Fidel's last laugh

Campaign News | Tuesday, 19 February 2008

By going quietly, Castro has again confounded the US and its 50-year obsession with overthrowing the Cuban revolution argues Brian Wilson

With his dignified announcement of resignation, Fidel Castro has completed the inadvertent 18-month transition through which, one last time, he has confounded the United States government and its 50-year obsession with overthrowing the Cuban revolution.

The Americans have nurtured a simplistic game plan for decades, fed by their own self-delusions about Cuba. Castro would die, the oppressed people would rise up and the Americans would walk back in. It was always a nonsensical misreading of what the Cuban people would either desire or tolerate but today it looks even more ridiculous than before.

What the Americans never contemplated was the possibility of Castro giving up power while still alive and presiding over the transition to a new leadership, committed to the same political and social system. Maybe it would not have happened if he had retained good health. But in July 2006, Castro's illness created the conditions for change without any room for dispute.

While his brother Raul, who is only five years younger than Fidel, took over the most senior position as expected, there also emerged a more collective approach to government. Previously, every decision of significance had to pass through the president - as had grown inevitable due to his longevity in office and also his extraordinary grasp of detail on every aspect of Cuban society.

Nobody doubts that the central tenets of Cuban government policy have remained much the same in the intervening 18 months. But the style is significantly different. The Cuban people have not been asked to accept a single successor who was suddenly expected to fill Fidel's role. Instead, there has been growing awareness of the others in the Cuban leadership, alongside Raul, whose roles have been enhanced on the basis of unmistakeable ability.

So life in Cuba will go on without the kind of cataclysm that the Americans were counting on. Life with Castro as revered ex-president will be very little different to what it was with him as formal holder of the office. In other words, transition has occurred according to a script which - from the Miami point of view - could hardly have been worse. They might celebrate his retirement but it is certainly not the victory that they were looking for.

The US and also our own government, which does not do much independent thinking on these matters, would be well advised to steer clear of interference in Cuba's internal affairs over the coming months. Whatever changes follow will come in the Cubans' own time and for their own very good reasons. Pragmatism as much as ideology has always played a significant part in Cuban policymaking and in due course, they will make their own assessments of how things must change.

Cuba is going through a relatively good period economically, with buoyant tourism revenues, a high nickel price and the massive bonus of cheap oil from Venezuela. The American trade embargo is, as ever, a spiteful waste of time. The Cubans are not going to be ground down economically and the Americans would show some common sense by taking this opportunity to acknowledge that fact and call the whole thing off.

It would be an appropriate moment for the European Union to extend a much clearer hand of friendship to Cuba. Countries like Spain and Italy already do huge levels of business with Havana. More generous political recognition of the lessons that Cuba can impart to the developing world on the great humanitarian causes of literacy and health care would also make sense for any country which has in interest in influencing future developments in Cuba.

Only fools will proceed on the basis of malign wishful thinking. Fidel Castro will go down in history as the man who defied the world's greatest superpower for almost half a century. He could only do so because the vast majority of the Cuban people supported him in that fundamental objective. That is not going to change.


Brian Wilson is a former Minister for Energy and patron of the Cuba Solidarity Campaign.

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