How would Raúl and Hugo get along?

August 17, 2006

Miami Herald- Mariefil Perez-Stable

We finally saw him. On Aug. 13, Raúl Castro -- out of public sight since becoming acting president on July 31 -- welcomed Hugo Chávez to Havana. Raúl's brother was turning 80, and Chávez came bearing gifts: a mug said to have belonged to Napoleon, a dagger from Simón Bolívar's arsenal and a painting by a Venezuelan artist.

The Cuban media teased us with a few carefully selected photographs. One shows the elder Castro, dressed in red in his hospital bed, cheerily chatting with Chávez, also in red. In another, Raúl, his brother and Chávez admire a drawing of the young Comandante by the Mexican artist David Alfaro Siqueiros. The acting president, however, wasn't in red.

The juggling of scenarios for a Cuba without Fidel Castro has lately picked up the pace. Will Raúl be able to hold the regime together? Is a transition inevitable sooner or later? How will ordinary Cubans react to the Comandante's absence? The trio's photograph raises another question: How would Raúl and Chávez get along?

Survival skills

Chávez and the Comandante are kindred souls. In 1994, the elder Castro greeted Chávez -- who had just been released from prison after serving time for a botched coup -- as if he were a head of state. Chávez's election in 1998 was a breath of fresh air for Castro. Since the end of the Cold War, Castro had weathered lonely seas. Coincidentally, many Latin Americans were feeling the brunt of market reforms that had failed to improve their lives. The new populism in Latin America started making waves.

By the end of the 1990s, Cuba's modest economic reforms were petering out, and the Comandante launched a 'Battle of Ideas' that emphasizes revolutionary values and relegates the living standards of ordinary Cubans. Chávez and Castro have the same understanding of politics: 'enlightened' leaders like themselves must show the masses the way forward. Castro admires the Chavista deftness in gutting democracy while claiming its mantle; Chávez well appreciates Castro's seasoned survival skills.

Raúl Castro is in another league altogether. He has neither charisma nor vision. Raúl has drawn his strength from institutions -- the military, most of all, but also the Communist Party. In the old days, he was staunchly pro-Soviet and felt at home in the staid, stifling normality of bureaucratic socialism. He can't rally the masses to victory and wouldn't dare try without his brother. His only hope is to appeal to the healthy self-interest that all human beings have -- Cubans on the island are no different -- to improve our lives through our own efforts. While his brother cringed at Deng Xiaoping's call to the Chinese, 'Let's get rich!,' Raúl likely applauded in silence.

Raúl and Chávez are not kindred souls. Chávez's traipsing around the world revving up anti-Americanism delights the Comandante and probably Raúl as well. Only the younger Castro -- when he's really in charge -- will have to address the daily concerns of ordinary Cubans if he's to remain in power for a while. He can't cruise on the Battle of Ideas. Neither can he conduct foreign policy as if he were the Comandante. I don't know how the Raúl-Chávez relationship would play itself out, but the potential for tensions is clearly there.

Chinese model

Cuban-Venezuelan relations stand on the strong personal bond between Chávez and the elder Castro. Rumor has it that most others in the Cuban leadership don't care for him even as they benefit from Venezuelan oil. Only the talibanes -- the group of relatively young cadres nurtured by the Comandante in his own image -- seem to have Chávez's favor. How long these diehard loyalists would survive without Castro will be interesting to see.

There's no gainsaying the importance of Venezuela for Cuba today. It would be a mistake, however, to assume that it will always be so. Without the elder Castro, China may loom larger if only because Cuban-Chinese relations are grounded through the military. Then, too, China -- a dictatorship that has opened the economy -- is a viable model for a successor regime in Cuba.

Whether the Cuban people would be satisfied with better living standards while continuing to live without freedom is another matter.

Marifeli Pérez-Stable is vice president for democratic governance at the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington, D.C., and a professor at Florida International University.

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