Wayne S. Smith is now a Senior Fellow at the Center for International Policy in Washington, D.C. and an Adjunct Professor at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. He was Chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana from 1979 to 1982.
Raúl Castro has been acting president of Cuba since July 31, 2006. His brother, Fidel, passed the office to him then because of a serious illness. At this point, it is not clear whether Fidel Castro will recover and resume the presidency. It seems unlikely. But regardless of whether he does or not, he is now 80 and in poor health. One way or the other, his almost half-century rule in Cuba is nearing an end. What will be his legacy? Has the Cuba he leaves behind registered gains over Cuba as it was when he took power in 1959? Will it have a brighter future? And is it supported by the Cuban people?
The answers to those questions are mixed. Castro first and foremost is and always has been a committed egalitarian. He despises any system in which one class or group of people lives much better than another. He wanted a system that provided the basic needs to all—enough to eat, health care, adequate housing and education. The authoritarian nature of the Cuban Revolution stems largely from his commitment to that goal. Castro was convinced that he was right, and that his system was for the good of the people. Thus, anyone who stood against the revolution stood also against the Cuban people and that, in Castro’s eyes, was simply unacceptable. There is, then, very little in the way of individual freedoms –especially freedom of expression and assembly. And there are political prisoners—those who have expressed positions against the revolution—though today only some 300, down markedly from the number at the outset of the revolution.
And did the system provide that promised better way of life? It can be said that during the years of the Cuban-Soviet alliance, when Cuba enjoyed most favorable terms of trade with the Soviet Union, resulting in what amounted to a subsidy of five to six billion dollars a year, the Cuban people were indeed well off. They had free (and excellent) health care, education up through the post-graduate level, adequate housing, enough to eat, and various other benefits. Then came the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of Cuba’s subsidy. Cuba went through some very difficult years—years of serious shortages of almost everything—of 18-hour-a-day blackouts and other difficulties.
It is a tribute to the durability of the Cuban people, and to a number of reforms to the economy carried out by the government, that they survived. But survive they did, and survive also did the revolution. At this point, the Cuban economy is making a strong comeback, thanks in part to new economic relationships with Venezuela and China, to a possible new oil field off the north coast, with other nations already bidding for drilling rights, to the fact that the price of nickel, Cuba’s largest export, is at an all-time high and that tourism continues to flourish and bring in much-needed hard currency despite U.S. travel controls blocking American tourists. The economy grew by at least eight percent in 2005 and closer to 12 percent in 2006.
For the average Cuban, life is still difficult. There are still shortages of almost all the basic necessities. Few go hungry, but the diet tends to be monotonous. Even so, the blackouts are now a thing of the past and there is renewed hope for the future. And they still have their free health care and education—something they do not want to give up!
Expectations in Miami and Washington had been that once Fidel Castro disappeared from the scene, the Revolution would crumble. But that, of course, has not been the case. Six months after Fidel passed the baton to Raúl, there has been no sign whatever of unrest. The Cuban people have accepted the transition with calm maturity—indicating a higher level of support for the Revolution than the exiles in Miami or the Bush administration had thought possible. Indeed, a recent Gallup poll conducted in Cuba indicated that 49 percent of the Cuban people supported Fidel Castro. Cuban officials strongly contest that finding, insisting that the percentage of supporters is much, much higher. But even as it stands, the poll indicates that a higher percentage of Cubans support Fidel than the percentage of Americans who support President Bush!
And what about Cuba’s place, its prestige, on the world stage? Here the gains are unquestionable. Before 1959, Cuba was considered as something of a banana republic. It played virtually no role in the international arena. But under Castro, it has played a prominent role, indeed at times a role that often resembled that of a world power.
It played a crucial part, for example, in bringing about revolutionary change in South Africa—and, indeed, throughout Africa. At the all-out battle of Cuito Cuanavale in Angola in 1987, Cuban forces defeated South Africa. The Cubans showed that the “white giants” could be beaten. All else followed from that. The South Africans decided to negotiate. Angola and Namibia became independent and vast internal changes began in South Africa itself. By 1994, Nelson Mandela was president. As Mandela put it in a speech on September 4, 1998, change was made possible “… because of Cuba’s selfless support for the struggle to free all of South Africa’s people and the countries of our region from the inhumane and destructive system of apartheid. For that we thank the Cuban people from the bottom of our heart.”
Cuba no longer exerts influence abroad by military means. The world situation has changed. But its influence is still felt around the world, nonetheless, now increasingly through a vast plan of medical assistance it began in 1998. Cuba now has some 25,000 medical personnel abroad, providing assistance in over 68 countries, with 14,000 in Venezuela alone. Indeed, it has more medical personnel deployed around the world than has the World Health Organization, and is training doctors and nurses for a broad range of countries at the huge Latin American Medical School in Havana. It has received kudos from a diverse range of leaders such as President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan and Hugo Chavez of Venezuela.
And, finally, Cuba’s standing in Latin America has perhaps never been higher. Wherever Castro has gone in the hemisphere over the past few years, he has been received with warm applause. Why? Because he stood up to the United States, has defied Washington and gone his own way. That is something virtually all Latin Americans respect and admire.