Autumn of the commandante;
another dictator sinks
By Nina Khrushcheva. The
Daily Star, Egypt, January 22, 2007.
The death watch for Fidel Castro is something
that only Gabriel Garcia Marquez could get
right. His novel "Autumn of the Patriarch"
captures perfectly the moral squalor, political
paralysis, and savage ennui that enshrouds
a society awaiting the death of a long-term
Commandante Fidel's departure from power,
of course, will be solely a matter of biology,
and the few pictures of him that have emerged
since he took ill last year clearly show
biology at work. When the end comes, change
in Cuba could be as vast as any that greeted
the end of the last century's great dictators.
Stalin, Franco, Tito, Mao: all were mostly
alike in their means and methods.
How they passed from the scene, however,
was often very different, and these differences
can shape societies for years and decades
Consider the Soviet Union. On March 9,
1953, from the Gulf of Finland to the Bering
Sea, everything stood still; likewise in
Warsaw, Budapest, Prague, and East Berlin.
In Beijing, Mao Zedong himself bowed low
before an immense effigy of Stalin. Huge
mourning crowds, crying, nearly hysterical,
could be seen all over the vast empire Stalin
Yet, within days, the word Stalinism was
being expunged from a new Soviet dictionary,
and three years later my grandfather, Nikita
Khrushchev, denounced Stalin's "cult
of personality" in his famous "Secret
Speech" to the Communist Party's 20th
congress. The Khrushchev thaw that followed
may have been short-lived, but for the first
time in Soviet history the possibility of
change was opened - a possibility that Mikhail
Gorbachev seized upon in 1985.
The death of Marshal Josip Broz Tito brought
forth an outpouring of another sort. For
decades, his personal rule imposed a false
unity on Yugoslavia. Following his death
in 1980, that artificial state began to
unravel, culminating in the genocidal wars
in Bosnia, Croatia, and Kosovo of the 1990s.
Not all long-term dictatorships, however,
end in disintegration and mayhem. Mao's
death allowed for Deng Xiaoping's return
from disgrace and internal exile. Deng quickly
routed Mao's "Gang of Four" heirs,
and in only a few years opened China's economy,
fueling a capitalist revolution that has
transformed China far more completely -
and successfully - than Mao's socialist
revolution ever did.
The Communist Party, of course, remains
in power, and Mao's portrait still looms
over Tiananmen Square. But both are mere
relics of ideas and ideals that in reality
have been consigned to the dustbin of history.
Spain, too, escaped violent dissolution
when Generalissimo Francisco Franco's fascist
dictatorship collapsed at his death. Here
the old dictator can take some credit, for
by re-establishing the monarchy under King
Juan Carlos just before he died, Franco
provided Spain with a foundation on which
to build anew.
Little did Franco realize that what Juan
Carlos would build, with the help of a clever
young Franco-era bureaucrat named Adolfo
Suarez, was the modern, democratic Spain
It was no accident that communist countries
were (and are) usually run by geriatric
leaders, and democracies by younger men
and women. That difference matters. Old
leaders can preside successfully over smoothly
running countries that need no radical re-examination
of their policies and purposes.
There are exceptions to this rule, of course
- Winston Churchill, Konrad Adenauer, Deng,
Ronald Reagan - but states cannot count
on fortune bringing an exceptional ruler
their way. Younger leaders are more likely
to cope with the chop and change of difficult
Political competition makes it necessary
for all politicians, whatever their age,
to stay on their toes, anticipate new problems,
and remain open to new ideas aimed at addressing
them. No one can keep himself ensconced
in high office subject only to death or
his own boredom.
One-party systems, one-man charismatic
dictatorships, or a mixture of the two,
as in Tito's Yugoslavia, are a guarantee
of sclerotic minds and inert governments.
So what will become of Cuba after Castro
Many observers portray Raul Castro, Fidel's
younger brother and designated heir, as
a pragmatist - the "practical Castro."
When Cuba's lavish Soviet subsidies vanished
in the early 1990s, it was Raul who recognized
that the regime's survival required economic
reforms, pressing to allow private agricultural
markets to reopen in order to boost food
production and stave off possible starvation.
However, this is the same man who, as the
head of Cuba's internal security apparatus,
for many years represented the knuckles
of an iron-fisted regime, directly responsible
for imprisoning - and often torturing -
thousands of dissidents.
So perhaps the best that could be hoped
for is a Russian-style experiment with liberalization
that is quickly called off by the regime's
nervous old guard.
Moreover, with the support of oil-rich allies
like Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez -
and with the recent discovery of significant
crude reserves off Cuba's own coast - introducing
reforms could well become less urgent. In
that case, Raul may seek to cling grimly
to the fossilized system that he helped
build and maintain with such brutality.
But Raul Castro is an old man himself, so
we can hope for the prospect that some Deng
or, better yet, a Suarez will ultimately
emerge from the wreckage of Fidelism. But
for now, younger communist officials, like
Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque, remain
ideological hardliners whom many Cubans
refer to as "los Taliban."
If they take control and stick to their
guns, Cuba could face another long biology
Nina Khrushcheva is a professor of international
affairs at the New School University. Her
book "Imagining Nabokov" will
be published by Yale University Press this
autumn. THE DAILY STAR publishes this commentary
in collaboration with Project Syndicate
© The Daily Star Egypt 2007