Castro Steps Down in Cuba. So What?

Cuban President Raul Castro, the younger brother of revolutionary leader Fidel Castro, officially stepped down as the dictator of Cuba this week, passing the baton to Miguel Diaz-Canel. Nobody should get excited. Castro is still the most powerful man in the country, still the leader of Cuba’s Communist Party, still the head of its armed forces. Diaz-Canel is but a figurehead and a chair-warmer. The Berlin Wall fell more than a quarter-century ago, but Cubans who yearn to be free will still have to wait.

Diaz-Canel was “elected” Cuba’s new president by Communist Party apparatchiks with a vote of 603 to one, a move no more transformative than the Soviet Politburo replacing Yuri Andropov with Konstantin Chernenko in 1984. These 603 apparatchiks were told to choose Diaz-Canel. And who told them? Castro. The only interesting question here is: what’s up with the one who bucked the 603?

Castro is old. He’s probably tired. It happens. There’s no good reason to assume anything else is going on here.

You don’t have to take my word for it. Diaz-Canel says so himself. “I confirm to this assembly that Raul Castro, as first secretary of the Communist Party, will lead the decisions about the future of the country. Cuba needs him, providing ideas and proposals for the revolutionary cause, orienting and alerting us about any error or deficiency, teaching us, and always ready to confront imperialism.”

Change never comes easily to police states, especially not to communist police states. Garden variety authoritarians like Augusto Pinochet in Chile, Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines, and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia are relatively easy to dispose of next to full-bore totalitarians. Former UN Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick zeroed in on the key differences in her classic 1979 essay, “Dictatorships and Double Standards.”

Traditional autocrats leave in place existing allocations of wealth, power, status, and other re- sources which in most traditional societies favor an affluent few and maintain masses in poverty. But they worship traditional gods and observe traditional taboos. They do not disturb the habitual rhythms of work and leisure, habitual places of residence, habitual patterns of family and personal relations. Because the miseries of traditional life are familiar, they are bearable to ordinary people who, growing up in the society, learn to cope, as children born to untouchables in India acquire the skills and attitudes necessary for survival in the miserable roles they are destined to fill. Such societies create no refugees.

Precisely the opposite is true of revolutionary Communist regimes. They create refugees by the million because they claim jurisdiction over the whole life of the society and make demands for change that so violate internalized values and habits that inhabitants flee by the tens of thousands in the remarkable expectation that their attitudes, values, and goals will “fit” better in a foreign country than in their native land.

As Christopher Hitchens once said of North Korea, communist states are places where everything that isn’t absolutely compulsory is absolutely forbidden. Mounting any kind of resistance against them is nearly impossible unless and until the state loses its will to continue. Don’t be deceived by Havana’s crumbling beauty, its upbeat music and people, its enviable location in the Caribbean. “The surveillance and denunciation system is so rigorous,” French historian Pascal Fontaine wrote in The Black Book of Communism, “that family intimacy is almost nonexistent.” “Cuba looks exactly like its photos,” M.J. Porter wrote in the Introduction to Havana Real by Cuban dissident Yoani Sanchez in 2011, “and yet if feels different. I fell in love with Cuba and Cubans. Something felt like home. Completely unforeseen, however, was the weight of the totalitarian state.”

Communism, though, has been dead almost everywhere in the world for more than a quarter-century. North Korea, Cuba and Laos are its last holdouts, with China and Vietnam communist-in-name-only.

Unlike standard-issue authoritarian governments, communist states only collapse or reform themselves into something entirely different after counter-revolutions or funerals.

The Soviet bloc fell apart when liberal democratic revolutions toppled the Berlin Wall and the Iron Curtain that kept half the population of Europe and a huge swath of Eurasia in bondage. Most of these revolutions were peaceful; the dinosaurs finally lost the will to drive tanks over their citizens and dispatch survivors to slave labor camps. Aside from Belarus—Europe’s last dictatorship—every European country that once lived under Moscow’s communist yoke became democratic or semi-democratic afterward.

The two main communist countries in Asia—China and Vietnam—transformed themselves out of all recognition only after the state funerals of Mao Zedong, the Chairman of China’s Communist Party responsible for as many as 60 million deaths, and Ho Chi Minh, Chairman and First Secretary of Vietnam’s Worker’s Party.

Mao died of a heart attack in 1976. Real reform was still six years away, though, and didn’t get going in earnest until Deng Xiaoping took over in 1982 and oversaw the creation of a “socialist market economy.” He set China on the path from an immiserated totalitarian backwater to the authoritarian capitalist powerhouse it is today, with glittering megacities like Shanghai and Shenzhen rivaling their counterparts like New York City and Hong Kong.

Likewise, in 1986, a mere 11 years after imposing communism on South Vietnam, the government in Hanoi semi-officially junked it and announced the Doi Moi reforms designed to create a “socialist-oriented market economy,” just as Deng had in China. Small private businesses operated openly. Business people and their employees kept most of their profits and wages. Farmers sold rice again, no longer surrendering it to the state. In 1993, 60 percent of Vietnamese lived in poverty. By 2004, only 20 percent did, and Vietnam became the second-largest exporter of rice in the world.

Cuba’s new president says the economy needs to be modernized, suggesting to his subjects and to the world that his country may be ready to go the way of China and Vietnam even before Castro goes the way of Mao and Ho. Diaz-Canel is only able to say that, though, because Castro already said it and started tinkering around the edges a bit. We’ll have to wait and see if Diaz-Canel puts his foot on the gas pedal after the next state funeral. If he tries while Castro is still alive and in charge of his faculties, you can bet your bottom dollar that he will be purged.

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