Castro and the Caudillo

Castro and the Caudillo

Mini Teaser: Francoism in Spain did not survive its namesake. Cuba’s brand of communism is likely to suffer a similar fate.

by Author(s): Irving Louis Horowitz


ONE OF the singular moments in a dictatorship is its end point. And for Fidel Castro and Francisco Franco those points converge revealingly-indicating a possible future for Cuba after its leader's demise. True, there are some notable differences, but ultimately their fates, or more specifically that of Francoism and Castroism, will more than likely prove that the issue is less when each leader dies physically, so much as when their ideologies perish politically.

The Convergence

IN HIS day, Franco was heralded as the dictator who had held power for the longest time period: nearly forty years. Castro is coming hard upon fifty years of rule. Both dictators assumed power after a preliminary period of armed struggle with a domestic enemy: Franco from 1936 to 1939, fighting against Juan Negrín López and the Popular Front; and Castro from 1956 to 1959, combating Fulgencio Batista and his Military Front.

Castro followed the trail blazed by Franco in the consolidation of power-the elimination of political opposition, the institutionalization of single-party rule, a repressive police system that created a groundswell of exile life when possible and prison life when unavoidable, and a cult of personality for maximum leadership. Castro fused government and political functions to a much greater extent than did Franco; yet, five years after coming to power, Franco combined the positions of head of state, prime minister and leader of the Falangist movement-and enjoyed sovereign legislative authority to boot.

Both Franco in the 1930s and Castro in the 1960s needed foreign allies. In 1939 Franco's Spain courted the pro-fascist Axis powers. And by 1961, Castro's Cuba had become openly aligned with the Soviet Union. The Soviet leadership did not much care for Castro, and the Nazi regime likewise took a dislike to Franco, but in both cases such antipathy had little bearing on the global scheme of policy decisions.

Economically, both Franco and Castro feared a free-market system and were dedicated to the principles of a command economy. They embraced national economic self-sufficiency, and both Falangism and Communism preached the idea of an organized working class.

Franco was remarkably adroit at fusing the working class into a common trade-union front, while nationalizing production and setting price controls for all goods. He allowed some entrepreneurial activities, but only as a mechanism to support the totalitarian state. Indeed, being a far larger and more powerful nation with diversified resources, Spain could better implement a command economy than could Cuba.

The Divergence

FOR ALL of these similarities-and their significance to be noted below-the differences between the two dictators must also be duly noted because the comparison can provide important clues about Cuba's post-Castro direction. Whether it is a function of the orthodox military background of Franco, as opposed to the legal and guerrilla background of Fidel, is difficult to say, but clearly Castro wins the medal for sheer fanaticism.

The Franco regime maintained manifest neutrality even as the Nazi-Fascist Axis appeared to be winning. And later, as the Allied victories mounted, the ideological tone of the regime was muted. Franco became involved in a series of postwar diplomatic maneuvers aimed at restoring a sense of participation in the Western cultural milieu, and, significantly, displayed his ideological temperance through his succession plans-in direct contrast to Falangist suspicions of an empowered monarchy with democratic leanings. Indeed, it is this difference that distinguishes the likely legacies of Franco and Fidel.

In contrast to Franco the tactician, Castro displayed political zealotry at the Third World conferences he spearheaded, which took aim at Western power. His ideological commitment has been so pronounced that he has placed his philosophical proximity to pariah nations, such as Iran and Venezuela, over tactical advantage.

This difference in stridency will profoundly differentiate succession arrangements in Cuba. Franco's willingness to counter the Falangist consensus facilitated a royal succession, the best way to prevent Republican restoration. Thus, the royal family of Don Juan de Borbón, specifically his son, Juan Carlos de Borbón (Juan Carlos I), provided for an orderly, if uneasy, transition process.

Castro's notion of transition has never gotten beyond an emulation of a North Korean-style dynastic communism that shifts power within the family, rather than the party. Indeed, dynastic communism is a complete totalitarian system lacking the human face of monarchism. Of course, the heir apparent in Cuba is well-known and has parliamentary and party approval: Raúl Castro, Fidel's slightly younger brother. But the prospects of transition from Fidel to Raúl raise long-dormant issues regarding charisma, popularity, the armed forces and distinctive attitudes towards private property.

The Final Years

DESPITE ECONOMIC stagnation, relative isolation from many Western European, as well as Latin American, nations and the emergence of scattered but real opposition, Cuba remained relatively stable in July 2006. Its alliances with Venezuela, Bolivia and, to a lesser extent, Brazil and Ecuador, as well as new trade agreements with China and a modest upswing in growth (despite widespread claims of statistical incongruities and ambiguities) have bolstered its stability. And as 2006 came to a close, news of Castro's various sundry ailments raised the possibility of political turnover as it became clear that change was in the wind. Still, no political crisis seems imminent.

A similar situation seems to have been in place in July 1974, when Franco complained of pain and swelling in his right foot. When it was determined that Franco was suffering from life-threatening abscesses, he was hospitalized in relative quiet. He received few visitors and made few public announcements regarding his illness. The image of an ailing dictator simply did not fit the robust military figure that had ruled Spain with fierce determination.

Franco's ailments multiplied: impairment of speech and depression became symptoms that were treated by psychiatric methods. Despite some disagreements with Franco's family members over his resumption of authority, Franco's inner circle, known as the "bunker" group, prevailed, and he continued in power and resumed many activities in the autumn of 1974. He began to meet with people, make small speeches and received salutes at the victory parade of the Falangist Revolution. At the same time, it became evident that Franco was suffering from Parkinson's disease and that his ability to maintain and exercise power was becoming increasingly tenuous. As one commentator at the time pointed out, "Despite personal anxieties, the resumption of certain state functions did not solve matters. Spain lives in a state of complete uncertainty and apprehension."

Socialists and social-democratic politicians in Spain became more active. Along with the Christian liberal opposition to Franco, they sought to move beyond the crisis into a secular system, but were unable to muster the quorum needed for a purely civic solution. Through his ministers, Franco held out for the re-establishment of the monarchy, which appeared the best way to assure continuity, skirt secularization and address Basque terrorism and separatism. Franco was a firm believer in taking harsh measures against terrorism. He declared: "Either we finish these destroyers of society or they finish us."

The official and public activities that Franco resumed while he was obviously terminally ill had grave political consequences. Illness did not prevent him from signing decrees for the execution of terrorists-an unpopular decision, and one few would take under the risky circumstances. This was as late as October 1975, when his apparent illnesses could no longer be kept from the people. He was clearly suffering from heart attacks, and his ability to conduct even ceremonial duties of state was markedly impaired. In addition to Parkinson's disease, he suffered from myocardial arrest, stomach ulcers, renal failure, thrombophlebitis, bronchial pneumonia, toxic shock and irremediable heart failure.

With Franco's death the transition of power in Spain took place: a modern society to be ruled by a democratic Catholic monarch. To be sure, the rule of Don Juan Carlos held many surprises, not the least his encouragement of a rapid return to human-rights principles. The son, like his Bourbon father, was wedded to principles of fierce anti-totalitarianism.

Meanwhile, Castro's own "loyalists" (a half-dozen ministers along with Raúl) are surely the equivalent of the "bunkers" of Franco. And there is an eerie sameness in the medical ailments that have struck both Franco and Castro and their public portrayal: multiple sources of illness, mistrust of surgical repairs and operations that were less than satisfactory in their outcomes. If political ideology could determine medical diagnosis, then according to Castro's friends, his intestinal ailment is virtually an imperialist plot-or at least it was seen as such until the magnitude of the ailments could no longer be disguised.

There has yet to be a public disclosure of the illnesses Fidel suffers, only that he is on the road to recovery. But Fidel's absence from public functions and major gatherings speaks for itself. Every effort has been made to picture the transition process from Fidel to Raúl as smooth. The words of the hour are stasis and obedience to principle. While medical diagnosis seems hostage to ideological proclivities, one element is clear: For Cuba, it's business as usual.

Of Death and Dictatorship

WHILE THE transition in the mid-1970s from tyrant to monarch was unsettling to Spaniards and Basques alike, it was remarkable in its restoration of democratic norms. The situation in Cuba, while fluid, appears to be quite different. There is no instrument of political legitimacy that remains other than military authority. Democratic opposition remains fragmented both in size and outreach. There is doubt as to how the more than one million Cubans living in exile are to be treated in any new arrangement: Are their properties to be restored; are they to be welcomed back to the island; are they to be seen as interlopers who escaped during the dictatorship only to return as new masters of an ill-shaped national consensus? Thus, there will be an interregnum in which Castro will continue to live on-perhaps for the same two years prior to death in which Franco found himself. However, this interregnum cannot be resolved as it was in Spain.

Essay Types: Essay