Castro’s decision to step down unlikely to bring real change, say Czech observers

Fidel Castro, July 2006, photo: CTK

Fidel Castro’s decision to step down as Cuban leader surprised many around the world but has been positively greeted by many – not least the United States and members of the European Union. The controversial 81-year-old dictator held power for almost fifty years, outlasting numerous US presidents as well as surviving untold attempts on his life. Here in the Czech Republic, observers say Mr Castro’s decision to step down was expected but are sceptical his retirement will in any way open the way for broader democratic change.

Fidel Castro and his brother Raúl,  2004,  photo: CTK
Since the Czech Republic’s own transition to democracy following 1989, Czech political figures from former president Václav Havel to current Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg have actively supported Cuban dissidents and called for democratic change in Cuba. Could that happen now? While on Tuesday Fidel Castro made clear he would not attempt to return to power, most observers remain sceptical any successor might introduce real change. His brother Raúl – who stepped in after Cuba’s long-serving dictator fell ill in 2006 - is likely to continue in his stead, quashing hopes the end of Castro’s rule might lead to greater democratisation. Kristina Prunerová is a specialist at the Czech human rights watchdog People in Need:

“This is actually an event or an announcement which was expected for the last year and a half: it was quite clear though what the Cuban government was doing that Fidel Castro was not going to return to power. It was a question of weeks or months before it was going to be publicly announced and it is not a coincidence, coming ahead of the elections for a new head of state scheduled for February 24th. It was also an announcement made more for the international audience than for Cubans because right now international pressure is one of the things that the Cuban government fears the most. It is very careful about its international image and this announcement was made for the international scene.”

RP: It was long assumed in the past that Mr Castro’s death or stepping down would mean the end of his regime but do you think that is at all possible as his brother Raúl has been groomed to replace him?

Fidel Castro,  July 2006,  photo: CTK
“It will be the end of the Fidel Castro era – that is for sure – the end of the charismatic leader who has been at the head of Cuba for 49 years. But the people who have been in power and who will be nominated in the coming days come from the same circles and follow the same politics. Those who are closest such as Raúl or Foreign Minister Felipe Pérez Roque are so-called ‘hardliners’ and it is expected that they will maintain the same course. Over the last year and a half they have made clear they will implement some economic reforms because Raúl Castro is a man of economic reforms and also the people have demanded it. They are ready to protest the economic conditions, if not their political rights.”

But Josef Opatrný, a professor of Latin-American Studies at Charles University suggests that even public dissatisfaction in Cuba with current economic conditions will not necessarily be enough to pressure Raúl Castro - or any other successor - to anything like sweeping reforms:

Fidel Castro gestures during a three-hour speech,  February 6,  2004,  photo: CTK
“I don’t think that the current hold on power might be threatened, for a number of reasons: Fidel Castro’s regime has a large number of supporters at home and even those who are politically neutral will fear change. It’s important to understand that many in Cuba have lived their entire lives under Castro’s regime and have never experienced anything else. They have been repeatedly subjected to propaganda warning that change would only be catastrophic. Economically, the country could also get backing from like-minded supporters, namely Hugo Chávez, and that too could help. He himself has already downplayed Fidel’s stepping down as having any impact.”

Fidel Castro and his brother Raúl,  2002,  photo: CTK
For those reasons human rights groups like People in Need say now is the time to keep Cuba in the spotlight. Despite some concessions on human rights issues under Raúl Castro – including a recent high-profile release of political prisoners - Kristina Prunerová says Cuba’s changes are only skin deep; she stresses it is important for international observers to keep the pressure up:

“Every symbolic moment like this one or the 24th of February when the new head-of-state will be elected is a moment for international pressure because these are moments when the Cuban government is not really sure how it will be received on the international scene and also within Cuba itself. The bigger the international pressure and the bigger the support for democratic change, the greater courage the Cuban people will have to challenge the government and demand the release of political prisoners, demand democratic elections and other rights.”