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A HARD ACT TO FOLLOW

“Are revolutions doomed to fail'” asked Fidel Castro in November while addressing an audience of university students in a five-hour speech that was followed by a question-and-answer session that lasted until dawn. “When the veterans start disappearing, to make room for new generations of leaders, what will be done' Can the revolutionary process be made irreversible'”

These questions haunt Cubans now, as the 79-year-old Maximum Leader recovers from surgery for “intestinal bleeding”, having temporarily handed power over to his designated successor, his brother, Raul. Some Cubans desperately hope that Fidel will survive; others hope that he and his revolution will pass away. But the only people currently in a position to affect the outcome are the senior officials of the Cuban Communist Party. None of their alternatives is ideal.

Brother Raul is not a viable long-term option: he is too old, and he suffers from a lack of charisma. There is a younger generation of dedicated communists but they aren’t exactly popstars either. For almost half a century, Cubans have been incited, flattered, thrilled and scolded by the incendiary rhetoric of the 20th century’s most articulate revolutionary, and he is a hard act to follow. But there is Hugo Chavez.

Chavez’s drawbacks as a replacement for Fidel Castro are obvious: he is the president of another country, Venezuela, and he is not a communist. On the other hand, he is a tireless revolutionary orator in the Castro mode, he is the right racial mixture to appeal to the downtrodden in many Latin American countries — and he does have money. With oil at its present near-record price, about $ 200 million in oil revenues is flowing into Caracas every day, and Chavez has proved generous to his friends.

On hire

As hardened masters of the dialectic, the communist bosses are bound to see Chavez as a naïve, impulsive romantic, and, in any case, no Cuban nationalist would hand over his country’s destiny to a Venezuelan. But a formal merger of the two countries, rather along the lines of the “United Arab Republic” that Egypt’s Gamal Abdul Nasser once declared with Syria and Libya, would have major advantages for a beleaguered post-Castro communist Havana.

The Cuban communists fear indirect or even direct US interference in the country to destabilize the regime following Fidel’s departure. They worry out loud about the loyalty of a younger generation whose nationalism (which in Cuba means anti-Americanism) is at war with its urgent desire for access to all the pleasures of consumerism. They worry more quietly about the millions of Cubans who really would like to see democracy in their country. Plenty of reasons, then, to consider the Chavez option.

A formal link between Cuba and Venezuela, with Chavez as joint president, would give the regime in Havana new ideological impetus by appealing to the old Bolivarian dream of a unified Latin America. It would give Cuba more access to Venezuelan oil, Venezuelan financial aid, and perhaps even the modern arms that Venezuela is now buying from Russia.

Chavez would be a sucker for such a proposal, partly because it would appeal to his own Bolivarian dreams and partly because it would drive the US government crazy. It isn’t just a pipe dream. The first person to suggest in public that the Cuban regime might be seriously considering such a union was Ana Faya, now a senior analyst at the Canadian Foundation for Latin America in Ottawa, but for ten years, until she fled to Canada, an official of the central committee of the Cuban Communist Party. “It wouldn’t be outrageous...(But) it should take place while... Castro is still in charge.”

If she is right, it will now have become a very urgent priority in Havana.

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