The Dictator’s Dilemma

Posted January 4, 2006

Categories: Articles

According to a popular joke in Cuba, recounted in Jon Lee Anderson’s recent New Yorker article, the elderly Fidel Castro receives the gift of a baby Galapagos tortoise. He turns it down on learning that the animals sometimes live for over 100 years. “That’s the problem with pets,” Castro says. “You get attached to them, and then they die on you.”

Castro has outlived many enemies and most expectations. Last week’s announcement, however, that the octogenarian leader was temporarily handing over power to his younger brother Raul has raised once again the central dilemma of dictators. Though they usually receive the best medical attention around—and in Castro’s case even manage to give marathon speeches into their late seventies—they still haven’t learned the trick of living forever. How do generalissimos ensure that their regimes are not buried with them?

Fidel is, after all, largely synonymous with the Cuban revolution that he led in 1959. He has not groomed a young successor, and it remains unclear what political and economic direction Cuba will take in a post-Castro era. The market has grown stronger on the island, and with it has come greater disparities of wealth, prostitution associated with tourism, and continuing corruption. At the same time, social services such as medicine remain largely egalitarian and of high quality, and the government remains committed to one of the most interesting experiments in large-scale sustainable agriculture in the world.

The U.S. government has never been content to let nature take its course in Cuba. Direct military intervention and covert assassination plots have given way to an economic embargo that has allowed Castro to blame all domestic ills on norteamericanos. Whenever Castro shows signs of weakness, the Bush administration can barely contain its salivary glands. The government-appointed Commission for Assistance for a Free Cuba produced a recent report that urged substantial investment into a pro-democracy transition on the island. The report recommends everything from U.S. training for a free press to assistance in garbage collection. Strange that Washington is so eager to provide welfare-state largess in an imaginary post-communist country when it is cutting funding to public services for its own, very real citizens. Maybe it has something to do with Castro’s (spurned) offer to help New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

The media, too, can’t wait to anoint Cuba’s successor—not simply on the island but in the position as Number One Anti-American Firebrand. The Washington Post Outlook section on August 6 revealed the underlying principle of American foreign policy—the perpetual search for enemies—with its various swipes at Hugo Chavez, “Venezuela’s postmodern dictator.”

Not only does Chavez appear to have the same anti-democratic, anti-American, anti-market credentials as Castro, he doesn’t even have the one advantage that the Cuban leader enjoyed: legitimacy. “Castro, for all his faults, earned his anti-American and anti-imperialist stripes,” writes Ibsen Martinez, who seems to have forgotten about the elections that brought Chavez to power. Francis Fukuyama argues, as usual, that world history is moving in an inevitable direction, which in this case is against Chavez and his ilk. Alvaro Vargas Llosa fulminates against the “carnivorous left” like Chavez, compared to “vegetarians” like Lula in Brazil, without understanding that Chavez (like Castro before) derives so much legitimacy (and efficacy) from his “bite.”

Fortunately, Julia Sweig and Lisa Wixon provide sensible correctives to all this alpha male head-butting. They remind us that the U.S. government is out of touch with all but the political and economic elites in Latin America and that the social justice principles embodied in the Cuban revolution retain enormous appeal in the region. Fidel and his dictatorship will inevitably collapse, but key aspects of his legacy will remain popular among “carnivores,” “vegetarians,” and even a few conservative omnivores in Latin America.

On the other side of the world, Kim Jong Il faces a similar dilemma. The leader of North Korea is nearing seventy. His health isn’t great. And none of his three sons appears to have the gravitas to lead a nation. Unlike Castro, he doesn’t have a brother he can rely on (his half brother is rumored to have been an early rival). As Balazs Szalontai concludes in his fascinating new book, Kim Jong Il is at a fork in the road. The son of the revolutionary founder, he can follow the lead of the son of Taiwan’s Chiang Kai-Shek and usher in democracy. Or he can look for inspiration to another son, Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, and cling to power until it’s too late for him or his system.

What Cuba and North Korea both need is what German journalist Hans Magnus Enzensburger has labelled a “demolition expert.” In his portrait of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev from 1990, Enzensburger described the great delicacy with which some leaders have managed to put themselves out of a job. Gorbachev, like Adolfo Suarez in Spain or Wojciech Jaruzelski in Poland, managed to deconstruct the old system, make way for the new, and somehow not get himself killed in the process. “It is time for our own diminutive statesmen to measure up to the demolition experts,” Enzensburger concludes.

For some more background on North Korea—and why the Bush administration didn’t go ballistic over the recent missile launches—read FPIF co-director John Feffer’s commentary “ Roaring Mouse vs. Squeaking Lion.” In other recent articles, FPIF contributor Dan Smith writes about how a U.S. law on war crimes has come back to haunt the Bush administration. FPIF’s Middle East editor Stephen Zunes explains the real reasons why the United States and Israel are so eager to destroy Hezbollah (hint: it has nothing to do with terrorism). And Laura Carlsen, who directs the IRC’s America’s Program, provides an inside look at the electoral stand-off in Mexico.

Next week’s issue will have a new name and a new format. We hope you’ll like it.

FPIF, August 7, 2006

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