Cuba's Dynastic Succession

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For the first time in 47 years Fidel Castro is not formally in control of the Cuban state.

Recent photographs show the man of legendary energy in slippers and pyjamas, recovering from an operation whose purposes remain the object of unsubstantiated rumours. And the same absence of concrete facts to work with informs the great debate about who will follow Fidel.

It is astonishing that the left should accept dynastic succession as a practice. It was intolerable in Eastern Europe - why should it pass without criticism in Cuba? In fact, Fidel has already passed the mantle of head of state to his brother Raul Castro. For several days, Raul made no public statement to verify the announcement, but his recent speech about imminent US aggression was delivered in the same tone and language as his more voluble older brother.

Raul was with his brother from the assault on the Moncada barracks on 26 July 1953 onwards. It was Raul who brokered the rapprochement of Fidel's 26 July Movement with the Cuban Communists and was the critical go-between with Moscow in those early days. Since 1959 he has been in charge of the army, a critical pillar of a society in which military and political control were and are exercised by a single small interlinked group dominated by Fidel.

Over the years the membership of that small ruling group has changed. But those changes did not come about through elections or public debate. Nominations were sometimes rubber stamped by a National Assembly or occasional congresses of the Communist Party, but the key decisions remained the province of an unaccountable group at the top. Raul was part of that group, and there is no sign that he intends to do anything other than protect it.

The 26 July Movement worked with a military conception of political organisation - the party organs transmitted instructions and decisions downwards for implementation. This has remained the structure of power ever since.

That is not to say that there have not been significant changes in Cuba. The collapse of Eastern Europe left Cuba isolated and in crisis, deprived of markets for its exports and providers of almost all its consumer goods. The crisis was resolved by a new economic strategy - opening Cuba's economy to foreign investment.

World market

The US continues its crippling economic embargo - first imposed a few months after the revolution of 1959. For Spanish, Italian and other investors, however, there are no such barriers. They enthusiastically put their money into the burgeoning tourist trade. In 1995 stringent laws limiting the participation of foreign capital to a 49 percent stake in any enterprise were changed to allow foreign investors to control 100 percent of any enterprise. Cuba's laws protecting labour were also amended to make it a more attractive prospect.

Cuba has become an active participant in the world market, despite the US embargo. Carlos Lage, the minister of the economy, is clearly a man of a different stripe. No beard or olive green uniforms for him - his suit suggests he is more at ease in international economic forums. Raul, meanwhile, still wears his uniform, though his personality has nothing of his brother's charisma.

Yet these two men are the linchpins of the Cuban regime without Fidel. They suggest the future that has been prepared - openness to the market combined with a control as rigid and centralised as in the previous decades. Liberalisation is strictly economic. Political dissidence is silenced, and there remains as little control from below over the shape and direction of Cuban society as ever.

The difference internally is that the economic inequalities which were concealed or denied are now visible and inescapable. The Mercedes-Benz franchises, the new clothing stores, the obvious presence of a wealthy class, tell a very clear story. The irony is that there are now persistent moves by sections of the US Congress to remove the embargo, because they are anxious at the loss of business opportunities for US capital in oil, agriculture and tourism as well as consumer and industrial goods.

Condoleezza Rice, oddly enough, has insisted that there is no intention of imposing a new regime - but there is every intention of opening Cuban markets to the multinationals. Democracy comes a very poor second to that concern. The Miami Cubans, or some of them at least, would love to imagine a return to the corrupt but highly profitable pre-1959 Cuba. That is out of the question.

How can the Cuban people regain control over their own society? There is no simple answer other than to continue to organise and fight for the right to organise freely and democratically in defence of their own interests. This was denied under Fidel, and it was undermined by all the previous US-supported regimes. To talk of succession, in whatever terms, is to continue to deny them that right, and with it the possibility of an authentic socialist democracy