega used his Sunday homily to reiterate a call that came from Cuba’s Catholic Bishops Conference: “to pray for the sick President and for those who temporarily succeed him in power, and at the same time to pray for Cuba.”
Since 1959, Fidel Castro has never relinquished executive authority. In 2004, he issued a personal statement informing the world that he avoided general anesthesia during the repair of multiple bone fractures, so as not to abandon his duties even for a few hours. After last week’s surgery, all observers naturally asked whether there might be a power vacuum or a crisis of authority in Cuba. This possibility led to the Congressman’s call for civil disobedience, and to the Cuban American National Foundation’s call for civilian and military officials to reject the designation of Raul Castro as caretaker and to move Cuba toward democracy and free markets.
But no sign of political ferment has materialized in or outside of government, nor is there any sign that dissidents or other Cubans see this as a moment where political transformation is at hand. The dissidents are a brave, well defined ideological opposition, but contrary to outsiders’ perceptions, they have never portrayed themselves as political leaders capable of triggering civil disobedience or other mass action. Hence the week’s most interesting revelation may have been the limited connection between Miami leaders and the politics of the island itself.
As spectators to these events, Castro and those around him may conclude that this moment of strategic importance is not a moment of strategic threat.
Indeed, if official accounts of Castro’s recovery are accurate, it may represent an opportunity.
Cuba’s top legislative official, Ricardo Alarcon, said August 6 that Fidel Castro would return to work but his health would require that he “sacrifice in terms of abandoning the day-to-day work to which he was so accustomed for many years.”
That prognosis would allow a scenario conducive to a stable socialist succession to play out, where Castro reduces his workload as his successors progressively assume government functions. During a long leadership transition, there would be no single moment when the Cuban people suddenly learn of Castro’s absence, no moment when his successors are suddenly and completely responsible for governing, and no moment where anyone would suddenly perceive Cuba’s government to be vulnerable. But there would be plenty of time to turn over the reins of government, and for Cubans to become accustomed to the change.
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