The Geopolitics of Fidel

Reference: Stratfor Intelligence © 2000


Last week's Weekly Analysis focused on the interface
between the isolated "rogue" states of the 1990s and the emerging
great power geopolitics of the 21st century. This week we consider
in some detail the case of a single rogue power, Cuba, and the
manner in which it has sustained itself and flourished as a
globally visible actor. It is a case where geopolitics mingles with
the craftsmanship of a master political operator, Fidel Castro.
Forget about the turmoil in Miami, and consider why Castro - weak,
isolated and economically destitute - can so skillfully confound
the United States.


What is extraordinary about Fidel Castro is that he is here at all.
More than 40 years after coming to power, he survives. He survives
in the face of the unremitting hostility of a superpower only 90
miles away. He survives in spite of these facts: his main patron,
the Soviet Union, has disappeared, his ideology, Marxist-Leninism,
is discredited, and his economy is in shambles. Despite the fact
that an extraordinary number of ordinary citizens prefer to chance
death at sea rather than remain in his nation, Fidel survives.

Not only does his survival require explanation but it begs a
serious, strategic question: What does the survival of Cuba mean to
the international system? As important, what does Castro want it to
mean? He is a man of intentions, many of them admittedly failed.
But unlike others who have clung to power because they did not know how to let go, Castro portrays himself as a man for whom power is a means to an end, not an end itself. After all, there have been easier paths for him to take. Therefore, understanding Fidel - and what he means in a larger sense - means understanding his

From the beginning, Castro has shown an extraordinary understanding of how to shape public opinion. It is difficult to think of any world leader, let alone the leader of a minor Third World country,
who has been more successful not only at drawing attention to
himself, but in generating a positive global image. His 1953 attack
on the army barracks at Moncada led only to his arrest and trial;
but his "The World Will Absolve Me" speech at the trial sparked a
movement. Even today, in the face of failure, human rights
violations and isolation, he continues to generate support and

That skill is not incidental to his understanding of how the world
works. Consider the latest affair. A small group of ordinary
citizens, clearly driven by despair and desperate for an
alternative, choose to escape. These people are so desperate to
leave that they risk their lives in a rickety boat unsuited for the
high seas. This is far from an isolated event. Men, women and
children bear this risk regularly. In this particular case, a woman
falls overboard and drowns, leaving behind a small son, who is
taken to live with relatives.

In almost any other country, what would be considered shocking is
the misery and hopelessness that led to the escape - and the moral
character of a regime that holds its citizens as prisoners. Had
this event involved Iraq or Serbia, the focus of the media would
have been on the regime that generated the refugees. But Castro
spun the situation brilliantly, turning the United States into the
victimizer and Cuba into the victim. He did so by understanding the
structure of international public opinion brilliantly, and with it,
the dynamics of power.

Castro did not allow the world's attention to linger on the causes
of the voyage. Instead, he fixated on the outcome of the voyage and
the fact that the little boy had a father in Cuba to whom he should
be returned. Now, there was certainly justice in that claim. A
child's father surely has the right to a child when the mother is
dead. The hesitancy of the United States in returning the child was
based largely on political concerns in the Cuban-American
community, as well as other, humanitarian concerns.

Castro seized on Washington's hesitation as an assault on paternal
rights and he achieved two things. First, he turned Cuba, via the
father, into the victim of an insensitive United States. Second, he
forced discussion to focus on the aftermath of the escape rather
than on the causes of the escape, namely conditions in Cuba. In
short, he spun the issue.

This is far from the first time that Castro has humiliated the
United States with the fact that Cubans want to flee. Recall the
1980 boatlift from the port of Mariel, in which 125,000 Cubans
departed aboard boats from Miami. Castro only allowed the boatlift
after crowds had stormed the Peruvian embassy demanding to leave.  And he included criminals and the mentally ill among the refugees.  Unprepared, the Carter administration placed many in camps. But by then Castro had spun the story to Washington's mishandling of the refugees; the United States was the heavy.

Castro deploys similar measures in a broader context. Cuba's
economy is in disastrous shape - $11 billion in debt, years of poor
sugar harvests and little industry other than tourism. But it has
been this way since the fall of the Soviet Union, and the loss of
$3 billion in Soviet-era subsidies. Castro's defense, however, is
to blame the U.S. economic embargo. The fact is, of course, that
the U.S. embargo is completely ineffective. Hardly any other nation
in the world honors it. Cuba has access to capital in Canada,
Europe and most of Asia. It can sell goods nearly anywhere and
those goods can be reshipped to the United States with minimal

As preposterous as it is, Castro's assertion is nevertheless widely
believed and the United States is widely condemned for its boycott.
Now, where many in the international community demand that the
United States stop trade with countries that violate human rights,
like Myanmar, many of the same people reverse themselves on Cuba, making the exact opposite argument. Castro turned the failure of his economic system into an indictment of the U.S. embargo. Rather than being lumped with other human rights violators, he casts himself as the victim of an oppressive U.S. foreign policy.

The key to Castro's ability to control these situations is that he
understands the fundamental issue: it is not Cuba, but the United
States. There is a deep ambivalence, a love-hate relationship
between the United States and the world. On the one hand, no nation is more imitated than the United States. The United States serves as the standard against which the rest of the world measures
progress. There is no nation that others would rather go to, if
forced to leave their own home. The United States and its culture
is overwhelming, powerful and penetrating.

On the other hand, it is this very power that makes the United
States so deeply hated. Precisely because it overwhelms, overpowers and penetrates everywhere, precisely because the United States is so relentless and indifferent to the rest of the world, the United States is profoundly resented. The sense of helplessness in the face of U.S. power breeds a sense of rage against America. This ambivalence, it should be noted, exists not only abroad but in the United States, as well. It peaked in the 1960s, but remains a part
of the political landscape.

Castro is a master of manipulating this ambivalence. His survival
in Cuba is based on a state security apparatus that controls all
opposition. His survival as an icon in global culture, however, is
not rooted in anything that he has achieved in Cuba; it is rooted
only in the fact that he defies the United States. Castro
instinctively understands this. He understands that the world
admires the United States infinitely more than it admires Cuba,
that masses yearn to become American while hardly anyone would wish to be a Cuban. Yet, at the same time, he knows that those very same admirers resent the very success of the United States.

Castro has played this ambivalence to his advantage for 41 years.
But at no time has he played it more brilliantly than since the
fall of the Soviet Union. Having lost his strategic value and
teetered on the brink of disaster, Castro has combined his internal
security mechanism with his deep understanding of the global psyche to make himself the champion of the anti-American in everyone. He is given a pass on human rights not because anyone has any illusions about him, but because he is useful in countering
American wishes.

Castro's use of global ambivalence points to an underlying source
of energy that will fuel the geopolitical system for the rest of
this century. We tend to look for non-psychological, material
explanations for the behavior of nations. In general, that is a
good methodology. But accompanying geopolitics is the psychological topography of the world. The existence of a single, overwhelming power must generate a psychological reaction. The very power generates fear and resentment. That fear and resentment can reinforce geopolitical processes.

This dualism about the United States is one of the most important
features of the global political landscape today. Anti-Americanism
is not ultimately ideological; it is an unavoidable reflex against
overwhelming power. During the Cold War, that anti-Americanism
coalesced in various Marxist and Marxist-inspired movements that
ranged the world. Many of these movements, in turn, were inspired
less by what they believed in than by what they despised - the
United States.

At the moment, there is no ideological hook on which to hang anti-
Americanism. But there are some signs of a stirring coherent
movement centered on issues like global economics, environmentalism and so on. It surfaced during the Seattle demonstrations against the World Trade Organization (WTO). The movement has not yet congealed. It may not. But the root cause, anger at the United States and the world it has been instrumental in creating, remains. It is that anger that has sustained Castro on the world scene. It is an anger that should not be dismissed lightly