The resignation of Fidel Castro from two of his three jobs in Cuba, together with the appointment of his brother as his successor, marks the end of an era—sort of. Raúl Castro replaced the elder Castro as president of the Councils of Ministers and of State, but, for now anyway, Fidel remains first secretary of the powerful Cuban Communist Party. And in a remarkable scene worthy of the glory years of Stalinist rule in the former Soviet Union, Raúl asked permission from the island "Parliament" to consult with Fidel on all major issues, and was authorized to do so by all 643 members, with no votes against or abstentions.
So as long as the founder of the Cuban revolution is around—writing, meeting foreign dignitaries, weighing in on issues like ethanol and the U.S. presidential election—two things will be clear. First, Raúl will be barely able to budge on even the modest economic or regulatory reforms he hopes, somewhat naively, will put food back on Cubans' tables. Second, the younger Castro will be unable to replace the old guard in the top jobs with members of a younger generation. His successor in the armed forces is 72; his vice president is 77. But pushing them into retirement would give their replacements an edge in the next succession, when Raúl, 76, passes on. The brothers do not necessarily agree on who should come next.
The succession arrangement the Castros designed years ago has the advantage of stability and predictability. With the exception of a few optimists and hotheads, few Cuba watchers gave any credence to the possibility that one Castro would not replace the other. But it also has serious drawbacks, particularly if it drags out almost endlessly, as it has since July 2006, when Fidel fell ill. For now, though, Raúl's bet is still on: pursuing a so-called Vietnamese or Chinese solution that includes pro-market economic reforms while allowing the Cuban Communist Party, the Army and the old guard to continue to monopolize political power without any progress on democracy or human rights.
This option is a tempting one in many quarters. For those in the United States who have rightly concluded that the trade embargo and ongoing ostracism of Havana have proved to be both mean and counterproductive for nearly half a century, it is an appealing halfway response that provides an appropriate alibi for moderation. U.S. politicians will simply argue that economic reforms will one day bring political change. For Latin American pragmatists, always fearful of Cuban fifth columns in their own countries, it is a way of encouraging change in Cuba without going too far. And for some European governments, it is a typical, hands-off remedy that places the problem squarely in Washington's lap.
So what's wrong with it? First, it perpetuates the injury done to the Cuban people. Cubans should enjoy the same benefits of representative democracy and respect for human rights that the rest of Latin America now receives. But more important, the Vietnamese or Chinese road is unacceptable for the rest of Latin America. The region has achieved huge progress in transforming human rights, democracy, and gender, indigenous and environmental rights into a regional legal order that goes beyond national sovereignty or the sacrosanct principle of nonintervention. After decades of coups, dictatorships, torture, disappearances and the like, Latin America today, while not devoid of these plagues, has built a number of firewalls to forestall them. Accepting the Cuban exception would represent an enormous setback for these causes.
If Cuba is allowed to follow this path, what would prevent another Central American dictator or murderer from violating the inter-American scripture of democracy? Moreover, it is a bad precedent to invoke pragmatism to justify continued human-rights violations in Cuba, just because the country is carrying out some economic reforms and dissuading a mass migratory exodus to Mexico and Florida. Yet some countries appear to be doing precisely that already. Mexico has seemed especially tempted to return to its Cuba complicity of the past. It appears that during an upcoming visit to Havana, the Mexican foreign minister will not meet with local dissidents, breaking with precedents established since 1993.
There are sound reasons to set a timetable for Cuba's return to the Latin American democratic concert, without imposing elections as a first step or precondition. Free and fair elections and full respect for human rights can come at the end of the road, if that end is clearly established. But what would be unacceptable are the two extremes: making an immediate transition to democratic rule a sine qua non for normalization with the United States and re-entering the Latin American community, or re-establishing the Cuban exception, in which the indispensable conditions for belonging to a democratic concert of nations don't apply to Cuba because it is considered, for whatever reason, to be different.