The recent weeklong celebration of the 90th birthday of revolutionary leader Fidel Castro offered more evidence that Russian-Cuban ties still have a long way to go.
A poster of Cuban Revolution leader Fidel Castro is seen on a wall in Havana, Aug. 13, 2016. Photo: AP
Cuba just wrapped up a weeklong celebration of the 90th birthday of Fidel Castro, the legendary leader of the nation’s historic Communist revolution. The date was widely commemorated as well in Russia, where many still remember the old ties between Cuba and the Soviet Union.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev congratulated the former Cuban leader over the phone. The Russian president pointed out Castro’s personal contribution to the establishment of an independent, modern Cuba as well as “the strengthening of relations of true friendship and strategic cooperation” between Moscow and Havana.
As the TV channel Rossiya pointed out, the popularity of Castro "has not faded" in Cuba, because people remember him as a person "who turned an obscure banana republic into one of the most advanced states in Latin America.”
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However, one fact about Cuba was totally missed in Russia. Two anniversaries almost coincided: Castro's 90th birthday and 10 years since the day when, pinned to a hospital bed, he handed over the reins to his brother Raúl. At that time, on the eve of his 80th anniversary, he suffered a strong hemorrhage in the intestines and was a step away from death. That medical condition eventually forced him to give up power.
Cuba has changed a lot over the past decade. Hundreds of thousands of Cubans have started their own business (while for a half century, even the flower trade in the street was banned). They can freely sell their houses and cars, surf on the Internet getting alternative information on what is going on in the outside world, and with some restrictions, make tourist trips abroad.
Today Few observers know about the real relations between the two brothers. Many experts believe that it does not make sense to contrast the orthodox Fidel with the relatively reformist Raúl. As the Cuban opposition maintains, Raúl cannot take a single step without consulting Fidel.
Nevertheless, the facts contradict this assumption. The younger Castro is dismantling, one brick after another, the building of barrack socialism erected by his elder brother. “Fidel Castro witnesses the undoing of his own revolution,” says the U.S. Hispanic newspaper El Nuevo Herald.
Very little is being said in Russia about the future of Cuba. However, the advanced age of both brothers makes Cubans ponder what is in store for them, especially in view of the economic collapse of the country just over the horizon.
This almost seems like a case of déjà vu. Raúl has to solve the same problems today as Fidel faced in the early 1990s. At that time, the cutting of all economic ties with Russia collapsed the Cuban economy and threw the country into a “stone age.”
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Because of the lack of fuel, the planes stopped flying and the cars stopped driving, the fields were tilled with a draft force in the form of some oxen once imported from Canada, and millions of Cubans restricted their ration to rice and beans. Those years were called a “special period,” which lasted until the end of the 1990s when a new friend and sponsor of the Cuban regime, Hugo Chávez, came to power in Venezuela.
Since the early 2000s, Venezuela has taken on almost completely the power supply of the island: 100,000 to 120,000 barrels of oil per day enabled the Cubans to illuminate their cities and maintain, to a certain degree, the work of the economic engine. Caracas paid generously for the stay of thousands of Cuban doctors in the country. This helped Raúl to saturate, to some extent, the market with food products.
Today, however, Venezuela itself is on the verge of collapse. The subsidies that have continued up to now are being slashed. It appears that Cuba is doomed to return to a “special period” considering that Russia, due to various factors, from economic to ideological ones, cannot offer full support to the country the way it was done in the Soviet era.
Then what is in store for the “island of freedom” (as the Soviet propaganda machine referred to Cuba back in the 1960s)? Experts are divided in their opinions on the future of Cuba after Fidel’s leaving the stage.
“When both brothers leave, it will be a period of capitulation and disgrace for those who built that system,” the leader of the Cuban opposition in exile, Carlos Alberto Montaner, told Russia Direct. “The mass emigration of the Cubans is evidence that the Cubans do not believe in any progress of the regime, and that the Communists will not be strong enough to go on with it. A solemn funeral will start, and some people will be asking: 'Who is it we’re burying?' And the answer will be: 'We’re burying the system.'”
Some other pundits believe that the power will be kept by the Castro dynasty, which has shown a real propensity to survive.
“That will be another chapter of the Castro saga. We have to admit that a family ‘renewal’ is going on in the country,” two opponents of the regime, Adrian Sosa and Antonio Rodilles, told Russia Direct.
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In the early 1990s, the Russian leadership of the time tried to establish certain relations with representatives of the Cuban opposition, with the belief that it could play an important role in the creation of a new Cuba. Then-Foreign Minister Andrey Kozyrev and then-State Secretary Gennady Burbulis received well-known writer and journalist Carlos Montaner as well as other representatives of the Cuban opposition. In the spring of 1992, dozens of members of the Cuban opposition were invited to a meeting in the Geneva representative office of the Russian mission to the UN.
But those times of an “unbreakable friendship” between Moscow and Havana have passed. Yet it is a positive sign that Russia and Cuba are still maintaining friendly relations despite the chill caused by the break of the economic ties in the early 1990s. However, Moscow should take into account the alternative view of the future of the island in order to assess the odds of reinvigorating relations with Cuba.
The opponents of the regime argue that many young Cubans don't even remember the contribution of the elder Castro to the country and the Moscow-Havana relations.
"Today, many just shrug when they hear that name," wrote Yoani Sanchez, the chief editor of the Havana-based independent newspaper 14 And a Half . "Tired of his presence, they will finally bury his myth without any pomp — they will just stop saying his name, hanging his photos on the walls of their apartments and naming their children after him."