The Cuban gerontocracy: They are like gods, but they will die anyway

Fidel Castro ant the other leaders of the Cuban revolution were enjoying two basic advantages when propagating the socialism in comparison with their colleagues in Moscow. They were young and they were part of the Third World.

When the “barbudos” (“the bearded ones”) came to power they had considerable appeal for the revolutionary movements in the developing countries, as well as for the leftists in the West.

The Western left was disappointed by Stalin and his Gulags, Khrushchev’s appeasement with Eisenhower and the state of the Soviet economy and turn their heads to Cuba and China.

For the anti-colonial movements there was suddenly somebody from within their own ranks. Someone showing the way: a living proof that successful revolution and change of the system is possible even in the courtyard of a superpower. And at the beginning of the revolution as well a proof of a possibility of a third way, neither capitalist, nor communist.

(What’s more, a lot of Cubans were black-skinned, a considerable advantage in Africa where some of the white Russian advisors were labeled “imperialists” by the same people they came to advise.)

Even behind the iron curtain the young Cubans were popular. In comparison with the (c)old Kremlin technocrats, they were living their revolution full of colors. The warm paradise of the Caribbean island with girls wearing bikini slash the chilly Moscow winter where ushanka was the norm.

Even nowadays the Cuban revolution still considers itself young and bearded. The Cubans have billboards same as we do. However, instead of promoting Coca Cola and McDonald’s, their posters are dispersing the revolutionary spirit through the faces of Ernesto “Che” Guevara and Camillo Cienfuegos. Both of them forever young and both of them conveniently dead.

But it’s not the dead who are betraying the revolution. It’s the living.

Immortal party, immortal men

“The men die, the party is immortal,” was one of the slogans of the Communist party of Cuba. The old are departing, the young are taking their place, we may paraphrase the motto.

But this is not the case in Cuba, where once the leadership was the youngest among the communist countries, whereas now it is probably the most prominent gerontocracy in the world.

“It’s clear that the vice-presidents of the Council of State are the so called “históricos”, but most of the regular members are younger and I want to underscore that in most of the other political structures the históricos form about ten percent and the medium age is around 40 years,” says one Cuban diplomat who declined to be named.

The Council of State is a 31 member body of the government of Cuba, vested with the legislative power when the Cuban parliament is not in session. The average age of its members is almost 70 years. The average age of the Cuban politburo is 65 years.

The other “political structures” as parliament (with 614 deputies) might be younger, but those are not the people that have the real grip on power. The most powerful are even older.

The record breakers

According to the Cuban journalist Roberto Álvarez Qui?ones, the average age of the 16 most prominent members of the ruling clique – the president, the vice-presidents and prominent ministers and functionaries – is 73,5 years.

The current first secretary of the Communist Party of Cuba Fidel Castro himself has 83 years and the Cuban president, his brother Raúl Castro, has 78 years. The first vice-president José Ramón Machado has 78 years.

Other important figures are Ramiro Valdés Menéndez (77), José Ramón Balaguer Cabrera (77), Guillermo García Frías (81), Abelardo Colomé Ibarra (70), Júlio Casas Regueiro (74), Estéban Lazo Hernández (66), Ulises Rosales del Toro (68), Alvaro López Miera (66), Carlos Fernández Gondín (70), Leopoldo Cintas Frías (68), Ricardo Alarcón (72) and Gladys Maria Bejerano Portela (62).

The record goes to José Ramón Fernández, who is 86 and serves as vice-president for the last 32 years.

The medium age of the clique could have been even a little bit higher, unfortunately one of the five regular vice-presidents, Juan Almeida Bosque (82), died in September and his seat was taken by Gladys Bejerano.

The Chinese rule

Still we have three people over eighty, eight in their seventies and five in their sixties.

In comparison: the Chinese or Vietnamese paramount authorities are mainly in their sixties. In China the current general secretary of the communist party and president of the PRC is Hu Jintao (66). He is the principal of the so called fourth generation of Chinese leaders; the fifth generation will come to power in 2012, because the Chinese president cannot serve more than two terms, i.e. ten years.

“The aim of the Chinese communist party is to stay in power and the generational change is one of the ways to do so. There is a considerable interchange between the party and the private sector as well. Who is successful in their own business goes up in the party hierarchy too. So it´s not a fixed ground,” says Pavel Kací?, sinologist and co-founder of the news portal on China and Taiwan

Don’t trust the younger

In comparison there is no such rule in Cuba. On the contrary, one of the young vice-presidents and rumored future leaders Carlos Lage Dávila (58) was removed from his post in the government shake up in March of 2009. Until then he was the de facto prime minister and architect of the economical salvation of the country after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 90’s.

Younger and adept economist respected even among some members of the opposition, Lage was a change that many of the Cubans hoped for. However he was not from the históricos and thus nut to be trusted. In his blog published after his dismissal Fidel Castro accused Lage ( – without mentioning him by name – of indecent pursuit of power, that “awoke in him indecent role” which “filled the external enemy (=USA) with illusions”.

“The plan is to have a castrism without the Castros, even after they die. So they took to the government some younger people, not young, but the people that were born around 1940,” said to Cubalog prominent Cuban exiled dissident José Gabriel Ramón Castillo when he was in Prague last September. “They tried to take the people from my generation and even younger, around forty. But they realized that these people won´t maintain the system.”

Let them die

Democracy has many disadvantages, it’s slow and full of partisanship bickering and politicking. It however gives space to the competition of new ideas most of the time brought by the newcomers who still haven’t lost touch with the ordinary people. And that is what the Cubans are missing.

“The real thing that many young and middle-aged Cubans want is that these members of the State Council either abandon the absolute power they possess and from which they live, or they die and let the younger and fresher minds take over,” told Cubalog a young Cuban who declined to be named due to his fears of repercussion from the authorities.

“This will fill up the political vacuum, vacuum of intelligent ideas. The 11 million of Cubans are victims of the obsolete ideas of the old minority that lives well due to its power and due to the postmodern analphabetisms of the Cuban people who know how to read and write, but don´t have the access to the internet and the information,” explains the Cuban who is not a member of any opposition group.

The Cuban government holds a different view.

“We take a great consideration of this problem (generational change), Raúl Castro in the first place. If there is something good in the Cuban political system, it is the way the responsibility transfers from the old to the younger,” says the Cuban diplomat.

The death of a god

In the eighties Fidel Castro used to make fun of the gerontocracy in Moscow. Brezhnev was 76 at the time of his death, his successor Yuri Andropov was 68 when he came to power and lasted only fifteen months. Konstantin Chernenko was 72 and lasted thirteen months.

According to Álvarez Qui?ones Fidel Castro didn´t like Mikhail Gorbachev (54 years old when he became the secretary general of the CPSU) since he was five years younger than himself.

And he proved to be right. Gorbachev was member of a different generation; he changed everything and stopped the grandiose soviet economical help to Cuba. In the end under his auspices the USSR collapsed.

And sooner or later the younger generation will come to power in Cuba as well.

“They (the históricos) know that they are mortals and they are going to die. And the society knows it as well. And they know that we know it,” says Ramón Castillo.

“Because there was a moment in Cuba when the people thought that these people are immortal, because they didn´t die, they weren’t ill and nothing happened to them. They were a legend, a myth. They were like gods. But when Fidel staggered and fell to the ground for the first time in 2001, the people realized that he is not a god and that they will die.”

With Juan Almeida Bosque the Cubans saw it happen.

Roman Gazdik has covered Latin America for the Czech news outlet Aktualne and other Czech publications

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