To the lifeboats

A new generation of socialists is waiting to take the reins in Cuba, and the Coast Guard should brace for heavy traffic in the Florida Straits.

Published August 2, 2006 10:30PM (EDT)

Since Monday evening, when Fidel Castro announced that he was temporarily ceding power to his brother Raúl, thousands of Cuban exiles in south Florida have tuned in to local news stations to hear the long-desired news that Fidel is finally dead -- and, along with him, Cuban communism. They may have a long wait.

More likely, the temporary cession of power is a dress rehearsal for the day when Castro really does die. While it is hard to imagine that the man who has survived the invasions, assassination attempts and embargoes of nine, going on 10, U.S. administrations will succumb to anything as mundane as intestinal surgery, his death will inevitably come -- maybe not from his current ailment, but certainly in the not too distant future. Castro has dedicated his life to his brand of socialism and he has carefully planned for its survival. This is the man who once said that he would rather see Cuba sink to the bottom of the ocean than abandon the principles of the revolution.

Immediately in line as his successor is his brother Raúl, the first vice president and minister of the Revolutionary Armed Forces, five years his junior, who has helped shape the contours of Cuban communism for over 50 years. He does not have Fidel's charisma and deliberately keeps a low profile, and thus does not have an inspirational bond with the general public. He does, however, have the support of the armed forces, and Cuban history has demonstrated that the military is key to any ruler's longevity.

Like Fidel, Raúl also has his share of serious ailments, including advanced age and a long-rumored struggle with alcoholism. His rule will be limited. But he has a vision of what Cuban socialism should look like, and for years has controlled the inner workings of the military and the bureaucracy as much as Fidel has. Raúl is also ruthless. He is responsible for some of the worst human rights violations in Cuba's history. Fidel's temporary cession of power is designed to help Raúl identify any disloyalties and weaknesses so that they can be addressed now rather than later, when the cession of power is permanent. It is one of a series of recent moves on the part of the government to psychologically prepare the revolution's supporters for life after Fidel.

Raúl Castro will rely on a number of top-level bureaucrats, like Ricardo Alarcòn, the president of the National Assembly, and the various vice presidents of the Council of State, among them Carlos Lage, José Ramón Balaguer, José Machado Ventura and Esteban Lazo. These are men who may not be romantic symbols of the revolution like the Castro brothers, but they have experience, visibility and the ability to assist in a stable transition. Some are committed ideologues; others are perceived as "pragmatic" and thus potentially more willing to experiment with capitalist and democratic reforms. However, if there is any political and economic change in Cuba, it will not be as radical or as swift as many Cubans on and off the island expect.

The Bush administration, meanwhile, will not support any government headed by Raúl. As the 2006 report from the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba demonstrates, the Bush administration has planned for a restructuring of every aspect of Cuban society that makes the Platt Amendment pale by comparison, but these plans are contingent on the degree of democratic reforms implemented by the Cuban government. The report, some of which is still classified, has elicited much criticism from some sectors of the Cuban American community, including ENCASA, a group of over 100 scholars who vocally oppose the ban on travel to Cuba.

If change is not forthcoming, Cuba and the United States may have to deal with another large migration. It is very possible that Cubans on the island, dissatisfied or impatient with the pace of change, will seize the opportunity to leave. They will come either on homemade rafts or by storming embassies, as thousands of their countrymen have done over the years, and the Cuban government may well look the other way. The Castro regime has a long tradition of exporting dissent, one of the reasons it has been able to maintain power for so many decades. The "freedom flights" (1965-1973), the 1980 Mariel boatlift, the 1994 balsero crisis and the migration accord that followed all served as a safety valve for the regime.

And it is also possible that Cuban Americans will exploit a perceived period of weakness and take to the seas to pick up relatives on the island, as they did in Camarioca in 1965 and Mariel 15 years later. The Bush administration and the Florida Legislature acknowledge that these are possible scenarios and are taking steps to prevent these various actors from dictating U.S. immigration policy. Controlling the U.S.-Mexico border will probably seems less pressing to the Department of Homeland Security than controlling the Florida Straits.

The celebrations in Miami, then, are premature and mask many uncertainties. However, they are a necessary outlet for an exile population frustrated by the slow pace of change. Despite all the plotting of the past 47 years, Cuban exiles -- and the United States -- have been unable to remove Castro, an anachronistic survivor of the Cold War chess game. The celebrations are an expression of hope that the figurehead of the revolution -- the man they blame for their exile, for the loss of life, property and basic civil liberties in their homeland, for the separation of family and friends, and for the imprisonment and execution of thousands of dissenters -- will at last be dead and gone. And hope that Cubans will again be able to move freely, not desperately, across the Florida Straits, as they did for generations before Castro, and begin the long process of reconciliation.

Whether these hopes will ever be fulfilled remains uncertain.

By Maria Cristina Garcia

Marma Cristina Garcma is professor of history at Cornell University. She is the author of "Havana USA: Cuban Exiles and Cuban Americans in South Florida, 1959-1994" and "Seeking Refuge: Central American Migration to Mexico, the United States, and Canada."

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