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Fidel at 87


On August 13th, Fidel Castro became 87 years old. He has been out of power since he got very ill in 2006 and retired in 2008. Seven years have gone by. We were told by the world mass media that Raúl Castro did not have the wherewithal to rule. And yet, there has been no political or social challenge to the successful transition.  Indeed, Cuba has been more stable than many countries in Europe. Moreover, the influence and expansion of ties with the world have increased. And Raul Castro might even have more legitimacy than expected.

Contrary to pressumed Fidel is doing fairly well too – considering his age and medical problems.  What is remarkable is that a charismatic leader lived long enough and managed to transfer his power/ authority to institutions.  This is unheard of, sociologically speaking. Typically, charismatic rulers died and then others had to figure out the new regime. The imagined scenario promoted by the world mass media, US and European think tanks and foreign governments was: quick death, power struggle at the commanding heights of power, civil war, possible US intervention and a return to the ancien regime. None of these happened.  The anti-Castro futurologists did not see much of the future while they hammered us with reference to Cuba as a Caribbean Jurassic Park and Fidel as the dinosaur in chief.

How come talking heads, editorial writers and wishful thinkers were so wrong about a post Fidel or a post Castro’s Cuba?

One basic reason is that attention has not been paid to the real developments in the island.  Wishful thinking and lies dominated the debate. Second, nor has there been any reference, then or now,  to the fact that Cuba has institutions, a history and a political culture.  Thirdly, the critical framework that the average Cuban has exhibited was interpreted by outsiders to mean that the “totalitarian system” was in decline and crumbling. It was assumed that open criticisms, by itself, was not allowed and subversive.  Yet,  Raul Castro often calls upon the people to openly criticize what needs to be changed.

Although it has been acknowledged that the Cuban Americans are one of the mainstays of the Cuban economy through remittances; the implications have not been fully understood or appreciated. Thus, the very people who were assumed to be the opponents had been a major factor in stabilizing the island’s society.

Indeed, the Cuban government is so confident that now Cubans are allowed to freely travel abroad – something that the American citizen is not afforded in return. Moreover, the social characteristics of the past economic political refugee has morphed  into the economic migrant who refuses to break ties with the country of origin.

What does it all tell us?  We were wrong about assuming that the Cuban political system was simply depending on one man’s personality while the millions of Cubans were sheepish.  We assumed that we understood the reality and dynamics of the social, economic and political system – yet, not a single daydreamed prediction by specialists and journalists have stood the test of time.

The institution of the Cuban family does not seem to recognize the political and ideological boundaries that were assumed to constrain it. Moreover,  many assumed in the US that the world shared the views and expectations of US politicians and policy makers on what to do about the Cuban government; today not even the conservative government of the popular Party in Spain sides with the US, nor the European Union.  The yearly votes at the United nations demonstrates this error.

In fact, Cuba has further advanced in its ties with left, center and conservative governments in Latin America and elsewhere. Cuban medical and educational assistance programs have gone as far as Vanuatu and East Timor. Just several weeks ago the Cubans were invited to Suva,  by the secretary general of the Pacific Islands Forum. Cuba is a leading member as a partner promoter of cconomic and social development in the region.  Cubans, in fact, are invited to aid the Pakistanis, the Saudis, the Hondurans and even European nations that want to deal with issue of illiteracy. The Yo Si Puedo program is found in more than 30 nations, including Mexico and Australia.

But, what about Fidel? Fidel continues to have a dual influence – among the general public and within the institutions that hold power. Does he favor one group against another? Doubtful.  From 1959 into the 21st century the Cuban revolution went through many and different phases.  But Fidel led all the twists and turns.  Consequently, if necessary, one can always find a comment or statement in favor or against: centralization, material rewards, opening or closing something, for or against egalitarianism.  Whichever faction, his name will be used to legitimate it. For Fidel has been a man of principle as well as a realist that understood when to advance and when to change. The united States government, however, has one policy on Cuba that regardless of the context and circumstances.

Are there differences between the two brothers? Even before 1959 there has been a division of labor between Fidel and Raul. One relied on mass mobilization, charismatic speeches and agitation. The younger brother, on the other hand, had the responsibility of organization, the day to day education of revolutionists and cadres – and later bureaucrats. One dealt with the general public and mass organizations; the other was concerned with organizations, division of labor, command and control, efficiency. Each one needed the other. Charisma and routinization, in the Cuban case, have worked together.  The new Cuba that is emerging seeks efficiency, productivity and the preservation of social and national gains.

Fidel Castro has managed to represent as well as integrate the thought of José Martí and Simón Bolívar – 19th century revolutionary leaders. The Cuban revolutionary, with the aid of many, shaped a foreign policy and national movement around the fundamental concept of national sovereignty, yet devoid of any self-centered nationalism.  This unique form of national self-determination  incorporated other countries on an equal footing. In fact, national sovereignty and solidarity had precedence over ideology. Cuba has aided countries, despite the economic and political differences they may have.

Today, Fidel might comment on contemporary matters but he does not enunciate or make policy – foreign or domestic. Surprisingly, he maneuvered well into a transition without trauma.  When he dies it is highly doubtful that there will be any major upheaval; except  a large funeral with Cubans sharing their feeling with representatives from every country and corner of the world.

Neither the German  sociologist Max Weber who wrote on charisma nor the CIA which tried to assassinate him, ever envisioned such an outcome. In 2007 Saul Landau wrote, “Fidel exudes the same sense of astute practicality–a devastatingly cold grip on reality–combined with a seemingly inexhaustible optimism.” [1] More recently Landau added  that Fidel’s “courage, and his determination to change vocations – from chief of state to wise writer” is unique and inspirational. [2]

Nelson P Valdés is Emeritus Professor of Sociology at the University of New Mexico and director of the Cuba-L Direct.


[1] Saul Landau, “Filming Fidel: A Cuban Diary, 1968” Monthly review (New York), August 2007.

[2] Marta Rojas, “An interview with Saul landau” Progreso Weekly (Miami), September 8, 2010.

Nelson P. Valdes is Professor Emeritus at the University of New Mexico.

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