Ann Louise Bardach, the Western journalist who's probably spent more time with the Castro family members and friends than any other, sounds off on life under Raúl, Cuba's growing dependence on Venezuela, and why there's no end in sight to the Castro era.
When Fidel Castro stepped down in 2008, handing over power officially to his brother Raúl, few were surprised. But the effortless manner of the transition caught everyone off guard: After nearly a half-century as Cuba’s strongman leader, Fidel largely disappeared from view, popping up only occasionally to prove his good health or comment on international developments. Ann Louise Bardach, a journalist who has spent the last two decades following the ins and outs of Cuban politics, spending hours with the Castro family over that time, may have been the person best-placed in the world to chronicle the transition, which Fidel himself had prophesied to her years earlier in an interview.
Bardach’s recently released Without Fidel: A Death Foretold in Miami, Havana, and Washington is now the authoritative book about Cuba under Raúl. She spoke to Foreign Policy about how the two brothers differ, Cuba’s dependence on Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, and why there’s no end in sight to the Castro era.
Foreign Policy: I want to start by asking about Raúl Castro. What distinguishes his leadership from that of his brother?
Ann Louise Bardach: He is a below-the-radar guy. As much as Fidel craved the limelight, Raúl eschews the limelight. After the revolution, Fidel told Raúl that he wasn’t much of a speaker, and so Fidel got [his brother] a speech teacher. But it never took. Raúl sort of delights in having almost a charisma deficit. It may be for the Cuban people that they’ve had too much charisma, so I can’t say that it’s to his [detriment]. The Cuban people may have heard all they need to hear for quite a while.
FP: What was the motivation behind the "purge" that happened last year, in which several prominent members of the government were removed?
ALB: A lot of people don’t realize that there’s been a purge of the government about every 10 years since the revolution. They always say [that] these purges are being done for corruption, but the people who are expelled are always regarded as "insufficiently revolutionary," which means there are doubts about their loyalty to the Castros.
With this one last March, they took out 20 of the top members of the Cuban government in one fell swoop, including [cabinet secretary] Carlos Lage and [head of the Communist Party’s foreign-relations department] Fernando Remírez de Estenoz, who was the point man on Elián González. These were huge figures. They took them down with the stroke of a pen, and they had them under surveillance for over a year. Two of these men — Lage and Felipe Pérez Roque, who was the foreign minister — were forced to write these letters apologizing to Raúl and apologizing for their sins against the government. It was truly a Stalinist moment.
FP: Let’s talk about Ramiro Valdés, whom you mention in your book as an important figure.
ALB: Valdés is one of the last of the original Moncadistas [the small group of revolutionaries who began the Cuban Revolution with an attack on the Moncada barracks], but it’s more than that. Valdés quickly ascended to the top by becoming in charge of seguridad — what we would think of in our country as the secret police. And particularly, he took over an arm called G-2 for domestic surveillance. He was very notorious for his ruthlessness against civilians and for a program he started called UMAP in the 60s. Thousands of people were rounded up and sent to rehabilitation camps. It was one of the darkest periods in Cuban history, and it was the first time the international intelligentsia turned against Cuba. Valdés then went on to become hugely powerful and feared in Cuba in all intelligence matters and [later served as] minister of the interior. I’ve been in rooms in Cuba where you say the name "Ramiro Valdés" and it will literally clear the room. It’s a name to be feared.
Valdés was supposed to have fallen from power [in the 1990s]. [But] he came back, and now he’s been given a slot in the Council of Ministers and the Council of State. I would say he’s the third-most powerful man in Cuba. In Cuba, whoever serves as No. 3 has a history of going to the pokey. My advice to Valdés would be cuidado: Be careful. You may have history, you may have 55 years with the brothers, but you would be the first to survive being No. 3.
Raúl [recently sent Valdés] to Hugo Chávez to serve as Chávez’s Cuban baby sitter and make sure he doesn’t lose control in Caracas. Because if Chávez does lose control, then Cuba is toast. Cuba is surviving on the 100,000 barrels of oil they get every day from Chávez. That’s how important Valdés is. He’s there to tell Chávez how to run an authoritarian state and get rid of these pesky democratic intuitions, people who want to run against you, banks that want to own their own banks, and these companies that want to own their own companies.
FP: There’s been so much stuff about a Cuban infiltration of the Chávez government. What’s going on here?
ALB: The relationship between Hugo Chávez and Fidel Castro is one of the rare authentic, personal relationships in politics. Chávez has a personal, deeply felt self-devotion to Castro. He’s referred to him as a surrogate father. And that’s Fidel’s favorite role: the patriarch of the country. Castro once told me that if he’d made any mistakes — and he said that he hadn’t — it would be that he had been too patriarchal.
Fidel truly saved Chávez’s bacon during the attempted coup [against the latter in 2002]. Chávez owes a lot to Fidel, but that said, he’s paying for it through the nose, and it’s not making him popular in Venezuela. He’s providing oil on terms that would rival Santa Claus. But on the other hand, Chávez entirely trusts Fidel and is willing to let him dispatch Ramiro Valdés to Caracas to basically supervise him and teach him the lessons — the perils — of playing with democratic reform.
Clearly, I think Raúl and the [Cuban] army are a little worried about Chávez. I think they regard him as a man who lacks discipline. I don’t want to say that they think he’s bipolar, but there are concerns about his mood swings. If his mood swings the wrong way, what does that mean for Cuba?
FP: You have reported on Cuba for such a long time. How do you see it changing? What direction do you see things moving for the everyday Cuban?
ALB: Raúl and his men, with Fidel serving as the "convalescent in chief," are digging in. They’re in a tight spot because the country is bankrupt. It has not been paying its bill to its foreign investors. It has eliminated the ration cards, workers’ lunches … and many Cubans have really depended on these to survive. We’re in a global economic recession, and it’s just harder on Third World countries, much less a country that already had a failed economic system like Cuba. [But] the government has decided, rather than to provide more openings, to ratchet down. You can see that in the rhetoric with [U.S. President Barack] Obama. It started out very warm and fuzzy. Obama offered the olive branch. Next thing you know, the foreign minister is calling him "arrogant."
That’s not to say that this is like a Stalinist gulag. It’s a very repressive, authoritarian country. There are some openings. You can always complain in Cuba. And you can always have a lot of sex. Sex, baseball, and complaining are the national pastimes of Cuba. And they encourage these things in a very personal, private way — except of course, baseball — which gives Cubans just enough space to let off enough steam. The problem is when you start complaining publicly, [and then] you go to the pokey.
FP: You talk in your book about how meticulously planned the succession from Fidel to Raúl was.
ALB: Fidel told me himself. When I first interviewed him in 1993 for Vanity Fair, he told me — and I don’t know if I paid attention to it at the time — he said, "Never doubt for a moment that the government will stop. The transition is planned and it will be seamless." And he’s absolutely right. Of course, he didn’t come out and say, "It will be my brother."
FP: What about after Raúl and [Fidel] Castro are both gone? Is there a plan for who might be a possible successor?
ALB: I’m banking on more Castros. I know a lot [of] people don’t want to hear this, but I’m looking at Alejandro Castro Espín, Raúl’s son. He’s got two portfolios — intelligence and China — and those are major portfolios. And I’m looking at the son-[in]-law of Raúl [his daughter Déborah’s husband], Col. Luis Alberto Rodríguez López-Callejas. He’s a hugely powerful man.
And then you have Mariela Castro, who would of course be the great white hope. All democrats and progressives are pining for Mariela because she is the bohemian. She has talked about opening up, about democracy. She’s instituted rights for homosexuals; she’s provided for free transgendered sex surgery. You can’t get an aspirin in Cuba, but thanks to Mariela, you can get free transgender surgery. God help you if you’re looking for a Band-Aid.