Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Fidel Castro Steps Down: On the Importance of Gesture and Opportunities for Friends and Foes

Fidel Castro announced that he would no longer seek to serve his country in an official capacity, as President of the Cuban Republic. In delivered remarks he declared his retirement. The physical demands of the job were too much for him, given the present state of his health. He then announced the succession of his brother Raul Castro and preparations for naming Raul’s ultimate successor. Castro Steps Down as Cuban Leader, BBC News Online, Feb. 19, 2008.

The relevant portions of the statement are worth reading for the subtlies of what is stated and what is omitted:

There were those overseas who, aware of my critical health condition, thought that my provisional resignation, on July 31, 2006, to the position of President of the State Council, which I left to First Vice-President Raul Castro Ruz, was final. But Raul, who is also minister of the Armed Forces on account of his own personal merits, and the other comrades of the Party and State leadership were unwilling to consider me out of public life despite my unstable health condition.

It was an uncomfortable situation for me vis-à-vis an adversary which had done everything possible to get rid of me, and I felt reluctant to comply.

Later, in my necessary retreat, I was able to recover the full command of my mind as well as the possibility for much reading and meditation. I had enough physical strength to write for many hours, which I shared with the corresponding rehabilitation and recovery programs. Basic common sense indicated that such activity was within my reach. On the other hand, when referring to my health I was extremely careful to avoid raising expectations since I felt that an adverse ending would bring traumatic news to our people in the midst of the battle. Thus, my first duty was to prepare our people both politically and psychologically for my absence after so many years of struggle. I kept saying that my recovery “was not without risks.”

. . . . .

To my dearest compatriots, who have recently honored me so much by electing me a member of the Parliament where so many agreements should be adopted of utmost importance to the destiny of our Revolution, 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.

. . . . .

This is not my farewell to you. My only wish is to fight as a soldier in the battle of ideas. I shall continue to write under the heading of ‘Reflections by comrade Fidel.’ It will be just another weapon you can count on. Perhaps my voice will be heard. I shall be careful.

Fidel Castro Ruz, Reflexiones del Commandante, Message from the Commander in Chief, Feb. 18, 2008, available http://www.cuba.cu/gobierno/discursos/2008/ing/f180208i.html. In the original Spanish.

Nietzsche once suggested that individuals preferred gesture to reality. And so it goes with the transfer of power. On the heels of the announcement, the leaders of other states, both friend and foe, stepped up the rhetoric and musings.

President Bush suggested that this was the beginning of a period of transition. But as usual, our President is a day late and a dollar short when it comes to America’s Cuban policy. He released the following statement: “The question really should be what does this mean for the people of Cuba - they are the ones who suffered under Fidel Castro... they are the ones put in prison because of their beliefs. I believe that the change from Fidel Castro ought to begin a period of a democratic transition. We are going to help. The US will help the people of Cuba realise the blessings of liberty.” Reaction as Fidel Castro Retires, BBC News Online, Feb. 19, 2008. “The European Union said it hoped to relaunch ties with Cuba that were almost completely frozen under Mr Castro, while China described Mr Castro as an old friend and said it would maintain co-operation with Cuba.” Castro Steps Down as Cuban Leader, BBC News Online, Feb. 19, 2008.

The exile community in Miami also cheered wildly. But the event was widely expected, given the usual length of even a long life. So there was a bit of the pro forma to the celebrations. No travel back to reclaim what was lost—no post-Soviet euphoria yet. Thus the celebrations was tinged with a bit of sadness as well—Castro robbed his enemies of the satisfaction of his political sunset by leaving a state stronger in many ways than the one he inherited. For once in the past century, there appeared to be a smooth transition of government in Cuba. That transition is authoritarian to be sure, but it is smooth nonetheless—a rarity in traditional Cuban politics. On the other hand, Castro’s success is also the success of the American Cuban community, which he was instrumental in creating. The great success of this community has played an important part of American social and cultural development in the late 20th century.

It is amazing the heat a gesture can generate. A gesture here because the announcement has changed the substance of nothing. It served as an acknowledgement of a reality of which virtually everyone was aware. Nothing has changed. The transition has already commenced. The effective transfer of authority occurred some time ago when Castro went into the hospital. That official change was preceded by years of small steps leading to the moment of transition. I have written about aspects of those changes before. See Larry Catá Backer, On the Anniversary of the Attack on the Moncada Barracks: Cuba Moves Forward towards its Chinese Future, Law at the End of the Day, July 27, 2007, available http://lcbackerblog.blogspot.com/2007/07/on-anniversary-of-attack-on-moncada.html. Still, its announcement—the admission of an unacknowledged reality—was a more powerful event than the event itself that caused the transition to commence now nearly a year ago. Confession is a powerful element of human social organization—and of its law. Reality remains subordinate to confession, and law remains bound to the form rather than the reality of things.

This has proven to be a blessing for the current regime in Cuba. It has provided a space during which the enemies of the state were paralyzed by a desire to wait for confession even as the enemy understood the reality of the flux and vulnerability caused by Castro’s illness and the awkwardness of transition. Castro himself was well aware of this. “Mr Castro said he had not stepped down after undergoing emergency intestinal surgery in 2006 because he had had a duty to the Cuban people to prepare them for his absence. But retirement, he added, would not stop him from carrying "on fighting like a soldier of ideas", and he promised to continue writing essays entitled Reflections of Comrade Fidel.” Castro Steps Down as Cuban Leader, BBC News Online, Feb. 19, 2008. Here is great irony—the power of ideas include the cultural power of ideas as gesture.

Cuba is going its own way. Unfortunately for American policy, that way is not being influenced from Washington. Instead, instruction in transition is coming from Beijing. It would be wise for Americans to review the writings of Deng Xiaoping if they want to understand the future course of Cuban engagement. More importantly, because most Latin American states will tolerate a substantially greater political deviation from democratic ideals than tolerable to the United States, it is even more likely that Cuba will come out of its transition much more firmly in the orbit of Brazil in this hemisphere than in that of the United States.

And that is the great irony of the transition. Cuba will come out of its isolation the first satellite of Brazil. For this purpose, Brazil’s President Lula will play a pivotal role. See Larry Catá Backer, Cuba and Brazil Part II: Castro Continues His Wooing of Lula, Law at the End of the Day, Feb. 10, 2008, available http://lcbackerblog.blogspot.com/2008/02/cuba-and-brazil-part-ii-castro.html. Castro has already signaled a willingness to rely on Brazil (if only as a counterweight to the Chinese). Lula’s progressive credentials are reassuring to the present Cuban regime. Lula will find it useful for both internal and external purposes to serve as the go between for Cuba, especially with the United States. And the United States trusts Lula well enough. More importantly, the alternatives to Brazil are distasteful, whether to a Republican or Democratic regime. No one in Washington is going to want to deal with Havana through Caracas. Brasilia is a much easier point of engagement—easier even than Beijing. It will be interesting to see how Brazil, if it is clever enough, can turn its position to its benefit, becoming the port of entry to investment in Cuba—especially for American enterprises seeking a discrete engagement in the Cuban transition.

If Brazil is wise enough, it might begin now the process of elaborating the Chinese style model of engagement by sending its lawyers to Havana to help in the drafting a new corporate, commercial, partnership and joint venture codes, as well as dispute resolution systems. These might be sensitive to the supremacy of state interests but be tilted toward a Brazilian form of civil law. That might be the price extracted by a Cuban state needing local hemispheric protection. And it would be easy enough to merge Brazilian forms with Chinese models of law making. By engaging in this sort of transitional help, Brazil would significantly extend its influence in subtle but long term ways. It would bind Cuba more closely to Brazil, and increase the power of Brazil against the United States. The last benefit is probably the most Important—Brazilian engagement in this form may open significant doors to more interesting relations with China. Those relationships, pursued now through the lens of Sino-American competition for Cuba and Taiwan, may also advance Brazilian influence as a convenient go between. See Larry Catá Backer, Anticipating Fidel Castro's Death: The U.S. and China Prepare For Battle Over the Fate of Cuba, Law at the End of the Day, August 1, 2006, available http://lcbackerblog.blogspot.com/2006/08/anticipating-fidel-castros-death-us.html. It may also serve Brazilian economic interests as well. Whether the Brazilians can use their position to effect this rule of law transition to their benefit—and for the protection of the current Cuban regime will remain to be seen.

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