Since 1959, fortunes have been lost betting on the end of the Cuban revolution. Countless books, essays, articles, statements, and resolutions have predicted the fall of Fidel Castro. These false warnings have been a source of endless frustration for those hoping for radical change in Cuba. Despite this record, it's time to raise the question again. Is the Castro regime entering its final days?
Three factors suggest Cuba is at a critical turning point. First, the economy is in its most severe crisis since the Soviet Union collapsed and stopped subsidizing Cuba in the early 1990s. Last year's fall in the price of nickel (Cuba's largest export) and in tourism, the stagnation of remittances from relatives in Miami, and recent hurricanes have paralyzed the island. Blackouts, terrible deficiencies in health care, food shortages, a housing crisis, and Cuba's suspension of debt payments to its creditors since January 2009 all point to a bleak future. Cuba now relies heavily on subsidies from Venezuela, but they're not enough. Cubans are accustomed to suffering, but their misery is reaching new lows. And it's no longer so easy to blame American imperialism. Barack Obama seems to be hugely popular with ordinary Cubans.
That explains factor No. 2: new signs of public protest. A hunger-strike movement is gathering steam after the death of political prisoner Orlando Zapata, a 42-year-old activist who refused food for more than 80 days. Zapata's death dashed any chance of improving relations with the European Union, the United States—which condemned his death and called for the release of all political prisoners—and Mexico, which didn't, and whose president had planned to travel to Havana and no longer has the leeway to do so. And it inspired another dissident, Guillermo Fariñas, to launch his own hunger strike, seeking the release of other imprisoned activists. Fariñas has a rare eloquence and altruism, which are winning him a stature few dissidents have ever achieved. If his health starts to fail, events could take an unforeseeable turn.
Meanwhile, women fighting for the release of their relatives from jail, organized as the Ladies in White, are creating another new threat to the regime. For years they have marched in protest and have gone to mass every Sunday, seeking freedom for their loved ones, but suddenly their efforts have gained new momentum. Authorities can no longer prevent the marches, so they have opted, with classic Castro-Cuban skill and cynicism, to organize pro-government crowds to harass the women. Then police escort the ladies away, ostensibly to protect them from the jeering crowd. Photographs of the mob scene have circulated around the world, in the news and over the Internet.
It's not clear how widely those photos, or the news of Zapata's martyrdom and Fariñas's challenge, have circulated in Cuba itself. Cuban authoritarianism has long been able to isolate any opposition and to hold the Cuban population in a state of ignorance. Now, partly due to the tiny opening tolerated by Raúl Castro in allowing cell phones, the Internet, and calls from Miami, as well as to a small increase in visits by relatives from the U.S., thanks to Obama, Cubans may know a lot more than they used to.
That leads to factor No. 3: Fidel Castro, now 83, is ailing and has ceded day-to-day control to his brother Raúl, 78, who is no Fidel. The comandante would have freed Zapata, or executed him, but he never would have backed himself into a corner as his younger brother did. It would have been the same with Fariñas, or with the Ladies in White, especially when these protests were erupting in the midst of an economic debacle. In August 1994 Fidel showed up in a jeep at the Malecón in Havana, in the middle of a mass exodus of boat people, to quiet a boisterous crowd of protesters with the magic of his words and the implicit threat of brutal repression. Raúl Castro is not capable of such a feat. He lacks the political instincts that allowed his brother for half a century to sniff out potential adversaries even before they saw themselves as such.
The field is tinder-dry. Only a tiny spark exists. But the firefighters are exhausted. And the last hope for the Cuban revolution, residing in Caracas, could go under at any moment. This feels like an unprecedented moment in the history of Castroism. It could be just another flare-up, or a perfect storm.