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As the health of Cuba's leader steadily deteriorates, the condition of Cuba in a post-Fidel era has become one of the hottest topics in global politics. The survival of the revolution has come under fierce debate as the world asks: What will happen to Cuba after the death of Castro?

Fidel Castro is one of the most polemic figures in contemporary history. He has been regarded as both a freedom fighter and a human rights abuser, a defender of the oppressed and a repressive dictator. However, along with José Martí and Che Guevara, Fidel’s legacy will remain a cornerstone in Cuba’s identity and future. In a climate of anticipation, the world is now watching to see who will succeed Fidel in becoming Cuba’s next leader.

Members of the international media have already named Raúl Castro as the country’s new leader, while the US administration is pinning its hopes on regime change. Despite such rabid speculation, the handover of President and head of the Communist Party to Raúl has only ever officially been a temporary measure. The past 48 years of Fidel’s rule has shown that he is neither predictable nor unprepared, and despite all the odds stacked against Cuba, particularly following the fall of the Soviet Union, the Revolution has survived.

Fidel and his government of loyal ministers are cognizant of the crucial period of transition, particularly with the US’ pervasive threat of interference and its recent $80 million dollar fund for the Free Cuba Commission. As the Helms-Burton Law shows, it is not necessarily a commitment to “democracy” that the US desires, but rather the re-appropriation of property and the extension of a “liberal imperialism.”  This was underlined in 2002 when John Bolton called Cuba a terrorist-sponsoring state, accusing them of developing biomedical warfare and harbouring terrorists. After declaring Cuba a “rogue state” on the periphery of the “axis of evil,” the US administration will be hoping for an end of “non-compliance” in a post-Fidel era. If some vocal US critics are correct, and the loss of Fidel would be tantamount to the collapse of state legitimacy, safeguards such as grooming a successor will have been put in place during this time of potential crisis.

The Cuban Revolution brought a home-grown and unique political ideology to the island. This individualised ideology has developed over time, adapting to Cuba’s changing needs and implementing reforms where necessary within an increasingly hegemonic capitalist world. The continuation of the values instilled in the Revolution and a deep commitment to socialism will be deemed by Fidel as paramount for the future. In uncertain times, this will only be achieved through a reinvigoration of Cuban politics led by a strong and inspirational leader.

At present, Cuba’s temporary governance structure is managed by a collective leadership with Raúl as the ultimate authority. However, as the Soviet Union post-Stalin and other countries have shown, collective power-sharing is historically fragile and susceptible to internal and external rupturing; only one leader can and will emerge.  Key potential candidates to succeed Fidel include his brother Raúl Castro, Carlos Lage Davila (Vice President), Ricardo Alarcon (President of the National Assembly), and Felipe Perez Roque.

Of all the potential successors, Perez is considered the “hard-liner”; it is his deep commitment to maintaining the current system and the integrity of the Revolution that make him stand out. Perez has had an extremely close relationship with Fidel, beginning when he was 21 years old, serving as Fidel’s Chief of Staff for ten years. Working so closely with Fidel, he has undoubtedly inherited a deep understanding of the inner workings of Cuba’s system of governance. 

Both figures share the desire to re-centralise the economy following the liberalising reforms, which were implemented in the immediate post Cold War era, such as the 1993 self-employment decree.  Before falling ill, Fidel placed emphasis on redirecting the economy to rein in these measures, which undermined the egalitarian values of the Revolution, thus threatening the legitimacy and power of the state. This would appear to pronounce his desire for a more uncompromising successor to steer Cuba’s future, rather than the more reform-minded individuals like Carlos Lage.

Perez is also the youngest of this elite group, and at a mere 41 years of age, he is the youngest Foreign Minister in the world. Born after the 1959 Revolution and having lived his entire life under the blockade, he appears to be intoxicated by the issue. Like Perez, approximately 70% of Cubans were born after the Revolution and have reaped the benefits of advanced, efficient, free medical care and an outstanding education system. This population has also lived its entire life under the US blockade, suffering what Perez has called an “economic genocide.” Given his age, Perez shares the experiences and frustrations of living under the blockade, identifying with the majority of the Cuban population in their defiance against imperialist tactics.

In his speeches, Perez, like Fidel, employs compelling rhetoric of Cuban independence vis à vis their powerful aggressor. His rhetoric dichotomizes Cuba and the US, through drawing comparisons in areas such as healthcare or debates about “true democracy.” For example, he contrasts the gross inequalities inherent in US healthcare policy with Cuba’s egalitarian and highly advanced system. Indeed, the 2000 World Health Organization’s report, which assessed its 191 member states in terms of “fairest mechanisms of health system,” Cuba ranked first out of all Latin American countries, while the US did not even reach the top fifty. Through bringing such examples to the forefront, Perez simultaneously reinforces Cuba’s national identity and arguably legitimates Cuba’s system of governance and policies.

As Foreign Minister since 1999, Perez has had seven years to develop and cement allies in the “non-aligned movement” to financially support Cuba’s transition and development and, indeed, his role as leader. This has included strengthening trade relations with China and Venezuela, thus laying the groundwork for the long-term sustainability of the Revolution in a post-Castro era.

Evidence of sustainability can be drawn from Cuba’s stable institutions and growing economy, estimated at 12.5% GDP growth rate in 2006 according to Cuban government sources. With political support and economic investment from Venezuela and China in particular, the Cuban state will be able to continue the expansion of the tourism, manufacturing, and construction industries while preserving the planned economy as far as possible. Furthermore, the rise of left-wing populist movements in Latin America offers ideological support to fight a collective battle against an increasingly tangible neo-liberal hegemony.

In the long-term, however, there are several factors that could destabilize Cuba with the loss of her figurehead: existent economic deprivation will become a touch-paper issue; the infiltration of capitalism and clamour for extended political rights will similarly become more pronounced. However, discontent need not necessarily manifest itself in counter-revolution, and the stronghold of organized and unified political opposition is not found within Cuba, but rather in Miami, fermented by Washington.

With the death of Fidel, the Cuban state will be aiming to reconcile its desire to preserve its egalitarian values and the advances made by socialist policies, with a need to develop economically, without becoming re-colonized by capitalist forces.  Meanwhile, the majority of Cubans will see the departure of their leader as an opportunity for change, opening a potential window for extended political and economic rights. The nature of this change is largely dependent on who will take the reins so only time will tell. Perhaps with Perez as the ideological driving force and Lage as Cuba’s reformist economic tsar, citizens could have it both ways. During this fragile time of transition, Cuba’s future shall be decided by whether the Revolution will have enough momentum as an ideology to survive without its leader, thereby answering the question; will “la victoria” endure? 

1st February 2007
Who Will Succeed Fidel?
By Natasha Tsangarides