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Monday, Aug. 7, 2006

Merger option after Castro


LONDON -- "Are revolutions doomed to fail?" asked Fidel Castro last November, addressing an audience of university students in a five-hour speech that was followed by a question-and-answer session that lasted until dawn. "When the veterans start disappearing to make room for new generations of leaders, what will be done? Can the revolutionary process be made irreversible?"

Those questions haunt Cubans now, as the 79-year-old Maximum Leader recovers from surgery for "intestinal bleeding," having temporarily handed power over to his designated successor, his brother Raul.

Some Cubans desperately hope that Fidel will survive; others hope just as strongly that he and his revolution will pass away. But the only people currently in a position to affect the outcome are the senior officials of the Cuban Communist Party. None of their alternatives is ideal.

Brother Raul is not a viable long-term option: he is too old (75), and he suffers from a drastic lack of charisma.

There is a younger generation of dedicated communists, people like Vice President Carlos Lage Davila and Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque, but they aren't exactly pop stars either. For almost half a century Cubans have been incited, flattered, thrilled and scolded by the incendiary rhetoric of the 20th century's most articulate revolutionary, and he is a hard act to follow.

There is Hugo Chavez. But Chavez's drawbacks as a replacement for Fidel Castro are obvious: He is the president of another country, Venezuela, and he is not a communist. On the other hand, he is a tireless revolutionary orator in the Castro mode; he is the right racial mixture to appeal to the downtrodden in many Latin American countries; and he has money. With oil at a near-record price, about $200 million in oil revenues is flowing into Caracas every day (half of it from the United States), and Chavez has already proved generous to his friends.

The communist bosses would expect to go on making the real decisions in Cuba, of course. As hardened masters of the dialectic, they are bound to see Chavez as a naive, impulsive romantic, and in any case no Cuban nationalist would hand over his country's destiny to a mere Venezuelan. But a formal merger of the two countries, rather along the lines of the "United Arab Republic" that Egypt's Gamal Abdul Nasser once declared with Syria and Libya, would have major advantages for a beleaguered post-Castro communist regime in Havana.

That regime will be under tremendous pressure from the U.S., where Cuban exiles in Miami are already celebrating Castro's coming demise. In Washington, the Bush administration has appointed Caleb McCarry as "transition coordinator" for Cuba, with a budget of $59 million to "hasten the transition" and help Cubans "recover their freedom after 47 years of brutal dictatorship."

U.S. hostility to the Castro regime has been relentless for all of those years, even when Washington found reasons to back brutal dictatorships elsewhere in Latin America. The Bush administration has worked hard to raise the pressure on Cuba, creating the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba (cochaired by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rica and Treasury Secretary Carlos Gutierrez, a Cuban-American), and reinforcing the long-standing trade embargo by cutting the remittances that Cuban exiles can send home to their families.

The Cuban Communists fear indirect or even direct U.S. interference in the country to destabilize the regime following Fidel's departure. They worry out loud about the loyalty of a younger generation whose nationalism (which in Cuba means anti-Americanism) is at war with its urgent desire for access to all the pleasures of consumerism. They worry more quietly about the millions of Cubans who really would like to see democracy in their country.

Plenty of reasons, then, to consider the Chavez option. A formal link between Cuba and Venezuela, with Chavez as joint president, would give the regime in Havana new ideological impetus by appealing to the old Bolivarian dream of a unified Latin America. It would give Cuba more access to Venezuelan oil, Venezuelan financial aid and, perhaps, even the modern arms that Venezuela is now buying from Russia.

Chavez would be a sucker for such a proposal, partly because it would appeal to his own Bolivarian dreams and partly because it would drive the U.S. government crazy. As he said last year at a meeting of the Joint Commission on the Comprehensive Cooperation Agreement Between Cuba and Venezuela, "Cuba and Venezuela have joined together, and at this point, the world should know that our fate is sealed, that these two homelands, which deep down are one, are opening a new road at whatever cost."

This isn't just a pipe dream. The first person to suggest in public that the Cuban regime might be seriously considering such a union was Ana Faya, now a senior analyst at the Canadian Foundation for Latin America in Ottawa but for 10 years, until she fled to Canada in 2000, an official of the Central Committee of the Cuban Communist Party. "It wouldn't be outrageous," she said in an interview last October. "(But) it should take place while (Fidel) Castro is still in charge."

If she is right, it will now have become a very urgent priority in Havana.

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.


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