Cuba: Prelude to succession

By Nelson P. Valdés

The transfer of political power away from Fidel Castro was planned years ago. Preparation for it went into effect when he fell ill, and by the end of July 2006 Fidel provisionally delegated power to his brother Raúl. What had been provisional became permanent on February 18, 2008. But this was no longer a personal delegation of power; rather, the decision would depend on what elected officials at the National Assembly decided.

Over the years, there has been much speculation, and many imaginary scenarios have been concocted, regarding the end of the charismatic leader's rule. But what these various alternative scripts did not consider was the possibility of several preludes to succession.

On June 23, 2001, at 11.27am, while speaking at a rally in the town of Cotorro, Fidel Castro briefly fainted. The intense heat of the morning and many hours of work (he had not slept the night before) may been a factor in his falling asleep at the podium. As some people carried Fidel away, Felipe Pérez Roque, the foreign minister, took over the microphone, asked everyone to be calm, shouted ``Viva Raúl, Viva Fidel'' and asked the people to go home. But as he was saying those words, Fidel Castro returned. He informed his audience that he would take a nap and then in the afternoon continue his presentation.

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The rally ended thereafter. As he spoke, the majority of the crowd shouted Fidel's name. By 6.00pm he appeared on the television program Mesa Redonda. ``¡Estoy entero!'' (I am fine), he said, trying to dissipate peoples' worries. Without having slept in the interim since the morning, he spoke for a few hours. At one point he commented that since he was doing well, someone could think that he played dead in order to see what kind of funeral he was given. However, this was the first time in his revolutionary career that anything like that had happened. (In 1960 he lost his voice while giving a speech nationalising US corporations, but a shot of rum seemingly cured the malady). Speculations about his health soon dominated the world media, but within days it all dissipated. Nevertheless, his brother Raúl accompanied him at the TeleRebelde studio from where Fidel spoke.

At a Communist Party meeting on July 15, 2003, military and political plans were drawn up to contend with a possible military attack from the United States. The George W. Bush administration, pumped up after its invasion of Iraq, had escalated its ongoing confrontation with Cuba's government. On this occasion, the Cuban plans included concrete steps to be taken in case of Fidel Castro's incapacity or death, prior or during a US military attack. [The US military had targeted Saddam Hussein]. The policy was clearly delineated: to make sure that there would be a new politico-administrative leadership in the island if Fidel Castro was no longer there.


``Martí no debió de morir/ pues era el maestro del día/ Otro gallo cantaría,/ la patria se salvaría,/ y Cuba sería feliz.''

["Martí shouldn't have died/ because he was the leader of his day/ But another rooster will crow/ the nation will be saved/ and Cuba will be


-- Popular song

``Every agency, at the local level, state level and federal level, they all have plans drawn up about what would happen if Fidel dies."

-- U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Miami)


On May 6, 2004 the United States government imposed the toughest measures ever on the relations between the two countries (though food sales were still permitted under certain conditions). The tension led Fidel Castro to state in an open letter (June 21, 2004) to the US president, ``In Cuba's present condition to confront an invasion, my physical absence by natural or other causes would not hurt our ability, in any way, to fight and resist.''

On October 21, 2004, after finishing a speech in Santa Clara, Fidel Castro failed to see a step. He fell, breaking his knee and right arm. Experiencing excruciating pain, he refused to allow his aides to take him away immediately; instead, he requested a microphone and told the university students to continue their planned activities and partying. He reassured them that he was still ``in one piece''. His surgery was performed with rachideal anesthesia so that he would not lose consciousness. In a notification to the Cuban people he stated, ``From the moment of the fall, I have not stopped attending to the most important tasks that I am responsible for, in coordination with the other comrades.'' And added, ``I'm recovering well and will not lose contact with you.'' It is not far-fetched to assume that the Cuban government did not want to convey the slightest indication to people in Washington that Fidel Castro was not in command. The Cuban leader slowly regained control of his arm and knee, while remaining in front of the public on numerous television programs.

On November 17, 2005, at the University of Havana, Fidel Castro asked the rhetorical question whether revolutions inexorably collapse. He further asked whether revolutions fell because of actions on the part of revolutionaries, or because of their failure to act. He urged the students to initiate a discussion on such matters. ``Have you thought about this? Have you thought deeply about it?'' The collapse of the revolution, he noted, has been envisioned by the United States as the immediate consequence of his own death. ``They are waiting for a natural phenomena, totally logical, that is the death of someone.'' But, he commented, ``we have taken measures and precautions so that there will be no surprises. And everyone will know what to do in such a case.'' He went on to note that one has to study the history of revolutions and arrive at the proper conclusions as to what to do. Meanwhile, others within the revolutionary ranks were already talking about the possibility of a Cuba without Fidel Castro.

Collective leadership

The following month, December 23, 2005, Cuban foreign minister Felipe Pérez Roque outlined the necessity of taking necessary steps to preserve the equivalent of the historical memory of the revolutionary founders. The enemy, he suggested, was betting that the next generation would not have a historical memory.

On July 1, 2006, Raúl Castro noted that a succession in Cuba would not imply a search for another charismatic leader. Instead, he indicated, there would be a collective leadership [*dirección colectiva*] made up of national leaders from within the Communist Party:

``We are confronting an enemy whose stubbornness and arrogance frequently leads it to make mistakes, but that doesn't mean that it is a fool. It knows that the special trust that the people have in the founding leader of a Revolution can not be transmitted as if it was an inheritance, to those that in the future will be occupying the main leadership positions of the country. I repeat what I have said on many occasions: The Commander-in-Chief of the Cuban Revolution is one and only one, and only the Communist Party, the institution that groups the revolutionary vanguard and guarantees Cubans unity during all times, can be the dignified heir of the trust deposited by the people in its leader. We are working for that, and that's how it will be. The rest is pure speculation.''

Raúl Castro was reacting to a forthcoming report prepared by the US government-appointed Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba (CAFC), an organisation co-chaired by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of Commerce Carlos Gutierrez. Appended to the report was a lengthy secret annex, which was a plan to overthrow the Cuban government, the Cuban government seems to have known. Political analyst Mike Leffert commented:

``From its first words, the report, beginning with Chapter 1: Hastening the End of the Castro Dictatorship: Transition Not Succession leaves no room for doubt about the intent and aim of US policy. A July 10 State Department briefing hammered home the point that the US planned to intervene, `provided', said Secretary Gutierrez, `we are asked by a Cuban transition government that is committed to dismantling all instruments of state repression and implementing internationally respected human rights and fundamental freedoms, including organizing free and fair elections for a democratically elected new Cuban government within a period of no more than 18 months.''

At a Central Committee meeting of the Communist Party, on July 1, 2006, the Secretariat was restored. This was another move to strengthen the Communist Party and further prepare the conditions for a succession. The Secretariat had been abolished in 1992 when Cuba entered the economic crisis known as ``the special period'' due to the collapse of the Soviet bloc. The Secretariat's functions had been to deal with matters internal to the Communist Party. Bringing the structure back meant paying more attention to the party membership, and the Secretariat was to pay special attention to party members with a workers' background and from outside Havana. Three of the 12 members (Fidel, Raúl, and José Ramón Machado Ventura) were ``históricos'' going back to the 1950s struggle; the rest had an average age of 50. All the new members had a university education.

Twenty-six days later Fidel Castro had to undergo complex intestinal surgery. The news of the surgery was kept secret until July 31. In a document issued to the Cuban people, Fidel Castro provided some general descriptions of the problem he faced. But few details were provided. The following day, in a second statement, he explained why details would not be forthcoming, ``Given the specific situation facing Cuba and the plans designed by the empire, the information about my health condition becomes a state secret that cannot be continuously disseminated; and my compatriots should understand that.'' He then noted that he had to delegate some of his powers ``due to the fact that our country faces a threat from the Government of the United States.''

The document stated:

1) I provisionally delegate my functions as First Secretary of the

Central Committee of the Communist Party of Cuba to the Second

Secretary, comrade Raúl Castro Ruz.

2) I provisionally delegate my functions as Commander-in-Chief of the

heroic Revolutionary Armed Forces to the aforementioned comrade, Army

General Raúl Castro Ruz.

3) I provisionally delegate my functions as President of the Council

of State and Government of the Republic of Cuba to the First

Vice-President Raúl Castro Ruz.

4) I provisionally delegate my functions as the main driving force

behind the National and International Public Health Program to the

member of the Politburo and Minister of Public Health, comrade José

Ramón Balaguer Cabrera.

5) I provisionally delegate my functions as the main driving force

behind the National and International Education Program to comrades

José Ramón Machado Ventura and Esteban Lazo Hernández, members of the


6) I provisionally delegate my functions as the main driving force

behind the National Energy Revolution Program being implemented in

Cuba and abroad as part of a scheme of collaboration with other

countries to comrade Carlos Lage Dávila, member of the Politburo and

Secretary of the Executive Committee of the Council of Ministers.

This was not, as was widely reported, a ``transfer of power'', although in practice it could, and did, become so. Fidel Castro delegated his functions provisionally. Further, Cuban laws and codes required that at some point the Communist Party Congress and the National Assembly ratify the authority of his successors. For his principal functions, there was no other significant contender besides his brother, Raúl Castro.

Raúl's `Succession'

The practical side of political succession has been a central concern of the Cuban government and of Fidel Castro's leadership. The very fact that the United States government and the exiled opposition has counted on the charismatic leader's death to bring about a political and economic restoration to the island has been more than sufficient incentive for Fidel Castro to have taken the necessary institutional steps to secure the revolutionary regime's survival. The critical issue has been whether succession would be smooth and peaceful without domestic or external upheaval. It seems to have been understood by everyone who dealt with the problem that the fundamental strategic element would be a political/military leadership able to preserve cohesion and unity. Moreover, it was in the interest of those with power and authority to work together, particularly at a time when there was such a clear and present danger from abroad.

The revolutionary movement against Batista had Fidel Castro as its political and military leader. However, in the early months when the revolutionaries were in power, neither Fidel Castro nor his brother held numerous or interlocking positions within the Cuban government and state. Fidel Castro and others progressively assumed more administrative and state responsibilities as the international and domestic confrontation unfolded.

In the early years, the two Castro brothers arrived at a unique division of labour. One handled political matters, the other military ones. But either was competent to assume both roles, if necessary, at exceptional times. Political practice and necessity evolved into an informal network of interlocking but separate powers and responsibilities occupied by both brothers and their appointed close comrades. Indeed, both Fidel and Raúl have being capable of assuming each other's formal roles. Foreign observers have just paid attention to Fidel Castro's public speaking and had little to say about the running of government, thus, missing the brothers' real interaction.

Although people expected that a succession would occur after the death of Fidel Castro, a de facto succession has occurred while he was sick but alive. On July 31, 2006, the power and authority held by Fidel Castro within the Council of State, the Council of Ministers and the Communist Party were provisionally delegated to Raúl Castro. Other responsibilities were delegated to others.

There had been no doubt who would occupy what post. The Cuban constitution established it, as did the Communist Party statutes. What we may have, for a while, is a sort of post-Fidel Castro Cuba, but with Fidel still alive. The ``succession'' that has taken place leaves no doubt that Raúl Castro is and will remain in command.

Seventeen months from the day he delegated his powers to his brother, on December 17, 2007, in one of his numerous essays published by the Cuban media, Fidel Castro wrote, ``My elemental duty is not to cling to positions, much less to stand in the way of younger persons, but rather to contribute my own experience and ideas whose modest value comes from the exceptional era that I had the privilege of living in.'' He was preparing the Cuban people for the events that would unfold two months later.

An extraordinary event occurred on February 18, 2008, when Fidel Castro announced that he was not interested in continuing to hold any power within the Council of Ministers, the Council of State, or as Commander in Chief. In a peaceful and orderly manner, the historical charismatic leader who had created the institutions of the Cuban state and ran them, withdrew, allowing others to manage those institutions. Few observers had imagined that he would do so during his lifetime.

The political succession were to be finalised on February 24, 2008. Responsible positions in state and government will no longer be in the hands of Fidel Castro. This disengagement was [and is] a complicated process, and Fidel Castro said as much: ``my first duty was to prepare our people both politically and psychologically for my absence after so many years of struggle.''

In the past, Fidel Castro had formal control of the commanding heights of the state: the government, the military and the Communist Party. Today Fidel continues to have formal control and leadership over the Communist Party, although he has delegated such power to his brother. One should expect that in the future Fidel Castro might forfeit that power as well. At that point, it would be up to the Central Committee of the Communist Party to decide who replaces the historical revolutionary leader.

But not yet. As in Ecclesiastes III, ``there is a time to keep, and a time to cast away''. The moment has been selected by the old man to attain its maximum benefits. Once he no longer has political powers, Fidel Castro will be left with his intellectual authority, and his personal example. Those qualities should accompany him to the end of his life. Then he could declare like José Martí: ``para mi ya es hora''. (``Now it's time for me to go.'')

[Nelson P Valdés is a professor of sociology at the University of New Mexico and director of the Cuba-L Direct project. Valdés is a member of the board of directors of the magazine TEMAS (Havana). Cuba-L has distributed information and analysis on Cuba from English and Spanish sources, on a daily basis, since 1986. Its web page is: .This essay appeared on Cuba-L.]