The cadaverous image presented by Fidel Castro on the closing day of the Communist Party Congress in Havana mirrors the decrepit state of the Cuban government, as well as its increasingly bleak future. Like Marxist ideology, the 89-year-old Castro looked like an utterly spent force as he gazed forlornly into the audience of party members and offered what may prove to be his valedictory to the party.
Castro, in a rare public appearance, was forced to acknowledge on Tuesday that his end is near. “Soon I’ll be like all the others,” he conceded. “The time comes for us all.”
The difference, regrettably, is that Castro knows that his days are numbered, but neither he nor the party’s leadership seems to understand — or is willing to admit — that the revolution long ago lost its vitality. It is the relic of a bygone era that cannot be reinvigorated or revived.
The party congress came as a huge disappointment to Cubans who hoped it would offer a glimpse of a better political future. The meeting failed to resolve key issues and closed the door on generational change.
While Fidel pleaded with party members to allow the revolution to survive even as he fades into oblivion, his 84-year-old brother, Raúl, gave himself one more five-year term as the Communist Party’s first secretary, and allowed feared hardliner José Ramón Machado Ventura, 85, to remain second in command.
The decision means Raúl Castro can hold onto the position of party chairman, the pinnacle of power in the communist system, well past the date of his announced retirement as Cuba’s president in 2018.
All the while, he’ll have by his side an even older henchman known as the enforcer of party discipline and as an implacable foe of economic reform. Even Raúl himself has criticized Machado Ventura for orthodox rigidity, but that apparently is no barrier to power.
Don’t look for fresh faces or younger people associated with free-market reforms — which Raúl Castro himself has blessed — among the five new members named to the powerful Politburo, either. There aren’t any.
All of this amounts to a huge failure by Raúl Castro.
He initiated economic reforms a few years ago not because he’s a reformer, but because he’s a survivor. He did it because he had to, knowing Cuba was obliged to undertake changes or face increasing unrest from the Cuban people.
Those reforms, gradual and incremental as they are, have been sufficient to keep the lid on, but Castro is fooling himself if he thinks that’s enough for now.
Change generates its own momentum, whether or not he likes it. Cuba’s president had the choice of extending reforms into the political realm, despite resistance from Machado Ventura and those who think like him, or face demands for change from the Cuban people. In the end, he couldn’t bring himself to do it.
Whether it was a failure of nerve or a failure of vision matters little: The message from this party congress is that the octogenarians leading Cuba are determined to hold onto power for as long as they can, unyielding until the bitter end. They are foreclosing the possibility of gradual political change regardless of the consequences.
Outside the halls of the party meeting, times are changing in Cuba. So are the expectations of its people. But the leadership seems blissfully in denial. Perhaps they should take a second look at the image of Fidel Castro.
Even he acknowledged that he has one foot in the grave. So does the failed revolution he led for more than six decades.