He has outlasted eight U.S. presidents, survived countless CIA efforts to do him in, and his communist regime has remained in power for a generation after the collapse of his Soviet sponsors. So what does the leader of the 1959 Cuban revolution think now of the system he created? Last week The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg reported Fidel Castro’s startlingly honest assessment: “The Cuban model doesn’t even work for us anymore.”
Some observers suggest that the 84-year-old Castro’s unexpected honesty may be a belated attempt to throw himself on history’s mercy. After all, they say, Cuba is in tatters. According to Andy Gomez, assistant provost at the University of Miami, tourism on the island has declined 35 percent this year, and remittances are expected to drop to $250 million—far below the peak of $800 million earlier this decade. Cuba’s own National Statistics Office has reported that economic indicators, such as construction and agriculture, were down significantly in the first half of the year. And last month, President Raúl Castro began a process of dismissing or transferring some 20 percent of state employees—a major move, given that the government employs more than 90 percent of the country’s labor force. Says Gomez, “The Cuban economy is the worst it’s ever been.”
And that may be the real explanation: Fidel’s candor provides political cover for Raœl to pursue economic reforms despite the objections of hardline ideologues in the regime’s upper ranks. Although Raúl officially runs things now, Fidel still weighs in as needed. Soon after Raúl agreed to release 52 political prisoners in July, Fidel made a series of public appearances—a move that some interpreted as an indication of his tacit approval. Now, says Geoff Thale, program director of the Washington Office on Latin America, “Raúl is trying to pick up the pace of reform…I take this to be [Fidel] agreeing with the impulse behind” that effort.
So far, Raúl’s actions have been cautious. He’s permitted Cubans to open up small businesses like barber shops, and farmers can now purchase tools and fertilizer from the state to cultivate private plots. And he’s extended leases on government land to foreigners. But pulling the economy out of its tailspin will take much bigger changes. Acknowledging the problem was only a first step.