Investor's Business Daily
February 19, 2008

No Cigar


Freedom: Fidel Castro's resignation after 49 years may seem like cause for celebration. But it's too soon to raise mojitos. This is less a transition than a bid to extend power and legitimacy. Cuba is still a dictatorship.

"I am saying that I will neither aspire to nor accept I repeat, I will neither aspire to nor accept the positions of president of the State Council and commander in chief," Castro reportedly wrote Tuesday in the Communist Party daily Granma, giving no advance warning.

Why he bowed out now, and so suddenly, is not known. Castro, 81, has been "convalescing" since July 2006, and had provisionally relinquished his dictatorship to brother Raul, 76.

Cuban officials had insisted he would return to work "soon." But with no need to be accountable to Cubans about his health or his intentions, Castro can be capricious a sign in itself that Cubans won't see democracy soon. A more likely explanation is self-interest, with three scenarios plausible:

Castro may actually be dead or in a coma, and the exit could be a means of giving Cuba's communist elite time and space to slug it out for succession. With the country's institutions long destroyed, and a cult of personality their replacement, the transition is not likely to be smooth.

Castro, if not dead, may be looking for an outside shot of legitimacy for his regime, given challenges to it at home. "What Raul wants is for the world to see his succession to the throne of the house of Castro as legitimate," wrote Cuban-American blogger Henry Gomez for Pajamas Media. "If the world accepts the succession without objection, then Raul would have accomplished the primary goal of keeping international pressure off, at least temporarily."

Castro may be thinking of his legacy. He knows that change is coming to Cuba in ways he cannot control. A recent video of young Cubans angrily challenging his regime with a candor not seen in five decades is the latest sign that he will likely be reviled in death.

Castro's lifework may be held up as a failure if there is popular discontent and the state can't stop it. Handing over power to his brother may be a bid to separate his own reputation as a revolutionary leader from the monster who left his country a ruin. When the inevitable happens, Raul will be holding the bag.

None of these possibilities hints at any coming democracy. Long-entrenched dictators never give up power willingly. They generally try to extend it perhaps, in Fidel's case, beyond the grave.

So expectations by many "experts" in and around the media of coming democratic reforms in Cuba are suspect.

Raul Castro is a blank slate but is thought to want Chinese-style economic freedoms. Democrats in Congress are already talking about lifting the U.S. trade embargo, as if a fresh start has been achieved with Fidel's resignation and it's time to reward Cuba.

Raul may be more of a pragmatist than his brother, but it's a self-preserving pragmatism in the service of state. This not the same as initiating democracy.

Like Lenin after triggering a massive famine in Russia by 1921, Raul recognizes that Cuba's economy is ruined and will need a fast fix. He also probably realizes that the substantial support Cuba has received from Venezuela since 2000 is no longer reliable.

Raul may permit some economic freedom, but he remains a doctrinaire Marxist and will do so only if it serves the state. Real reform, however, is not about tactics. It's about giving rights to people. Castro's exit and Cuba's transition to a family dynasty with a large fortune should not be mistaken for real democracy.