Raúl as “Reformer”: the Evidence to Date

The demise of Fidel Castro and the ascendancy of his brother, Raúl, to power in Cuba have prompted certain expectations of regime reform.[1] In mid-2007 measures touted as “Raúl’s reforms” were announced with much international media fanfare. Their impact, however, was disappointing. They consisted primarily of allowing citizens to own cell phones and enter tourist facilities, but their effect is limited by the cost of either a hotel night or a cell phone, which exceeds the entire annual wage of the average worker (US$17 a month). The island-wide dialogue initiated by Raúl was quickly extinguished when systemic flaws were overly exposed. Finally, Cuba made a lot of signing two international covenants on human rights, but it has yet to ratify them. If there was any doubt where things were headed, a March 2009 purge of suspected “reformers” at the very core of the ruling elite left Raúl in full and firm command.[2] It also pointed to the seeming conclusion of the succession with a greater concentration of power in Raúl’s hands and no foreseeable threats to his full authority.[3]

Because Raúl maintained the regime’s cohesiveness during the retreat of the all-mighty Fidel, he exerts undeterred totalitarian domination through the well-entrenched and vast repressive apparatus and political police. As a result, Cuba continues to be ranked one of the least free countries in the world.[4] The level of usurpation by the Communist state of civil, political, and economic rights has few historic precedents -even among the former Soviet bloc. The state controls all means of production and mass media, owning essentially all private property and prohibiting private enterprise, bans free association and independent labor unions, decides where and if people can work, study, or live, bars access to the internet and does not allow travel abroad without government permission. Rationing of food and all consumer goods and services remains an intrinsic part of the centrally-planned socialist economy. To make sure nothing escapes the regime’s control, the “fight against corruption” has accelerated within the state apparatus and a harsh crackdown has been unleashed against citizens participating in the informal (illegal) economy. Meanwhile, systematic repression and persecution against human rights defenders and members of Cuba’s outlawed civil society remains extreme; arguably, it has intensified. Its favorite tools are surveillance, removal from jobs and housing, forced exile, death threats, and constant harassment and persecution of dissidents. Even thepropensity to commit “anti-social” behavior is considered a crime (as per Articles 72-74 of Cuba’s Penal Code); it is interpreted loosely and often punished with jail.
In the Spring of 2003, under the cover of the invasion of Iraq, the government cracked down on the peaceful opposition movement, sentencing dozens to long prison sentences, averaging over 20 years, some as long as 30 years. This prompted a loud international outcry and provoked a hardened position on Cuba by the European Union. These days, to avoid the public relations’ backlash, more sophisticated methodology is at work. Dissidents are subjected to mob “acts of repudiation” (sieges or attacks on their homes), successive but short arbitrary detentions, and some -especially the least known- are imprisoned typically for no more than two years. Altogether, over two hundred political prisoners are currently being held. But, the prison population is huge, as tens of thousands are incarcerated for “economic crimes.” Technically, most are not political prisoners, but because the system leaves them little choice, that classification is in question. Disenfranchised Cubans are forced to resort to the black market for the basic sustenance that a collapsed centrally-planned economy fails to provide. Regardless, prison conditions are barbaric for all and scores of prisoners’ deaths are routinely reported. The Red Cross and other international organizations may not inspect the prisons.

This reality should surprise no one. Nothing in his history makes Raúl Castro a reformer. As second-in-command of a 50 year-old dictatorship, he has long been directly responsible for systematic crimes against humanity. Cuba Archive (www.CubaArchive.org), a non-profit documentation project, has amassed reports of over 8,000 executions and extrajudicial killings by the Cuban state. Scores of defenseless people, including children, have been murdered for attempting to flee the island by boat or through embassies and the U.S. Naval Base at Guantánamo. The base is surrounded by land with a minefield and guards in towers with orders from Raúl to shoot; a wall in the bay itself prevents escapes by swimming. In 1994, Cuba’s official media showed Raúl awarding medals to border guards who killed two young men attempting to swim into the base.
Cuba’s new President’s killing career began early on. In 1956, while in exile in Mexico, he reportedly murdered a former comrade. During the revolutionary struggle in the mountains, he ordered the execution of many deserters and alleged informants. Then, as soon as the revolutionary forces took over, he masterminded, together with Fidel and Ché, the wave of terror designed to reduce the population into submission. While in charge of the Oriente province, he had hundreds of men killed solely for wearing the uniform of the National Police or Constitutional Armed Forces. In one day alone, on January 12, 1959, he ordered at least 72 men executed without trial in the city of Santiago. All throughout the night, groups of 10 to 12 men were lined up in front of ditches at San Juan Hill and shot by firing squad. Raúl is reported to have gleefully delivered the coup d’grace on a few. When the massacre was over, a bulldozer was brought in to cover the mass graves. War crimes are also part of Raúl’s curriculum. During the anti-Castro rural uprising of the sixties, Raul´s Armed Forces executed hundreds of prisoners on the spot or set them on fire.
Raul’s trail of blood extends beyond Cuba. In Angola, he ordered intentional attacks on civilian populations, including with chemical weapons. In 1996, as dozens of Cuba’s peaceful opponents were rounded up, Raúl ordered Cuban MIGs to shoot down two unarmed small civilian airplanes in international airspace flying a humanitarian search and rescue mission of rafters. Four young men were murdered.
Many capitalist countries have strengthened diplomatic, political and economic ties with Cuba since its selective re-insertion into world markets after the 1989 end of Soviet Communism. This has triggered aspirations, particularly in Canada and the European Union, that engagement will push Cuba towards economic and political reform. In the last three and a half years, Raúl’s takeover has fueled some of this discourse. But, after two decades, this approach has patently failed. No empowerment of Cuba’s citizens has taken place, not even in the areas of opening to foreign presence and capital. Plus, Cuba began to lose interest in even its timid opening to capitalism as soon as the economy began to recover from the crash of the early 1990s. The clamp-down on internal reforms and re-centralization of economic activity was accelerated thanks to growing support by Venezuela. By 2003, Cuba had announced a “restructuring” of its foreign investment strategy to follow “a unique Cuban model” of development that “furthers the revolutionary path.” It has since dissolved most existing joint ventures, redirected its efforts towards selective and large investments in strategic sectors, and prioritized partnerships with China, Venezuela and Russia.
Importantly, Raúl has strengthened Cuba’s alliance with totalitarian or autocratic regimes with ideological affinity – North Korea, Iran, Venezuela,[5] Islamic regimes, Russia, and the countries in Latin America on the path to a “Bolivarian Alternative” (Nicaragua, Bolivia, Ecuador, Paraguay). Driven by anti-Western and anti-U.S. sentiments and agendas, the growing political and economic ties provide Cuba increasing assistance, debt forgiveness, and political support. Rather than signaling reform in Cuba, they reinforce the totalitarian model.

Maria C. Werlau is an international consultant residing in the greater New York City area and the Executive Director of Cuba Archive.

[1] In July 2006, Fidel Castro suffered a severe health crisis and “temporarily delegated” power to his brother Raúl and six others. In February 2008, Fidel resigned as Commander-in-Chief and indicated that his sole wish was to continue writing to “fight as a soldier in the battle of ideas.” Raúl, longtime head of the Armed Forces, was named President of the State Council.

[2] Three of the seven individuals Fidel had named in 2006 to take over his duties were purged. Vice President Carlos Lage, arguably Cuba’s second-in-command, Felipe Pérez Roque, Minister of Foreign Relations, and Central Bank President Francisco Soberón, were removed from their posts in disgrace. Twenty other top level officials were shifted, fired, or promoted in what the government called a streamlining effort. Fidel wrote Lage and Pérez Roque had become seduced by “the honey of power” that had “awaken in them ambitions leading to an undignified role.”

[3] Fidel remains out of public view and writing editorials (“reflections”) in the official media. He is still the head (First Secretary) of the Communist Party, so his degree of influence and power is subject of contention among analysts. There is a certain consensus, however, that until his death or complete demise -and probably Raúl’s- latent or potential power struggles among the ruling elite will be contained.

[4] See “Freedom in the World” survey and Cuba Country report, by the international human rights organization, Freedom House <http://freedomhouse.org/template.cfm?page=22&year=2009&country=7592>.

[5] Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez provides Cuba an estimated US$8 billion a year through subsidized oil sales, funding for major investment projects in Cuba, and high overpayment of health services that Cuba provides Venezuela and a growing number of developing countries.

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