MIAMI (Reuters) - Cuban President Raul Castro and his army are running Cuba like a “military corporation” and former leader Fidel Castro maintains a powerful voice on the board, a Cuba expert says in a new book published on Tuesday.
“Without Fidel. A Death Foretold in Miami, Havana and Washington” by journalist, author and Cuba-watcher Ann Louise Bardach seeks to shed light on the circumstances surrounding Fidel Castro’s near-death from colon surgery in 2006 and his handover last year to his younger brother, Raul Castro.
Bardach, who has met both Castros in a dozen research and writing trips to Cuba, says the February 2008 handover and a government purge in March this year put the Communist-run island’s immediate future in the hands of Raul Castro, 78.
She describes him in the book as a “socialist reformer of sorts” equipped with a “Darwinian imperative of survival” but says he has “an indisputable charisma deficit” in his public persona when compared with his more famous elder brother.
Bardach says former defense minister Raul Castro, backed by Cuba’s powerful Revolutionary Armed Forces and a clique of pro-Castro revolutionary veterans in their seventies and eighties, are trying to keep intact and afloat a Cuban economy that she says is “crumbling like a stale cookie”.
“Raul and his army ... it’s this military corporation that is the CEO of Cuba,” the author told Reuters in an interview.
She saw the Cuban military, through its powerful commercial corporations like GAESA and Gaviota, increasingly taking over key segments of the economy, including tourism.
“I think Raul will eventually move to what he always wanted to move to, the Chinese and Vietnamese model,” Bardach added, referring to the younger Castro’s attempts to introduce capitalist-style managerial practices into Cuba’s centralized socialist economy in a bid to boost output and efficiency.
But the book makes clear that Fidel Castro, now 83, who ruled as supreme leader of the Caribbean’s largest island for almost half a century after heading the 1959 Cuban Revolution, remains a hugely influential voice in Cuba’s government.
“I wouldn’t know if it’s as strong as veto power, (but) one does not displease him,” she said, referring to the way Fidel Castro — whom she calls the “Pundit-in-Chief” — makes his opinions known in regular columns published by state media.
Bardach says Fidel Castro has “swatted away ten American presidents as if they were so many pesky flies” and sees him as trying to put a brake on any attempts to dilute Cuba’s one-party Communist system through liberalizing reforms.
“Fidel pounded that message that (former Soviet president Mikhail) Gorbachev brought down the Soviet Union, that perestroika and glasnost were the beginning of the end and that they (Cuba’s rulers) will never make that mistake,” she said.
The collapse after 1989 of the Soviet bloc, the island’s main ally and benefactor for decades, plunged Cuba into a deep crisis in the early 1990s to which Fidel Castro responded by maintaining tight political control under a “Socialism or Death” slogan while introducing limited economic reforms.
Bardach believed it could still take time for the United States and Cuba to dismantle the enmity that has characterized their relations for a half century — largely symbolized by the 47-year-old U.S. trade embargo against the island.
“The Castros cannot maintain their steely control if the embargo ends ... they are fighting for their economic lives,” Bardach said. She suggested that “piecemeal” moves by U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration to improve U.S.-Cuban ties, including some slight easing of the embargo recently, suited the hard-pressed Cuban leadership.
“The Cubans are getting everything they want right now, because they do not want the U.S. embargo to end overnight, there is absolutely no infrastructure (in Cuba) to absorb what would happen, they would be destroyed by it,” she said.
Bardach believes Raul Castro would seek to preserve the Revolution. “The revolution meaning control,” she said.
Her latest book, published by Scribner, cites multiple sources on and off the island to penetrate the bubble of secrecy surrounding Fidel Castro’s personal life.
She says the ailing Fidel cried in 2006 when risky initial surgery failed to cure his intestinal illness, and recounts he has sired 11 children, four more than previously reported,
The book also dedicates a section to two of Fidel Castro’s most notorious enemies and would-be assassins — Cuban exiles Orlando Bosch and Luis Posada.
Bardach admits that despite its title “Without Fidel”, her book largely chronicles his endurance: “Friends and foes, critics, mortal enemies acknowledge he’s a Titanic figure”.
But she added: “I was never wowed by the charisma factor”.
A previous book published in 2002, “Cuban Confidential: Love and Vengeance in Miami and Havana”, also covered the tangled conspiracy-strewn politics of U.S.-Cuban relations.
Editing by Jim Loney and Paul Simao