Expect chaos when Castro dies

Miami Herald - Latin America Advisor

Question: Cuban President Fidel Castro's fall following a speech Oct. 20, in which he broke bones in his left leg and right arm, brought to the fore questions about what will happen in Cuba after he is gone. Is the Cuban government prepared for Castro's eventual departure? Is the United States prepared?

Answer from William Rogers, a senior partner at Arnold & Porter and former assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs: One would suppose that the Cuban government is prepared but only in the limited sense that it is ready to designate some successor, or a cabal of successors acting collegially, to inherit Fidel's monopoly of power. The U.S. government is distinctly not prepared for that. It favors, and is doing what it can, to bring about a sharper break with the existing political system. A soft landing is conceivable. But the higher probability is that Castro's departure will let loose a storm of unforeseeable consequences for which neither government is ready. The risk of conflict and confrontation is all too serious. The only thing we can be certain of is that the future in this instance will not be surprise-free. There are lessons here from the post-communist experience in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. When a long-embedded socialist system loses its grip -- and, as Raúl Castro has admitted, there will never be another Fidel -- a smooth and easy transition to market-oriented democratic institutions is not inevitable.

Answer from Dennis Hays, managing director at Tew Cardenas: Fidel Castro and his regime have both been ossifying for decades, to the point where the only question is which one of them is the more brittle on a given day. His recent fall thus provides an apt snapshot of Cuba at present. Castro makes a serious misstep and his aides are powerless to prevent it. The real damage from all of this, of course, is inflicted on the Cuban people. Outside of Robert Mugabe and Kim Jung Il, it is hard to think of anyone who has willfully beggared a rich land and proud people more effectively than Castro. Even those regime adherents who dream of succeeding Castro must be getting to the point where they rediscover just enough religion to pray that his passing is sooner rather than later.

Answer from Phil Peters, vice president of the Lexington Institute: It's a safe bet that Cuba will carry out a constitutional succession. But it is simply unknowable whether a political system built and dominated for decades by a single figure will be truly prepared after he's gone to manage its future challenges (growth, pluralism, reconciliation, U.S. relations) and to adapt to change. The U.S. government has prepared, but badly, by cracking down on Americans who want to build people-to-people contacts, punishing Cubans with economic sanctions that now even block small acts of family charity, harassing foreign companies for doing in Cuba precisely what U.S. businesses do in other communist countries, issuing a ''transition'' blueprint that reminds Cubans of the colonial past and designing solutions to non-U.S. property disputes that should be resolved among Cubans alone. Today, the result is limited communication, narrow contacts, reduced U.S. influence and suspicions that the United States represents one segment of the exile community rather than the democratic cause in general. On the day Castro leaves office, these self-inflicted impediments to U.S. diplomacy will still be with us.

Portions of Inter-American Dialogue's Latin America Advisor run each Wednesday and Saturday .

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