Wednesday, August 02, 2006

News from Havana

The news from Havana is confusing, as one would expect from a place and a political system where nothing ever is as it seems. A kind of Alice in Castroland.

On Tuesday night (Cuban time), a new statement supposedly dictated by Castro from his sickbed was read on national television – the first update in almost 24 hours. In the brief statement, Castro is supposed to have said that he was “stable” and his spirits were “perfectly fine” but that it would take time for a “verdict”. And it'd take a while to recover ...

Hardly convincing, especially since no photographs of either of the Castro brothers have been released so far to the Cuban media, which is tightly controlled by the regime.

So, is Fidel Castro near death? All signs would appear to indicate that if not near death, the man who has ruled the lives of 11 million Cubans for nearly half a century is seriously ill. It is also clear that he will be out of action, one way or another, for weeks, if not months. His latest missive confirms this. Given he is about to turn 80, the prognosis can’t be positive. And I suspect Castro and those around him know it, too. That is why the succession plan has been put in place.

There is also the possibility that Castro may be already dead. At the risk of sounding like a conspiracy theorist, the manner in which the regime went about announcing the “temporary” arrangement was bizarre. Certainly in the Cuban context, as I discuss in a previous post and in an analysis piece I wrote for The Australian newspaper, which you can read here.

One fascinating aspect of this plan is the fact that while the anointed successor, Raul, is given star billing in the initial statement supposedly written and signed by Castro the Elder, he has had to share the limelight with a dozen or so other much younger “leaders”, all of whom are mentioned by name and all of whom are given very clear responsibilities.

Thus, the economic reins are specifically handed over to a “commission” made up of Carlos Lage, a vice-president and member of the Communist Party’s Political Bureau, Francisco Soberon, who heads the Central Bank, and Felipe Perez, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, also known to Cubans as “Fax” because he always repeats everything Castro says or does.

Responsibility for the “energy revolution” – the most pressing of hundreds of infrastructure issues in Cuba at the moment – is handed over to Lage, who will obviously be a very busy boy.

Health, which is a huge export earner for the regime (doctors for sale in exchange for cheap oil from Venezuela) is given to Jose Balaguer, the minister of public health. And so on.

In other words, Raul may be at the top of the pecking order while the dictator is incapacitated (or dead?) but he will have to share the running of the place with an inner-group of “safe” party hacks. Sounds a lot like an old fashioned junta, doesn’t it?

In fact, the closest arrangement I can think of would appear to be the “collective leadership” that took over power in the Soviet Union in 1953 after the death of Joseph Stalin. That arrangement didn’t last very long. And the favourite at the time of Stalin’s death, the equally loathed, blood-stained Georgy Malenkov, soon found himself betrayed by the other members of the leadership - and behind bars.

Malenkov’s reign as supreme leader of the Soviet Communist Party lasted barely six months.
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