The Next Revolution Will Come Sooner Than They Think

As expected, the Cuban national assembly rubber-stamped Raul Castro as his brother Fidel’s replacement as dictator of the island nation. However, instead of keeping Carlos Lage in the ceremonial post of vice-president, or perhaps grooming a successor to the septuagenarian Raul, they picked a man older than Raul as his backup:

Cuba’s parliament named Raul Castro president on Sunday, ending nearly 50 years of rule by his brother Fidel but leaving the island’s communist system unshaken.
In a surprise move, officials bypassed younger candidates to name a 77-year-old revolutionary leader, Jose Ramon Machado, to Cuba’s No. 2 spot — apparently assuring the old guard that no significant political changes will be made soon.
The retirement of the ailing 81-year-old president caps a career in which he frustrated efforts by 10 U.S. presidents to oust him.
Raul Castro, 76, stressed that his brother remains “commander in chief” even if he is not president and proposed to consult with Fidel on all major decisions of state — a motion approved by acclamation.

The message is continuity, and its intended recipients go beyond the really old guard. Some had speculated that Raul would serve as mostly a caretaker for his brother until both die, and that that communists would start to groom the next generation for the eventual transition. Instead, it looks like the Castro establishment has decided to stake their claim to the past instead of the future.
This means a tough transition for the Cuban people when the old guard dies off, especially after the Castro brothers shuffle off the mortal coil. Instead of having a rational handoff of power, this move practically guarantees a civil war within the second generation. It could touch off a revolution if it spreads far enough, and without the Castros, it could come quickly.

A Look Into Fidel Castro’s Cuba

Cuba freed four dissidents jailed in 2003 as a way to mollify human-rights critics. After their arrival in Spain following their release, the four explained how bad it got for them in Cuban prisons, and held out little hope that Fidel Castro’s retirement would improve conditions for Cubans:

Four dissidents freed this week after five years in inhumane conditions in a Cuban prison have revealed the dark side of Fidel Castro’s regime.
The four – José Gabriel Ramón Castillo, Omar Pernet Hernández, Alejandro González and Pedro Pablo Álvarez – described regular beatings, humiliation and arbitrary punishment with long periods of solitary confinement in cramped cells with cement beds.
Mr Castillo, 50, a journalist who wrote articles critical of the regime, told The Sunday Telegraph: “It was terrible. It was like being in a desert in which sometimes there is no water, there is no food, you are tortured and you are abused.
“This was not torture in the textbook way with electric prods, but it was cruel and degrading. They would beat you for no reason even when you were in hospital.
“At other times they would search you for no reason, stripping you bare and humiliating you. There was one particular commander at a jail in Santa Clara who seemed to take delight in handing out beatings to the prisoners.”

Fifty-eight of the original 75 arrested in 2003 remain in those conditions, as well as hundreds of other political prisoners held by Castro’s dictatorship. Pernet has spent 21 years, off and on, in prison for his opposition to Castro. He had his collarbone and leg broken during his latest stretch.
This is the real legacy of Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, and the rest of the communist revolutionaries in Cuba. When people wear Che T-shirts or hang Che flags in their offices, this is what they endorse. We can differ on how best to improve the lot of the Cuban people and prepare for the post-Castro era, but let no one be fooled into thinking that the ruling junta is anything other than a brutal, oppressive, and inhumane regime.

Raul Disses Hugo

Are we seeing the first indications that a Raul Castro-led Cuba will want warmer relations with the US? Yesterday, Brazil’s Folha de Sao Paulo reported that Raul thanked Hugo Chavez for assisting Cuba, but thinks that US-friendly Brazil makes a better dance partner for the future (via Brian Faughnan):

The newspaper reports that during the January Brazilian presidential visit to Havana, Raul Castro praised Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez for having helped Cuba “in a particularly tough moment of the ongoing confrontation with the United States George W Bush administration”.
Nevertheless Fidel Castro brother is quoted saying that Brazil “is a far more convenient associate than Venezuela’s Chavez”, for the transition period. ….
“In the words of one of the ministers, Brazil is one of few countries in the world capable of having a dialogue with the Cuban regime, with Chavez and with the US government”. Besides “he’s far more useful for that purpose than the conflicting Chavez who is at loggerheads with United States and Colombia”.

Raul reached out specifically to Brazil and Lula da Silva because of da Silva’s influence in the US. He wants Brazil’s assistance in easing the embargo, which the Bush administration tightened after Cuba jailed dozens of journalists and dissidents. Raul understands that Chavez’ clowning at the UN and in Venezuela makes it more difficult to improve Cuba’s economic situation.
Brazil made it clear that their help comes with strings attached. Da Silva insisted that Raul would have to start releasing dissidents from prison and show large improvements in human rights. Economically, Cuba would have to rethink its hard-line communist policies. The Brazilian leader told Raul that even a Chinese model of economic liberalization with iron-fisted political rule would not be enough. Raul would have to reform both economics and government — and Raul still prefers da Silva to Chavez.
Could this be a gesture to the Bush administration? As I wrote earlier, the retirement of Fidel Castro gives the US a window to adapt a 49-year failing policy of embargo with something that could increase our influence to see some real change in Cuban rule. Raul would only make those changes grudgingly, but if we can build our influence in Cuba, we could help direct the next generation of leaders there much more than if we remain adamant about demanding a counter-revolution first. Da Silva could serve as a conduit — and that could help us marginalize Hugo Chavez in Latin America as well.

An Opportunity For Change, If Not Hope

No, this isn’t a post about Barack Obama, but about Cuba and the coming post-Castro era. Despite Fidel Castro’s “retirement” announcement, we have yet to enter that period, but it now appears within reach. Raul Castro will not make any significant changes to Cuba’s policies while his brother lives, and even after that will only make incremental changes. After Raul passes from the scene, Cuba faces tremendous choices — and will the US be in position to influence them? Not if we continue our failed 49-year policy, as Anya Landau French argues:

Fidel Castro’s leaving office on his own terms is not the kind of change that successive American presidents have envisioned for Cuba. In fact, it’s a sign that U.S. efforts to isolate that country and bring down its socialist government have failed.
Today Venezuela, China, Canada, Spain and Brazil all have a robust presence on the island. Venezuela continues to trade cut-rate oil for Cuban doctors. Canada, Spain and China have made major investments in Cuba over the past decade in tourism, nickel and energy. These relationships helped enable Cuba to achieve 7 percent economic growth last year (a CIA estimate) in spite of U.S. efforts to limit hard-currency flows to the island.
As interim leader, Fidel’s brother Raul has spotlighted longstanding economic problems, criticized the government’s performance and raised expectations of policy changes that will improve conditions for the average Cuban.
Regardless of whether Cuba’s next president delivers or disappoints, Cuba is on the verge of generational change as Fidel Castro and his cohorts leave the scene, one by one. America’s next president faces a choice: Continue a Cuba policy rooted in ineffective sanctions or tailor U.S. policy to new possibilities.

First, let us recognize the obvious: a half-century policy of isolation has utterly failed. Fidel leaves office under his own steam, and still running the show behind a veneer of retirement. He has handed off power to his brother, ensuring the continuity of a regime that five decades of American policy attempted to end. Almost a lifetime has passed as the US has ensured that the people of Cuba would suffer for the sins of its dictator, and it never resulted in one serious attempt to overthrow the author of their misery.
With that in mind, why not take this moment to rethink the Cuba policy? Of course Raul will be no better than his brother, but it still provides a moment for the US to change course. We no longer have to make a deal with the bete noir of Republican and Democratic presidents since Eisenhower plotted the Bay of Pigs invasion and Kennedy botched it. It gives us just enough diplomatic cover to save face while we admit that 49 years of failure is enough.
The Castros will not live forever. If we engage Cuba now, we can increase contacts with all of the factions that will compete to replace them once they are securely underground. That will give us much more influence over the direction Cuba takes in its real post-Castro era. Once we have engaged in a less-hostile relationship, we can use our economic and diplomatic leverage to help improve conditions for dissidents and press for human rights, much as we have done (imperfectly at times) in Viet Nam, China, and other communist regimes.
That will also improve our standing in Latin America. Hugo Chavez has pressed for a Leftist agenda in the region; we need to press back for free-market economics, but we have to have some credibility first. Pursuing a 49-year failure with Cuba undercuts that credibility and creates more hostility in the region than it’s worth. Most of the nations in this hemisphere have normal relations with Cuba and see our punitive policies as intemperate and excessive.
In short, we need to prepare for the inevitable change in Cuba now if we want to help channel that change in positive directions, rather than wait for events to overtake us once again. That means we have to start changing our own policies now rather than later.

Fidel Retires

Forty-nine years after grabbing power in a revolution, Fidel Castro has decided to retire. The 81-year-old dictator is widely believed to be dying and has not been seen at official functions for most of the last year, after he needed European surgeons to save his life. He leaves the Cuban government in the control of his cronies, and most expect his brother Raul to replace him:

Fidel Castro announced early Tuesday morning that he is stepping down as Cuba’s president, ending his half-century rule of the island nation.
“I am saying that I will neither aspire to nor accept, I repeat, I will neither aspire to nor accept the positions of President of the State Council and Commander in Chief,” Castro, 81, said in a letter posted on the Web site of the state-run newspaper, Granma.
The announcement ends the formal reign of a man who, after seizing power in a 1959 revolution, not only outlasted nine U.S. presidents but his communist patrons in the former Soviet Union as well. Prior to the Soviet Union’s collapse, support from the Kremlin sustained Cuba as a socialist outpost on the doorstep of the U.S., and placed Castro and his country in the middle of events central to the Cold War, including the Bay of Pigs invasion and the Cuban missile crisis. …
Cuba’s Council of State, a panel comprised of handpicked Castro allies, is scheduled to name the country’s next president when it meets on Sunday. In previous years, the selection was always a foregone conclusion, with the council picking Fidel Castro. The council is now widely expected to select Raul Castro.

George Bush gets to be the President that says adios to Fidel, and to strategize about the best way to steer a post-Fidel policy. He has already begun. On travel through Africa, Bush told reporters that Cuba should abandon its Castro rule and have free and fair elections — “not these elections that the Castro brothers rig.” The US, he said, focuses its concerns on the Cuban people, the ones who have borne the brunt of Castro’s dictatorship.
Raul Castro will almost certainly take over the family business. If Fidel died, the machinery of the Cuban state might have decided to take another direction, but Fidel remains alive and a threat. No one in the Cuban government will cross the Castros as long as Fidel lives, retired or not. Therefore, the government direction and policy won’t change a bit, and the US will face the same issues it always has with Fidel’s rule. Cuba will simply be more of the same.
Still, the US will face even more pressure to change its policy towards Cuba with Fidel’s retirement — and it isn’t as if our Cuba policy has been a resounding success. It started off as a disaster under John F. Kennedy, who couldn’t decide whether he wanted to invade it or not and wound up doing the worst possible thing, invading Cuba and failing to finish the job. In the intervening time, we’ve gone to war with Vietnam, frozen them out diplomatically and economically, and then reconciled and begun trading with them years ago. The Vietnamese Communists were at least as bad as Fidel, and arguably much worse, as were Red China, the Soviets, and any number of kleptocracies and dictators we engaged.
What makes Cuba so much different? Proximity?
We should press for free elections, liberty, and an end to oppression. We’ve tried embargoes for almost 50 years. Maybe — just maybe — we should try something else and start preparing the ground for the post-Castro era. Raul won’t be around much longer either, and when both Castros have thankfully left this mortal coil, the US needs to be in position to help ensure a real democracy in Cuba.

Five Years As Hostages

Five years ago yesterday, three American contractors found themselves captives of FARC, the Marxist guerrillas in Colombia. They still remain captive to the South American terrorist gang, and most of their countrymen have long forgotten about them. Marc Gonsalves, Keith Stansell, and Thomas Howes languish in captivity while their nation has basically slept.
FARC is no less a terrorist gang than al-Qaeda, if somewhat less lethal. They have numbered in the tens of thousands, but now roughly comprise about 8,000 armed guerrillas controlling about 15% of Colombian territory. Like their Islamist cousins, FARC has used the drug trade to fund its operations, and in Colombia, that can be highly lucrative. They also use protection rackets and kidnapping for both profit and political purposes. They are despicable, less so than al-Qaeda and Hezbollah and certainly less of a threat to the US — but obviously not to the three men who have been held for so long.
At least a few weeks ago, FARC confirmed that the three men are still alive. They offered them as part of an exchange that Hugo Chavez tried to arrange, but the Colombian government got very suspicious of Chevez’ intent in engaging with his ideological allies in FARC. The US has a good policy in non-negotiation with terrorists, and so we need to find some other way to finally bring these men home to their families.
The Crossed Pond would like to start a blogospheric recognition of the suffering our fellow Americans are suffering at the hands of FARC. If nothing else, we can remind ourselves of their plight.

That’s One Way To Start A Distributorship!

Hugo Chavez recently started a state-owned food distributorship. In the past three days, Venezuelan troops started stocking their warehouses with product. Unfortunately for Venezuela’s private-sector distributor, the troops simply confiscated Alimentos Polar trucks and their shipments to do so:

Venezuela’s top food company has accused troops of illegally seizing more than 500 tonnes of food from its trucks as part of President Hugo Chavez’s campaign to stem shortages.
The leftist Chavez this week created a state food distributor and loosened some price controls, seeking to end months of shortages for staples like milk and eggs that have caused long lines and upset his supporters in the OPEC nation. …
“Anyone who is distributing food … and is speculating, we must intervene and we must expropriate (the business) and put it in the hands of the state and the communities,” Chavez said during the inauguration of a new state-run market in Caracas.

Hugo’s Zimbabwe strategy continues apace. Instead of directly nationalizing these industries, Chavez has looked for excuses to confiscate property a little at a time. With price controls keeping private production low, he has decided to raise prices just as the state enters the market on its own — and then keeps his cost of production low by simply stealing the product.
It’s actually more clever than just the simple theft it is on the surface. By forcing producers to sell below cost for so long, he’s weakened the production capability of the private sector so that fewer targets remain. The shortages artificially increase demand and desperation. In raising prices, the root producers now have hope of earning and produce more — just in time for the state to steal it and take credit for meeting the demand.
What do Venezuelans see from this process? Hugo steals from the rich and gives to the poor, without noting the manipulations necessary for him to succeed in doing so. At least Hugo hopes that’s all they see. If Venezuelans start figuring this out, he’ll have to have that last flight out of Caracas on standby. (via Memeorandum)

Chavez Will Take Farms By Force

Hugo Chavez leveled a threat against Venezuelan farmers over the weekend, another step in creating his socialist paradise. He called farmers who sell abroad to gain a better price for their goods “traitors”, and told his ministers to identify them so that he could send the Army to confiscate their property:

President Hugo Chavez threatened on Sunday to take over farms or milk plants if owners refuse to sell their milk for domestic consumption and instead seek higher profits abroad or from cheese-makers.
With the country recently facing milk shortages, Chavez said “it’s treason” if farmers deny milk to Venezuelans while selling it across the border in Colombia or for gourmet cheeses.
“In that case the farm must be expropriated,” Chavez said, adding that the government could also take over milk plants and properties of beef producers.
“I’m putting you on alert,” Chavez said. “If there’s a producer that refuses to sell the product … and sells it at a higher price abroad … ministers, find me the proof so it can be expropriated.”
Addressing his Cabinet, he said: “If the army must be brought in, you bring in the army.”

On Saturday, he made similar threats against bankers. He wants them to set aside a third of their loans as low-cost agricultural, residential, and small-business loans. If they fail to do so, Chavez will nationalize them as well, continuing his confiscatory practices and intimidation.
In the end for all Socialists, the Army takes property away from the people. Everyone who opposes them are traitors. The state must run all to achieve ultimate “fairness”.
Chavez needs this more than most because his status as president-for-life could not get secured in last year’s flop of a referendum. Food and milk shortages that have predictably arisen from state control of the markets have created anger and opposition to his socialist plan for Venezuela. He cannot afford now to allow for the proper solution, which is to reduce state interference in the markets and allow prices to normalize on their own.
Chavez has chosen the Mugabe way of state confiscation of farms, and will eventually get the Mugabe result — taking his nation into poverty and starvation on land that should produce enough for export. (via QandO)

Bolivia Moves Towards Civil War

Just a year after the election of the leftist government in Bolivia, the nation’s most resource-rich regions have moved towards secession from the central government. The move sets up a conflict on several levels between Evo Morales and the wealthy producers he has attempted to nationalize, and that conflict appears headed for violence:

Tensions were rising in Bolivia on Saturday as members of the country’s four highest natural gas-producing regions declared autonomy from the central government.
Thousands waved the Santa Cruz region’s green-and-white flags in the streets as council members of the Santa Cruz, Tarija, Beni and Pando districts made the public announcement.
The officials displayed a green-bound document containing a set of statutes paving the way to a permanent separation from the Bolivian government.
Council representatives vowed to legitimize the so-called autonomy statutes through a referendum that would legally separate the natural-gas rich districts from President Evo Morales’ government.
The move also aims to separate the states from Bolivia’s new constitution, which calls for, among other things, a heavier taxation on the four regions to help finance more social programs.

Morales faces a huge crisis, and he may well get outplayed. He made headlines with his election last year, part of a leftward drift in Latin America led by Hugo Chavez. Unlike Chavez, however, Morales failed to build a personality cult before imposing Chavez-like socialism on Bolivia, and his opponents in the resource-rich districts have enough strength to stand up to the president.
Morales has attempted to play racial politics as well as class warfare in his administration. He has painted the wealthy as European-descended exploiters of the Indian poor, and demanded nationalization of the gas industry to remedy historic complaints. Morales has said that his government will investigate the fortunes of the wealthy to determine their legality. That has made him some powerful enemies, who have decided that they cannot allow Morales’ writ to run in their districts.
If these districts can secure themselves against the central government, this could get very, very ugly. Natural gas is their chief export and their resource for hard currency. If the breakaway districts can keep it for themselves and safely export it (mainly to Brazil), they can build a significant war chest while leaving Morales to feed the rest of Bolivia’s poor in the west. That will prompt Morales to march on the east, perhaps assisted by Chavez in Venezuela, and a civil war will almost certainly erupt — and sooner rather than later.

Chavez Tried Rigging Referendum Vote

Hugo Chavez suffered a narrow but humiliating loss at the polls last week for his referendum on changing the Venezuelan constitution into a roadmap for dictatorship. His acknowledgment of the defeat gained him praise from world leaders for his commitment to democracy. However, Newsweek now reports that Chavez tried to manipulate an overwhelming loss into a victory — only to be stopped at the threat of a military coup (via QandO):

Most of Latin America’s leaders breathed a sigh of relief earlier this week, after Venezuelan voters rejected President Hugo Chávez’s constitutional amendment referendum. In private they were undoubtedly relieved that Chávez lost, and in public they expressed delight that he accepted defeat and did not steal the election. But by midweek enough information had emerged to conclude that Chávez did, in fact, try to overturn the results. As reported in El Nacional, and confirmed to me by an intelligence source, the Venezuelan military high command virtually threatened him with a coup d’état if he insisted on doing so. Finally, after a late-night phone call from Raúl Isaías Baduel, a budding opposition leader and former Chávez comrade in arms, the president conceded—but with one condition: he demanded his margin of defeat be reduced to a bare minimum in official tallies, so he could save face and appear as a magnanimous democrat in the eyes of the world.
So after this purportedly narrow loss Chávez did not even request a recount, and nearly every Latin American colleague of Chávez’s congratulated him for his “democratic” behavior. Why did these leaders not speak out? Surely they knew of Chávez’s machinations, and with the exception of Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega, Ecuador’s Rafael Correa, Bolivia’s Evo Morales and, to a large extent, the Argentine Kirchner duo, none of the region’s heads of state sympathizes with the Venezuelan revolutionary.
The reason for the silence: these leaders know Chávez can count on a fifth column in nearly every country in the region. Even while he denounces the policies of his opponents and throws vitriol in every direction, he also uses his nation’s resources to befriend their constituencies. These acolytes are devoted to his ideals and, more important, to his funding. They are boisterous, or powerful, or both, and they can make life miserable for governments ranging from the emblematic left (Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in Brazil) to the liberal right (Mexico’s Felipe Calderón or Colombia’s Alvaro Uribe).

This seems at least plausible, and considering the source — the former Foreign Minister of Mexico, now an NYU professor — rather credible. Many of Hugo’s critics wondered whether he would indeed steal the election, especially given his violent supporters and all-or-nothing rhetoric. He had called opposition to the referendum traitorous, and said that those voting “No” would be voting for George Bush rather than Hugo Chavez.
If true, it demonstrates that even Chavez has a limit to his power, and the military will watch him closely. They allowed him the face-saving charade of a razor-thin loss, but the reality of his failure must have hit him hard. Even his champions among the poor don’t want to see a Fidel-like regime installed in Venezuela, let alone the military or the middle-class. He has pushed as far as he can go — at least through nominally democratic means.
Look for Hugo to try other means next. His first target will be the military. He will have to find some way to diminish the military command to reduce their threat to his regime, so expect some show trials and mass purges in the next couple of years. Once he has reduced the military threat to his regime, the next vote will go Hugo’s way, regardless of the will of the Venezuelan electorate.