Two countries marked big events this week. In Cuba it was Raúl Castro’s 81st birthday, and Britain celebrated Queen Elizabeth’s 60 years on the throne. The Castro brothers launched their attack on the Moncada barracks in 1953, shortly after the coronation of the queen in June that year.
When I was British ambassador in Cuba in 2002, we staged a 50-year golden jubilee concert for the queen. The excellent Cuban National Symphony Orchestra played British music, including the famous Elgar march, which is sung to Land of Hope and Glory. We were also celebrating 100 years of diplomatic relations between the United Kingdom and Cuba — a reminder that links long predate the revolution.
What is the significance of these two events in the history of the United Kingdom and Cuba? During her reign, the queen has been head of state to 12 different prime ministers elected in 15 general elections. Raúl Castro and his brother have been presidents of Cuba for 53 years. The Cuban Communist Party, which they created in 1965, is the only legal party.
The queen does not engage in politics and does not speak her mind on issues. She has offered discreet counsel to elected officials and less-experienced leaders, visited 116 countries (though not Cuba) and has met millions of people face to face. The British freely express their views on her. Recent polls show her popularity at 78 percent with 69 percent approving of the monarchy as an institution.
There is one key difference between the leaders. While it matters little what personal views the queen holds it matters greatly what Raúl Castro believes and decides. Cuba today is the responsibility of the Castro brothers.
Yet Cubans wonder who is the real Raúl Castro. A man who dislikes socializing and making revolutionary speeches, he is also a ruthless eliminator of opposition and rivals and an experienced military organizer. He was a high school drop-out and a communist from his adolescence. He is now an admirer of Chinese wealth creation, but a continuing believer in state control of the economy. Ordinary Cubans know nothing of his pastimes or where he and his brother live.
Raúl has now admitted his past policies are wrong. Cubans must recognize that 2+2=4 and give up freebies and subsidies. The Communist Party must stop meddling in the economy, eliminate its pointless activities and shake up its sycophantic media and false unanimity. But Raúl voiced no criticism when the party and the 600-strong national assembly approved his 300 policy guidelines without a single dissenting vote. And Cubans question why fertile Cuba is covered in weeds and imports 80 percent of its food.
What of the future of both countries? The United Kingdom has many problems, but the line of royal succession is assured. And British parties and NGOs continue to debate alternative solutions vigorously. The United Kingdom plays an active role in the world. In Cuba Raúl has suggested term limits, fired senior servants of the regime and jailed foreign investors. But, should he die, he has no young leaders-in-waiting willing to commit to a system that doesn’t work. And in foreign policy Cuba is as heavily dependent on Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela today as it was on the Soviet Union.
There are lessons here. the queen has adapted to modern times — she uses Facebook, Twitter and YouTube — and maintains dignity with non-interference. Glory is downplayed, but hope is still alive.
In Cuba the glory of the revolution is over. Cubans have free education and heathcare (as do the British) but they can see that relying on two brothers’ ideas for 53 years has been a folly. Cubans are showing they want to make their own decisions through small businesses, connecting with their exile families and using cell phones and social media. They will increasingly rely on each other more than on the government. And that indeed is a sign of hope.
Paul Hare is a former British ambassador to Cuba and now teaches international relations at Boston University.