Cuba is at a critical turning point.
By Jorge Castañeda | NEWSWEEK
Published Apr 16, 2010
From the magazine issue dated Apr 26, 2010
Since 1959, fortunes have been lost betting on the end of the Cuban
revolution. Countless books, essays, articles, statements, and
resolutions have predicted the fall of Fidel Castro. These false
warnings have been a source of endless frustration for those hoping for
radical change in Cuba. Despite this record, it's time to raise the
question again. Is the Castro regime entering its final days?
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Three factors suggest Cuba is at a critical turning point. First, the
economy is in its most severe crisis since the Soviet Union collapsed
and stopped subsidizing Cuba in the early 1990s. Last year's fall in the
price of nickel (Cuba's largest export) and in tourism, the stagnation
of remittances from relatives in Miami, and recent hurricanes have
paralyzed the island. Blackouts, terrible deficiencies in health care,
food shortages, a housing crisis, and Cuba's suspension of debt payments
to its creditors since January 2009 all point to a bleak future. Cuba
now relies heavily on subsidies from Venezuela, but they're not enough.
Cubans are accustomed to suffering, but their misery is reaching new
lows. And it's no longer so easy to blame American imperialism. Barack
Obama seems to be hugely popular with ordinary Cubans.
That explains factor No. 2: new signs of public protest. A hunger-strike
movement is gathering steam after the death of political prisoner
Orlando Zapata, a 42-year-old activist who refused food for more than 80
days. Zapata's death dashed any chance of improving relations with the
European Union, the United States—which condemned his death and called
for the release of all political prisoners—and Mexico, which didn't, and
whose president had planned to travel to Havana and no longer has the
leeway to do so. And it inspired another dissident, Guillermo Fariñas,
to launch his own hunger strike, seeking the release of other imprisoned
activists. Fariñas has a rare eloquence and altruism, which are winning
him a stature few dissidents have ever achieved. If his health starts to
fail, events could take an unforeseeable turn.
Meanwhile, women fighting for the release of their relatives from jail,
organized as the Ladies in White, are creating another new threat to the
regime. For years they have marched in protest and have gone to mass
every Sunday, seeking freedom for their loved ones, but suddenly their
efforts have gained new momentum. Authorities can no longer prevent the
marches, so they have opted, with classic Castro-Cuban skill and
cynicism, to organize pro-government crowds to harass the women. Then
police escort the ladies away, ostensibly to protect them from the
jeering crowd. Photographs of the mob scene have circulated around the
world, in the news and over the Internet.
It's not clear how widely those photos, or the news of Zapata's
martyrdom and Fariñas's challenge, have circulated in Cuba itself. Cuban
authoritarianism has long been able to isolate any opposition and to
hold the Cuban population in a state of ignorance. Now, partly due to
the tiny opening tolerated by Raúl Castro in allowing cell phones, the
Internet, and calls from Miami, as well as to a small increase in visits
by relatives from the U.S., thanks to Obama, Cubans may know a lot more
than they used to.
That leads to factor No. 3: Fidel Castro, now 83, is ailing and has
ceded day-to-day control to his brother Raúl, 78, who is no Fidel. The
comandante would have freed Zapata, or executed him, but he never would
have backed himself into a corner as his younger brother did. It would
have been the same with Fariñas, or with the Ladies in White, especially
when these protests were erupting in the midst of an economic debacle.
In August 1994 Fidel showed up in a jeep at the Malecón in Havana, in
the middle of a mass exodus of boat people, to quiet a boisterous crowd
of protesters with the magic of his words and the implicit threat of
brutal repression. Raúl Castro is not capable of such a feat. He lacks
the political instincts that allowed his brother for half a century to
sniff out potential adversaries even before they saw themselves as such.
The field is tinder-dry. Only a tiny spark exists. But the firefighters
are exhausted. And the last hope for the Cuban revolution, residing in
Caracas, could go under at any moment. This feels like an unprecedented
moment in the history of Castroism. It could be just another flare-up,
or a perfect storm.
Castañeda is a former foreign minister of Mexico, Global Distinguished
Professor at New York University, and a fellow at the New America