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February 19, 2008 [LINK / comment]

Fidel Castro ends his dictatorship

So he won't be "president for life" after all. After exercising supreme power in Cuba for 49 years, one month, and 19 days, Fidel Castro has announced that he will not serve another term as President. Cuba's National Assembly will convene in the next few days, and one of their tasks is to choose a president, which ordinarily is a routine rubber-stamp process. Fidel's brother, First Vice President Raul Castro has been serving as provisional leader ever since Fidel underwent intestinal surgery in late July 2006. Raul is expected to win the vote, but Second Vice-President Carlos Lage Davila is considered a potential rival, according to the BBC. (For his part, President Bush said while paying a visit to Africa, "The United States will help the people of Cuba realise the blessings of liberty." Get ready, Miami!) So now we may see some actual politics in Cuba, for a change! Fidel made it clear that he was not bidding farewll, but rather handing over power to someone who can devote enough energy to the job. He plans to continue voicing his opinion on world issues, and still looks forward to the defeat of "the adversary," i.e., America. An English translation of the full text of Castro's message to the Cuban people is at Granma.

Is "dictator" too harsh of a word? Well, Castro has ordered the arbitrary arrest and execution of hundreds (if not thousands) of Cuban dissidents over the decades, and he created a totalitarian police state in which his supporters are supposed to spy on their neighbors. Just last week, a student named Eliecer Avila was arrested for having complained about the dual-currency exchange system that Cuba uses to attract wealthy tourists from Europe, but from which Cubans themselves are excluded; see Even with recent gestures of political liberalization, any criticism of the current regime is harshly punished. Castro certainly typifies the despotic caudillo style of leadership that has often prevailed in Latin America since the era of independence, characterized by a self-certain attitude and headstrong, impetuous zeal. Most such leaders are prone to cling to absolute power until their last breath of life, which often results in a chaotic transition when El Jefe Maximo finally dies. Castro probably realized that his legacy would depend on preparing Cuba for a transition to a new leadership, so it is to his credit that his reason prevailed over his vanity. And thus, he leaves the political arena in a relatively classy way, bolstering his (ambiguous) future place in history. Much like Chile's Augusto Pinochet, he will always be loved by some people and despised by others. For objective observers, the ultimate verdict on Castro will depend on whether his successors allow greater political and economic freedom, moving belatedly into the 21st Century.

Among those who make excuses for his authoritarian rule, the question is, Are the Cuban people better off than they were when he took power a half century ago? Making a comparison in living standards over such a long term is problematic at best, however. For example, how can one possibly weigh the improved material conditions that we Americans enjoy with spiritual and psychological well-being? The lack of objective data on Cuba's economic conditions, due to the refusal of Cuba's government to allow the free flow of information, adds to the problem. It may well be that most Cubans are "poor but proud," having resisted "Yankee imperialism" for 50 years, but what does it mean if they were never given the freedom to choose between (real) greater prosperity and (alleged) foreign domination? One must also remember that, since the end of the Cold War, Cuba's economy has been artificially propped up by the petro-dollars of Hugo Chavez and money spent by European tourists. The bottom line that, while Cuba ranks relatively well according to some measures of medical care and educational opportunities, it is far below most other Western Hemisphere countries when it comes to personal income and consumption. Anyone who says the Cuban people are better off without iPods, designer bluejeans, and other status symbols of Western society is contemptuous of individual choice.

And so, with all its '57 Chevies and crumbling buildings, Cuba stands today as an anachronistic "museum" of sorts, representing an nostalgic utopia for those on the Left and a hellish dystopia for those on the Right. In postmodern lingo, I suppose, the Cuba of Fidel Castro "is what we make of it."

Posted (or last updated or commented upon): 19 Feb 2008, 12: 40 PM

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