Predicting the End of Fidel Castro

(Editor's Note: A shorter version of this piece is cross-posted on The American Observer, a news website for students, faculty and staff produced at American University. To read the official announcement of the end of Castro's rule from Granma, the official Cuban government newspaper, please go here.)

by Rick Rockwell*

A year before Fidel Castro handed over power to his brother Raul, one of the old hands at following news in Latin America was holding court at a dinner in Miami. Over Chinese food and cocktails, Frank Manitzas, formerly the Bureau Chief for Latin America of ABC News was predicting how Cuba would cope with the end of Fidel.

So far, much to the dismay of the U.S. State Department and the Cuban exile community, Manitzas’ script has been followed to a tee. Back in 2004, Fidel had suffered a bad fall, which was captured on video, and he’d seemed to lose his way during his long televised speeches more than a few times. So speculation was rampant that Fidel’s health was failing. Of course, chasing those rumors had been a cottage industry for those writing about Cuba since the early 1990s. Some of this was wishful thinking as the commonly held belief in Miami was that as soon as Fidel was gone, Cuba would dissolve into chaos.

Against that conventional wisdom, here’s what Manitzas predicted back in 2005:

1) When Fidel’s health began to fail (or if he died suddenly), Cuba would follow an orderly succession plan with his brother installed as president. With his power base in Cuba’s powerful army, Raul would be able to maintain control.

2) However, Raul would likely be a caretaker president meant to rule in a transition role as the next generation of Cuban leaders prepared themselves to compete inside Cuba’s Communist system for power. This process could take up to five years before Raul too would step aside.

3) A leader would emerge from Cuba’s Council of State, National Assembly or from the Communist Party’s politburo to take power in an orderly fashion. Some of the top candidates for that transition are already obvious, such as Ricardo Alarcon, President of the National Assembly or Felipe Perez Roque, Cuba’s Foreign Minister.

As Manitzas pointed out, the Castro brothers began planning for this transition in the 1990s and Cuba’s governing institutions wrote plans for how to proceed. During the 1990s, Fidel carried on a number of purges: pushing and prodding his revolutionary era comrades into retirement and nurturing a younger generation of leaders. (Although retired, Manitzas was able to make these confident predictions because he edited and wrote a respected electronic newsletter about the island.)

During the past 18 months, the first part of Manitzas’ prediction has proved correct. This weekend, as Cuba’s institutions move to name a new president, the second part of the prediction will come into play. And Cuba experts like Manitzas will be watching for clues about future succession just like the old Kremlin days when it mattered who stood next to whom at the formal state ceremonies.

Raul has already signaled that he may be more pragmatic and less revolutionary than his older brother. Just last week, the Cuban government announced that it will be releasing two jailed dissident journalists soon . Writing this week from Havana, noted author Tom Miller observed that although Cuba’s economy is still a challenge, some have hope that a very repressive era is about to end.

And with that hope, instead of the chaos some predicted, Fidel finds a way to thwart the ambitions of his enemies, even as he fades from power.

*Rick Rockwell filed reports from Cuba for The American Journalism Review and In These Times magazine in the 1990s.

(The political caricature of Fidel Castro is by Edmund Valtman. Valtman donated hundreds of his political cartoons to the Library of Congress; this cartoon is in the public domain.)

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