How did Fidel Castro stay in power for so long?

Previously published Slate articles made new.
Feb. 19 2008 1:58 PM

Adios, Comandante

How did Fidel Castro stay in power for so long?

On Tuesday, Feb. 19, Fidel Castro announced that he is stepping down as Cuba's president. In early August 2006, when Castro first passed the reins of power to his younger brother Raúl, Ian Bremmer explained how Castro "survived nine U.S. presidents, the collapse of his Soviet benefactor, and four decades of American attempts to undermine his government." The article is reprinted below.

Poster of Fidel Castro. Click image to expand
Poster of Fidel Castro

Following a televised speech in October 2004, Cuban leader Fidel Castro fell from the stage, shattering his left knee, breaking his left arm, and leaving Cuba's people breathless. Convinced that he must address the fears of some and the hopes of others that the moment had finally come to pass power to a successor, the comandante dictated a message. State-run media announced that during his more-than-three-hour operation, Castro had allowed doctors to anesthetize him only from the waist down and that he had never relinquished his authority.

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If Castro's story was true, it reveals his stubborn determination to hold off the inevitable hand-over of power. Or he may have lied about the anesthesia to persuade the Cuban people (and potential rivals at home and abroad) that he remained fully in command. Either way, Castro apparently feared that if Cuba were ruled by someone else—even for a few hours—his revolution might be challenged.

This story now has new importance. On July 31, just days from his 80th birthday, intestinal bleeding apparently forced Castro to undergo dangerous surgery—dangerous enough to compel him to hand power to his younger brother Raúl. Fidel may well survive. But never before has he ceded full power to someone else. We can safely assume that plans for the inevitable succession have gained new urgency, with or without Fidel's involvement.

What does this mean for Cuba? To answer this question, we must understand how Castro has managed to remain in power for 47 years. In January 1959, Castro led a band of guerrillas out of the Sierra Maestra mountains and seized power from dictator Fulgencio Batista. Not long afterward, the charismatic young Castro nationalized banks and industries, collectivized agriculture, seized more than $1 billion in U.S. assets, jailed his rivals and critics, embraced communism, made new friends in Moscow, and captured the world's attention. In 1960, alarmed by the emergence of a Communist state and potential Soviet satellite 90 miles from Florida, the United States imposed a trade embargo. In 1961, it cut formal diplomatic relations. The failed Bay of Pigs invasion in April of that year further burnished Castro's credentials as a capable strongman and implacable U.S. foe.

Since then, the U.S. government has worked to undermine Castro's regime by squeezing Cuba's economy. For four and a half decades, many U.S. lawmakers have argued that Castro's refusal to respect fundamental civil liberties compels Washington to destabilize his government on moral grounds. Sanctions, they insist, might encourage the Cuban people to oust their leader in favor of the prosperity that would flow from better relations with the United States.

Yet Castro has survived nine U.S. presidents, the collapse of his Soviet benefactor, and four decades of American attempts to undermine his government. By jailing or executing his most dangerous rivals, frustrating attempts by the Cuban people to generate the capital needed to challenge state power from within, and creating a siege mentality across the island, Castro has institutionalized himself as Cuba's supreme leader. Castro and the United States have essentially worked together to isolate the Cuban people. In the process, Castro has created a remarkably durable cult of personality.

The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 provided Castro with his greatest challenge. Desperate to outgrow the hardship of what Cuban officials call the "special period" and aware of China's success with limited market reforms, he reluctantly decided to experiment with capitalism. In 1993, he granted Cubans limited freedom to open small for-profit businesses in more than a hundred economic categories. But economic reforms bred demand for political reforms, most famously in the form of a petition from a movement called the Varela Project. In 2003, Castro jailed many of the group's members. Since then, Castro has moved to again tighten central planning of the Cuban economy and to limit Cubans' access to U.S. dollars and the Internet.

In general, authoritarian states are only as stable as the hold on power of an individual leader or small ruling clique. It is the personalities—not the institutions—that matter in such a country. Cuba, true to form, has a president but not a presidency. Fidel Castro is the revolution. Loyalty to the Cuban government is loyalty to Fidel. When he finally dies, the question of succession will generate tremendous uncertainty and potential instability.

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