When Fidel Castro stepped down in 2008, handing over power officially to his brother Raúl, few were surprised. But the effortless manner of the transition caught everyone off guard: After nearly a half-century as Cuba's strongman leader, Fidel largely disappeared from view, popping up only occasionally to prove his good health or comment on international developments. Ann Louise Bardach, a journalist who has spent the last two decades following the ins and outs of Cuban politics, spending hours with the Castro family over that time, may have been the person best-placed in the world to chronicle the transition, which Fidel himself had prophesied to her years earlier in an interview.
Bardach's recently released Without Fidel: A Death Foretold in Miami, Havana, and Washington is now the authoritative book about Cuba under Raúl. She spoke to Foreign Policy about how the two brothers differ, Cuba's dependence on Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, and why there's no end in sight to the Castro era.
Foreign Policy: I want to start by asking about Raúl Castro. What distinguishes his leadership from that of his brother?
Ann Louise Bardach: He is a below-the-radar guy. As much as Fidel craved the limelight, Raúl eschews the limelight. After the revolution, Fidel told Raúl that he wasn't much of a speaker, and so Fidel got [his brother] a speech teacher. But it never took. Raúl sort of delights in having almost a charisma deficit. It may be for the Cuban people that they've had too much charisma, so I can't say that it's to his [detriment]. The Cuban people may have heard all they need to hear for quite a while.
FP: What was the motivation behind the "purge" that happened last year, in which several prominent members of the government were removed?
ALB: A lot of people don't realize that there's been a purge of the government about every 10 years since the revolution. They always say [that] these purges are being done for corruption, but the people who are expelled are always regarded as "insufficiently revolutionary," which means there are doubts about their loyalty to the Castros.
With this one last March, they took out 20 of the top members of the Cuban government in one fell swoop, including [cabinet secretary] Carlos Lage and [head of the Communist Party's foreign-relations department] Fernando Remírez de Estenoz, who was the point man on Elián González. These were huge figures. They took them down with the stroke of a pen, and they had them under surveillance for over a year. Two of these men -- Lage and Felipe Pérez Roque, who was the foreign minister -- were forced to write these letters apologizing to Raúl and apologizing for their sins against the government. It was truly a Stalinist moment.
FP: Let's talk about Ramiro Valdés, whom you mention in your book as an important figure.
ALB: Valdés is one of the last of the original Moncadistas [the small group of revolutionaries who began the Cuban Revolution with an attack on the Moncada barracks], but it's more than that. Valdés quickly ascended to the top by becoming in charge of seguridad -- what we would think of in our country as the secret police. And particularly, he took over an arm called G-2 for domestic surveillance. He was very notorious for his ruthlessness against civilians and for a program he started called UMAP in the 60s. Thousands of people were rounded up and sent to rehabilitation camps. It was one of the darkest periods in Cuban history, and it was the first time the international intelligentsia turned against Cuba. Valdés then went on to become hugely powerful and feared in Cuba in all intelligence matters and [later served as] minister of the interior. I've been in rooms in Cuba where you say the name "Ramiro Valdés" and it will literally clear the room. It's a name to be feared.
Valdés was supposed to have fallen from power [in the 1990s]. [But] he came back, and now he's been given a slot in the Council of Ministers and the Council of State. I would say he's the third-most powerful man in Cuba. In Cuba, whoever serves as No. 3 has a history of going to the pokey. My advice to Valdés would be cuidado: Be careful. You may have history, you may have 55 years with the brothers, but you would be the first to survive being No. 3.
Raúl [recently sent Valdés] to Hugo Chávez to serve as Chávez's Cuban baby sitter and make sure he doesn't lose control in Caracas. Because if Chávez does lose control, then Cuba is toast. Cuba is surviving on the 100,000 barrels of oil they get every day from Chávez. That's how important Valdés is. He's there to tell Chávez how to run an authoritarian state and get rid of these pesky democratic intuitions, people who want to run against you, banks that want to own their own banks, and these companies that want to own their own companies.