FIDEL Castro’s remarkable recovery from a near-death experience has been increasingly evident in recent months. Although, contrary to expectations, he failed to make a public appearance on July 26, one of the most significant dates on Cuba’s political calendar, he has since then addressed his nation’s parliament and at least one other gathering and given extended interviews to foreign journalists, apart from continuing to garner extraordinary amounts of space in the state-owned press with his series of Reflections.
Among the journalists he has lately entertained for hours on end was the Israeli-American Jeffrey Goldberg – an encounter that has particularly irked the western left, not least because Goldberg, a former member of the Israeli Defense Forces, was a staunch advocate of aggression against Iraq who now appears to believe that Iran’s nuclear ambitions qualify the latter for a comparable response from the United States.
In his conversations with Goldberg, when asked whether he still considered the Cuban model worth exporting, Castro responded: it “doesn’t even work for us anymore”. Just days after this remark was reported, Havana announced plans to retrench more than one million state employees, with the evident aim of kick-starting the island’s moribund economy by encouraging a degree of private enterprise.
Although there is almost certainly no causal link between Castro’s remark and the subsequent announcement – after all, his younger brother, President Raul Castro, had presaged this sort of restructuring many months ago – it was inevitable, given the proximity between the two, that tongues would wag.
Fidel has since declared that what he said to Goldberg was misinterpreted (albeit not misquoted), and that in fact he meant the opposite. That does not make a great deal of sense, despite the implication that the response was directed chiefly at the “export” element in Goldberg’s loaded question. After all, while Cuba was once remarkably generous in sharing with interested parties the benefits of its revolutionary experience, its economic model was rarely offered as a showcase – not least because the model itself has been in flux over the decades.
In the years following the 1959 revolution, for instance, there were debates over whether a diversified economy, aimed at self-sufficiency in most respects, would be preferable to one that focused primarily on sugar production. Eventual adoption of the latter strategy led to an extraordinary degree of dependency on the chief importers – the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. When that market suddenly disappeared with the collapse of communism, it was widely assumed that the end of socialist Cuba was also nigh.
However, the celebrations among viscerally anti-Castro Cuban exiles in Miami proved to be premature. The Cuban revolution proved to be more resilient than its leading detractors had assumed. With a few concessions to private enterprise, the island’s structures largely survived the “special period” of multiple exigencies – until remarkable developments elsewhere in Latin America, especially the ascent of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, offered Cuba a temporary lifeline.
Throughout these troubled times, Cuba did not resile from its commitment to free education and healthcare for all. That has not changed so far. Even beyond that, Stephen Wilkinson, a Cuba specialist at the London Metropolitan University’s Centre for Caribbean and Latin American Research, points out in an analysis for the BBC that “the final death knell of the Soviet model of centrally planned socialism” should not be interpreted “as the harbinger of free-market capitalism and liberal democracy”.
“The changes are couched in the rhetoric of revolution and the discourse is very much one of deepening the socialist character of the system,” he says, adding that the sharp reduction in the state-employed workforce does not imply mass unemployment. “A large number” of the 500,000 expected to be let go by next March “will be offered alternative employment opportunities and a good many will continue in their jobs but will cease to be state employees. In many cases it means they will become self-employed or become part of a workers’ cooperative.”
Obviously, no one can objectively predict with any degree of certainty how this experiment will pan out. Wilkinson cites high-level sources as saying that while Havana has closely studied state-controlled capitalism in China and Vietnam, “Cuba … wishes to avoid the negative social consequences of the Chinese experience”. And there are, no doubt, dangers ahead. In July, historian Esteban Morales was expelled from the Communist Party after claiming in a web-published article that many apparatchiks were planning to emulate their Soviet counterparts by pouncing on state property once privatization becomes feasible.
That may be unlikely for as long as the Castro brothers remain on the scene. But that’s hardly a long-term prospect. The expertise of Cuban doctors does not, as far as anyone knows, extend to guaranteeing immortality. And it could be argued that the legacy of the revolution will be determined by the character of Cuba’s post-Castro phase.
The recent release, meanwhile, of more than a dozen political prisoners, alongside the indication that anyone incarcerated in that capacity would shortly be freed, is undoubtedly a welcome sign. It would have been better, of course, if there hadn’t been any political prisoners in the first place. At the same time, it would be futile to deny the series of subversive threats Cuba has faced from its northern neighbour over the decades – a neighbour whose trade embargo, introduced nearly 50 years ago, remains in place, notwithstanding annual global condemnation in the UN General Assembly.
Which makes it particularly galling that Hillary Clinton has the temerity to castigate Cuba for its “intransigence”. Even Goldberg conceded in a blog last week that although “in some circles it is forbidden to argue that Fidel Castro is anything other than the most evil dictator in the history of totalitarianism … the record simply doesn’t support this belief”, pointing out that “China’s human rights record, in particular, makes Cuba’s look like Norway’s”.
In his conversations with Goldberg, Fidel also addressed an issue that has captivated him of late, namely the prospect of a global conflagration sparked by an American attack on Iran. He simultaneously castigated Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for his Holocaust-denying anti-Semitism, and has consistently been an outspoken opponent of the depredations heaped by Israel upon Palestinians, while willing to defend Israel’s right to exist.
None of that’s particularly hard to defend. The same cannot be said for his apparent endorsement a few weeks earlier of Lithuanian writer Daniel Estulin’s bizarre conspiracy theories covering everything from the Beatles to 9/11 and Osama bin Laden. Yet his comment to Estulin – “We will win the war by not waging it” – suggests the octogenarian former maximum leader’s heart is, broadly speaking, still in the right place.