Fidel Castro is gravely ill
It is unseemly to celebrate the impending demise of a human being, but one could forgive the Cuban exiles in Miami for dancing in the streets last night. Yesterday the aging dictator of Cuba transfered to his brother Raúl power over three institutions: the Communist Party, the armed forces, and the Cuban government. (Raúl has served as defense minister and vice president for many years, and is the "heir apparent.") Fidel also transfered responsibility for guiding the general course of health policy, education policy, and energy policy to respective cabinet-level officials. Oddly, the only word about Castro's condition as published by the official Communist newspaper Granma (or its Web site, at least) was from Fidel himself. His message to the Cuban people explained that the decision to turn over governing power to his brother was prompted by severe intestinal ailments, including bleeding, that was provoked by the stress of his recent visit to the MERCOSUR summit in Argentina. (The seriousness of the surgery makes one wonder whether the statement was ghost-written.) In any case, it ended by proclaiming:
Imperialism will never be able to smash Cuba.
The Battle of Ideas will continue forward.
Fidel's need to rest and recover from the intestinal surgery has forced the postponement of the planned 80th birthday party for him on August 13. The country's provisional leader Raúl Castro is 75. Fidel came to power on New Year's Day, 1959, and even though he quickly established relations with the Soviet Union, he did not openly declare himself to be a Marxist-Leninist until 1961. Whether he was a closet communist all along, or a nationalist who gravitated in that direction because of U.S. pressure, is a hotly debated question in academic circles. To me, it is a secondary question and in any case can never be answered satisfactorily.
For the United States, the long-anticipated hypothetical question of how to respond to Castro's demise and promote a transition toward a free democratic regime now becomes very urgent and real. Countless times in the past, well-intention U.S. programs aimed up lifting up countries in Latin America or elsewhere in the Third World have failed because U.S. "experts" failed to recognize the nationalistic spirit and wounded pride of the recipient nations. This occasion also provides an opportunity to reform U.S. immigration laws, which contain special preferences for Cuban exiles. People from other Latin American countries resent the Cubans' privileged status, which seems to reward a country for going communist. (!) Given that the Communist regime in Havana appears to lack any provision for a leadership succession beyond Raúl, those immigration provisions would become obsolete as soon as Castro dies, and should be repealed.
Above all, officials in the U.S. government must resist any temptation to gloat over Castro's brush with mortality. For better or (more likely) worse, most people living in Cuba seem to revere him as a nationalist hero. (In a closed, tyrannical system such as Cuba's, however, there is simply no way of accurately gauging true public sentiment.) However sincere or widespread the affection of his people may be, Castro can at least die a happy man knowing that his cherished cause of revolutionary anti-Americanism lives on at the other end of the Caribbean Sea -- in the "Boliviarian Republic" of Venezuela led by Hugo Chavez.