Ann Louise Bardach, the Western journalist who's probably spent more
time with the Castro family 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.
INTERVIEW BY ELIZABETH DICKINSON | MARCH 10, 2010
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
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 [after Fidel retired].
[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
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
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
Journalist Anne Louise Bardach on Raúl Castro's Cuba — Interview by
Elizabeth Dickinson | Foreign Policy (10 March 2010)