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Please Note: This publication was made possible through support provided by the Bureau for Latin America and the Caribbean, U.S. Agency for International Development, under the terms of Award No. EDG-A-00-02-00007-00. The opinions expressed herein are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the U.S. Agency for International Development.

The Cuban Transition:

Lessons from the Romanian Experience

Prepared for the Cuba Transition Project (CTP)

Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies

University of Miami


Michael Radu*

Michael Radu, Ph. D. is Director of the Center on Terrorism and Counter-Terrorism and Senior Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, Philadelphia.
The Cuban Transition:

Lessons from the Romanian Experience

Introduction and Background
This essay looks at the experience of post-communist, post-Ceausescu Romania as it might apply to any post-Castro transition scenarios for today’s Cuba. It considers the issues faced and solutions found by another post-communist, post-charismatic system that may be instructive in Cuba’s case.1

Aside from sharing the same official ideology and history of economic and military dependence on the Soviet Union, Fidel Castro’s Cuba has little in common with the former Warsaw Pact countries of Eastern Europe. The Warsaw Pact regimes were put in power by Soviet tanks in the 1940s; Castro came to power on his own. The Eastern Europe countries, with one exception, were led by faceless Moscow-issue bureaucrats; Castro is very charismatic. The Eastern European regimes collapsed when Moscow refused to protect them against their own peoples in 1989; by contrast, Castro survived not only the end of Soviet (and East European) economic subsidies and strategic cover, but the end of the Soviet Union itself.

The exception is Romania, which was led by Nicolae Ceausescu from 1965 to 1989. While the communist regime in Bucharest had the same origins—Soviet military force, as the other East European regimes, its later evolution was distinctly different, in a way that made it less dependent on or obedient to Moscow. Indeed, by loudly denouncing the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, Bucharest demonstrated greater independence from the Soviets than even Havana did.

From the late 1950s through the fall of the Soviet Union, no Soviet troops occupied Romania. For at least that long the Bucharest regime, like Castro’s in Cuba, sought to combine nationalism (in Romania’s case, anti-Russian, anti-Hungarian nationalism) with Marxism-Leninism. It generally avoided openly opposing Soviet foreign policy dictates, pursuing an autonomous—albeit neither wholly independent nor, more important, anti-Marxist or even anti-Soviet—policy of its own. While hard to quantify its significance, the fact that Romania is also the only Romance-language nation among the former Soviet satellites, and thus has a higher sense of cultural difference from its neighbors, plays an important role in explaining the highly personalistic and dynastic nature of the Ceausescu regime, which endured long after the rest of the region’s communist states renounced Stalinist personality cults. The analogy to Castro’s caudillismo, if limited, is obvious. Indeed, Romania’s entire modern political culture has been dominated by strong personalities and Ceausescu was in many respects the heir to that tradition.

A detailed analysis of Romanian institutions and political culture, both before and since 1989, suggests that of all the East European regimes, Romania is the best analogy to Cuba. Of course, numerous caveats apply. The following are among the most important distinguishing features:

  1. COMECON. Both countries were members of the Soviet-led “common market”—the Council of Mutual Economic Assistance (COMECON). Romania, however, unlike Cuba, shared a border with the Soviet Union, and so was more dependent on COMECON.

  1. Cultural influence. Romania’s cultural influences are European—which in Romania means those of Western Europe, with its traditions of democracy and freedom, and now more specifically the European Union and NATO. This is quite different from the Latin American cultural (and political) influences on Cuba’s history and geopolitics.

  2. Military. The relationship between the leader and the military leadership is close in Cuba but, as the events of 1989 described below demonstrate, almost absent in Romania.

  3. Diaspora. Romania’s diaspora was virtually non-existent: the Romanian émigrés in France and the United States were unorganized and included totalitarian supporters of the fascist Iron Guard, monarchist, and democrats, all lacking resources, credibility, or even support in Romania. On the other hand, the huge Cuban diaspora in the United States has resources, political clout, and (although increasingly diminishing) organization and unity of purpose. While the Cuban diaspora may not play a major role in post-Castro Cuba, it will, unlike in the Romanian case, have a major influence.

All that said, there are strong similarities between the Castro and Ceausescu regimes. The most important of these include:

  • The extraordinary role of the leader and the regime’s total dependence on him over any institutions, including the formally dominant Communist Party.

  • The related weakening of the regime’s ability to mobilize and sustain itself independently from the leader, translated into the sclerosis of both the CP and its related organisms—the “transmission belts” of women, youth, and trade union organizations.

  • Sociologically (see below), there was a clear sense in Romania that the regime’s ability to perpetuate itself was unsuccessful, as demonstrated by high-level defections (such as that of Ceausescu’s personal security adviser, Gen. Ion Pacepa) and the fact that prominent scions of the communist cadre were turning to dissidence and defection to the West. General Rafael del Pino Díaz was, in more than one sense, the Cuban equivalent of Lt. Gen. Ion Mihai Pacepa, the head of Romania’s intelligence when he defected in 1978; and the defection of Jorge Masetti, Alcibiades Hidalgo (former assistant to Fidel Castro’s younger brother, Raúl), and members of Castro’s immediate family suggest that the same process is going on in Havana. More important are the purges inside the regimes themselves. The parallel between the purge of Ion Iliescu, then a former Communist Youth leader and later youth minister, by Ceausescu’s regime in 1971 and the purge of Roberto Robaina, also a former Communist Youth leader and then foreign minister, from Castro’s regime in 2002, is a case in point.

For the ordinary or middle level Cuban CP member there is probably a similar feeling already, considering that the number of Cuban elite dissenters who have been executed (Ochoa, De la Guardia, Abrantes) is already larger than that of similar victims of Ceausescu. And less violent purges (Robaina, Torralba) are continuing, suggesting, or at least giving the public at large the impression that there is instability at the top. That perception, within the elite circles and outside, also existed in Romania in 1989 – and in part explains the absence of commitment of most Party members to the ruling couple in December.

  • The persistent attempts of the two regimes to square the ideological circle of Marxism-Leninism by combining its “proletarian internationalism” with an increasingly rabid nationalism. As noted above, both regimes attempted to replace the fictional legitimacy of communism with the more concrete one of nationalism. Indeed, the more insecure the regime was in either country, the more nationalist its rhetoric. In Romania that approach was highly successful between the late 1950s (prior to Ceausescu’s assumption of power) until 1971, after which it became merely a transparent attempt to prop up the ruling clan. In Cuba the approach worked well until Castro’s capitulation to Moscow in 1968, it has been in decline ever since but is still effective to a degree.

In this regard, Castro’s recent initiative of declaring “socialism” a perpetual goal of the Cuban state has an eerie resemblance to Ceausescu’s push for life leadership and the formal promotion of his wife to second-in-command of the CP in November 1989—weeks before his execution. Both leaders attempted to establish some ideological basis for regime survival after their inevitable passing.

  • Civil society is weak in both countries, compared to its relative strength in other European communist states. While it is certainly true that Cuban dissidents are more numerous and better known (outside the country) than their few Romanian counterparts prior to 1989, and that they have some support from the still influential Catholic Church—again, in contrast to the largely collaborationist Orthodox hierarchy in Romania—they are not in a position to offer an alternative leadership. In Poland in particular, but also in Lithuania, Hungary, and East Germany, there was a strong civil society in place prior to collapse, and at least some alternative political and economic competence. None of that applied to Romania in 1989 or to Cuba today.

The end of the Ceausescu regime had much to do with its very nature—weak institutions in general and weak military commitment to its leader—as distinct from its nationalistic claims, which the generals (and even more so the colonels and majors) took seriously. On the other hand, and contrary to conventional wisdom and media coverage, the end came more by coup d’état than by mass revolt, let alone revolution.

How Far the Analogies?

There is a pattern of comments and accusations against this paper - mostly based on the idea that there is some pattern of comparison between Cuba and Eastern Europe in general (including Romania) – all post -communist, hence questions as to why popularly accepted and, at least within the academia, applauded authors (Linz and Stephan) are not in included ? One may expect a pattern. In fact, Stephan and Lenz pretended that such a pattern exists - one between Hungary or East Germany and Romania or Cuba, a doubtful proposition if there ever was one. But, in the case of two cases under examination here, Romania under and after Ceausescu and the post – Castro Cuba the analogies are far too limited - especially to these two countries – and too specific to even allow any type of “conceptual framework” to be even examined, let alone accepted. Simply put, as simply as possible, these are two “aberrant” cases – any analogy between them is limited to them, and any lessons are to be seen in this light – period.

Interesting, but conceptually irrelevant – there is no rational or practical proof of a “conceptual framework” between the general East European collapse of communist regimes and Romania’s – or Cuba’s regimes’ undergoing similar ends (pace Linz and Stepan), this is and is intended to compare an East European exception - and Romania was - and what the author believes Cuba could become.

Simply put, the analogies between the Ceausescu and Castro regimes are just that -analogies between two totalitarian, charismatic regimes – the former unique among communist regimes in Eastern Europe in 1989, the second unique among surviving communist regimes in the world today. There is no alleged, intended or academic pattern alleged or supposedly demonstrated by the two - just two countries being compared. That may seem too simple or too “un-academic” but that is it. The author does not intend, pretend, or claim that comparisons between the two countries are anything but - comparisons between two countries - No “pattern or “frameworks” are sought or “found” –just simple analogies - not comparisons – between two peculiarly totalitarian and charismatic personalities and the regimes they have created. Analogies are in the eyes of the beholder - neither opinions nor regrets.

More importantly, at least for academics reading this, it may be that patterns and rules reading this may be unsatisfactory - but this is neither intended nor intended to define some “pattern” between two exceptional case studies - Romania and Cuba. Since both are “exceptional ” the comparison between them neither pretends, not offers a “pattern” of comparison - it is just a case of two peculiar cases. Those who would expect patterns or a general framework, would be, as some commentators of this paper were, inevitably disappointed.

The End of the Regime, Collapse, and Nature of Transition

On Christmas Day 1989, Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu, who had been in power in Romania since 1965, were shot by a summary military court, accused of genocide and associated crimes. It was a unique case of “justice” in post-communist Eastern Europe and one that may have had a significant impact upon the remaining communist regimes—hence the intense attention the events in Romania have received in China, Cuba, and North Korea.

Nicolae Ceausescu established what could be described as an almost perfect totalitarian system, where everything not formally forbidden was indeed compulsory. It was only “almost” perfect because, first, Romania was not a truly independent state; second, Ceausescu’s dynastic notions were limited to a few isolated cases like his or North Korea’s; and third, because Ceausescu and his family made a clear and convenient target.

Attempts during the years 1968–70 to allow some small business operations (mostly restaurants in a few cities), and peasant markets elsewhere, were cut short by 1971, when the regime decided to copy the Chinese “cultural revolution” patterns and closed them down, much like Castro’s did with the peasant markets during the 1980s and the present taxing of the paladares almost out of existence. In both cases the official (and, from a Marxist view point, correct) explanation at the time was that a private sector of any size exacerbates class struggle and social inequality.

Throughout the Ceausescu regime the system’s internal stability was based upon an ultimately artificial balance between the various internal security agencies, including the omnipresent secret police (“Securitate”), regular police, and indeed all local Communist Party (Partidul Comunist Roman—PCR) cells. The 1950s system of local, house-by-house committees of surveillance has decayed and was dismantled by the early 1960s—in contrast to the Cuban regime, where the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDRs), although now in an advanced state of decay, are still officially in place.

The Romanian regime was a nepotistic, indeed dynastic, system, whereby all important political and ideological positions were occupied by members of the ruling couple’s families. To begin with, Nicolae—like Fidel is now—was president (i.e., chief of state), the equivalent of the prime minister (i.e., chief of government), supreme commander of the Armed Forces, First Secretary of the sole political party, the ruling Communist Party, and the focus of a widespread personality cult. His wife, Elena Ceausescu, was in charge of PCR cadres, but her reach extended beyond the PCR, into economic policy decisions, scientific research and even choice of top military posts. Indeed, her office (widely known as “Biroul 2,” or Bureau no. 2— Nicolae’s was no. 1), was directly involved in promotions (and refusals of promotions) in both the military and MI. Thus, her refusal, after 1985, to promote any generals in the Army or the armed forces, except as temporary appointments.

The Ceausescus and Elena’s family, the Petrescus, personally controlled numerous aspects of the regime. Nicolae’s brother, Ilie, was a General of the Army, in charge of personnel. Another brother was important in Securitate, or Ministry of Internal Affairs (MI), the secret police; and a cohort of Petrescus had important positions in national and local administrations.

Second, the Ceausescus, influenced by the North Korean system, clearly intended to prepare their younger son, Nicu, as their successor. Like Fidelito, Nicu’s older siblings were not interested in politics. The ruling couple’s intentions were made clear by their promoting Nicu to leadership of the PCR’s youth branch and then as party chairman (and hence local boss) of the important Sibiu County. It was clear to all Romanians that the Ceausescus intended to establish a dynasty. The Castro brothers aside, and the now largely gone influence of Wilma Espin, in Havana dynasty is less important than the continuation of the Castroite revolutionary legacy.

The economic policy was largely left to Elena, who pursued a nationalist and Stalinist approach, seeking to establish a national industry of major proportions in chemicals and petrochemicals, along with mining and steel, largely at the expense of agriculture. Those industries were intended to provide jobs and thus attract peasant labor to the cities – thus increasing the size of the “working class”; they also intended to make Romania independent of imports, regardless of resources, traditions and indeed cost. Instead, it made it dependent on external capital – i.e. Western loans – and on imported raw materials – mostly from Africa and the Middle East.

In the world markets, Romania became a member of the IMF and World Bank during the 1970s, a decade ahead of any other member of COMECON. On the other hand, the proportion of Romania’s trade with the Third World also increased dramatically, especially since most of it was not conducted in hard currency. By the late 1970s, claiming that the complete repayment of Romania’s external debt required belt tightening, Ceausescu imposed a drastic regime of energy conservation - that meant cold winters even in Bucharest, unusable public transportation vehicles (with gas as energy), and, ultimately, a dramatic system of denying access to health care to old persons and refusal to register infants before they survived to the age of one year, so that infant mortality rates could go unnoticed. On the other hand, the immediate post – 1989 regime did inherit a debt free treasury.

Now, the Cuban regime has to face the reality that its largest and most labor intensive industry, sugar, is for all intents and purposes dead. With that, the regime has to deal with hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of un – and under – employed, this in a regime whose claim to legitimacy depends on the “right to work.” Just as in the case of Romania’s workers – miners in 1974 and Brasov factory workers in 1987, whose anti – regime demonstrations did shake the elites’ confidence, it is this mass, disorganized as it may be, that presents the most immediate threat to the stability, if not the safety of the regime. Just how threatening are those masses of former sugar industry employees and their families?

A case has been made, by people more familiar than this author on Cuban affairs that the sugar industry’s “leftovers” are not organized – but, then, the Timeshare protesters of 1989 involved Romanians, Serbs and Hungarians, all unorganized, normally expected to be at odds, Orthodox and Protestant, Hungarian, Romanian and Serb, who provided the spark, not the cause of regime change – to use a fashionable term. And spark is the key word. The sugar workers families and members’ rioting in location x and being shot at by FAR or police, or beaten up by the Blass Rica Brigades has a better chance of being known, even seen, by the rest of Cuba, than the already media – privileged Romanian protesters of Timeshare.

After all, even in Timeshare the media played a major role – due to its geographic location on the then – liberal, almost “free” Yugoslavia, access to Italian (understood by most locals) TV via Yugoslavia, the local population was far better informed about the developments in the rest of the Warsaw Pact that any other region of the country.

Tourism is a most ideologically sensitive industry because there are limits to the controls that could be imposed on visitors’ contacts with the locals. In addition, tourism in Romania, and even more now in Cuba, is also the largest single corrupting factor for police and even secret police cadres.

Ceausescu was often received in Paris, London, Bonn and, in Washington by President Jimmy Carter, who claimed that they both supported the same “values.” That comment referred to Ceausescu’s foreign policy at the time, which was predicated upon magnifying, but not exacerbating, differences with Moscow and its problematic relationship with the Soviet-controlled Warsaw Pact. Bucharest’s foreign policy was expressed by its close political and ideological relations with the Non-Alignment Group. While some Westerners were wary at the time, the general Western perception was that it was genuine, important, and to be encouraged. Today, many in the West (Europe and Canada come to mind) and some in the United States also claim that “bringing Cuba into the fold”—which could mean its membership in the WTO or OAS or the lifting of the U.S. embargo to permit free trade with Havana—would make the Castro regime “milder.” The debate over the political impact of sanctions continues in the US and pretends to be sustained in Canada and Europe – and it disregards the Romanian case, of limited analogical power, perhaps, but useful still. A debate over this issue may be useful - this author doubts it – but it remains outside the scope of this paper.

The Ceausescu experience suggests that that is not the case – to the contrary – and so does the Cuban case. The Bucharest regimes engaged in a massive, financially disastrous campaign of industrialization with loans and financing from the IMF and IBRD, but as a result of the loans felt that it had to increase repression internally, since dissent could now be exploited by the West as violation of human rights. Indeed, the mid-1970s admission of Romania into the IMF and IBRD coincided with its regime’s most repressive phase. Cuba’s growing economic ties with, and financing by European and Canadian interests certainly did not lead to a more open political system on the island, which raises the logical question – why should a similar opening to American economic interests lead to different results? So far, in the opinion of this author, the proponents have not made their case – in regard to Cuba or Romania. Should Cuba be allowed to do what Ceausescu’s Romania did in the 1970s, the similar internal dynamics of the regime would most likely force a more drastic crackdown on dissidents, since Cuba would want to represent itself as secure to foreign investors.

The Nature of the End and its Protagonists

In Romania the security of the system was based upon the assumption that the numerous, well – armed internal security services were loyal to the ruling clan—a dubious assumption, as it turned out. Indeed, in December 1989, barely a month after Ceausescu was unanimously reelected as PCR president, a popular revolt in the provincial city of Timisoara was followed by similar unrest in the capital and the industrial region of Transylvania. Thus began the chain of events that in a matter of days would lead to the collapse of the regime.

It is important, and essential, for the understanding of the immediate events of 1989, to remember that after the initial outburst of riots, Ceausescu left the country for a brief trip to Iran and left Elena in charge. That brief absence was decisive, because it left a vacuum at the center of power. It also demonstrated the lack of any understanding of the situation on the part of the ruling couple, and, thus, the failure of the secret police to inform them.

As the regime was ending amid revolt, all top Romanian military leaders—first the Minister of Defense, Vasile Milea, and then his deputies Stefan Gusa and Victor Athanasie Stanculescu —refused (or avoided executing) orders to fire on demonstrators, and Milea was killed (or committed suicide) in suspicious circumstances. Equally important, the entire officer corps followed their behavior. There was no disobedience to the order to join the rather disorganized anti – regime groups, some simple mobs, to transfer loyalty to the still mysterious “National Salvation Front” or to disarm and/or take over the control of Securitate units throughout the country.

That left the heavily armed and presumably more loyal Securitate network - border and presidential guard forces (to which there is no parallel in Cuba, where the FAR have the absolute, physical and legal, monopoly of force, the Blas Roca Brigades, the equivalent of Ceausescu’s “workers’ militias,” notwithstanding). But not one of the Securitate units as such defended the collapsing regime. 2 The reasons for the Securitate’s refusal to fight appear to have included the conviction that they could not win against the army and populace; that they morale was already badly shaken by the collapse of communist regimes throughout the region; and that their leaders were either incompetent or divided, and many captured by the military in the first hours of the revolt in Bucharest.

The Ceausescu regime collapsed when the military and internal security force leaders refused to support it. Is this relevant for Cuba’s transition? The answer is somewhat ambiguous, since the two sets of forces had different roles in the two cases. Cuba’s internal security (MININT) forces have been destroyed as an independent entity since the Ochoa/Abrantes affairs in 1989, leaving only the Revolutionary Armed Forces (FAR). Ironically, since even Ceausescu’s own Securitate forces proved to be less than dependable, that may make no difference in the post-Castro transition. The FAR, however, are quite different in their political and economic status from the unpaid, humiliated, and badly equipped Romanian military of 1989. They now have a decisive economic stake in a mixed economy, through their extensive participation in the tourism and other industries, more often than not jointly as partners of European and Canadian investors. They thus have less to lose in a transition to free markets, provided their interests are protected.

A legitimate question is why should FAR officers’ corps take that risk? The answer is that it depends on the alternative – ruthlessly suppressing popular riots, no matter how disorganized, may in fact increase the risks for those officers’ career, welfare and perhaps freedom, not to mention their own and their institution’s social prestige; doing nothing, or supporting the collapse of the regime, like their Romanian counterparts did, would strengthen both.

But what happened to the Romanian Communist Party - the “leading force in society” as the Constitution proclaimed it to be? The simple answer is that it had absolutely no role in December 1989.

In retrospect, even before its demise, the Ceausescu regime exhibited certain pathologies strikingly similar to those of Castro’s regime. These included the defections, ideological or indeed physical, and purges mentioned above. Many of these started in the 1970s, and included defections to the West of sons of prominent regime leaders. More importantly, after being removed as the PCR’s ideologue in 1971, Ion Iliescu began to establish relations with others who had fallen from grace, such as general Nicolae Militaru, a former chief of staff, and former politicians such as former foreign minister Corneliu Manescu, former prime minister Ion Maurer and ideologue Silviu Brucan, all of whom published, in the West, a letter critical of Ceausescu (March 1989). It appears that the fact that house arrest was their only punishment, was interpreted as an expression of regime weakness - and may have encouraged others to at least avoid involvement in December 1989.

Castro’s removal of Robaina, and even more so that of Ochoa and Abrantes must have led to the alienation of many in the internal security service and the military, people who now form a pool of highly trained, well-educated, and possibly disloyal elements, out of influence now, but inevitably retaining contacts inside. As the recent Hidalgo defection, and some other recent ones may suggest, there are serious breaches in the regime’s security and ability to control.

Whether the removal of Iliescu in 1971, or of his (retired) elders (Meniscus, Military, Maurer, Bruce) by 1989 was a matter of “normal” elite rotation – as was, as some allege, the purge of the Ochoa’s, De la Guardians, Abates, Robins, Hidalgos, etc, or one of grunge – based purges is something one may argue about. But, in the case of Romania all the evidence suggests, indeed proves - even if Iliescu’s personal role is put aside – such high level purges lead to those purged retaining both their influence in certain elite circles and, at then very least, their contacts there.

To claim, as some commentators did, that the purge of a Romania is just a “normal”, “old hat” “elite mobility move” is anachronistic – at the predictable end of a regime, like Castro’s is, such people cannot simply be dismissed as individuals – they are, whether academics like or not, represent factions within the PCC. One may argue about that – and this is an open argument play -or not – but one needs a political argument, not an academic criticism of it.

In both case/s the decay of the Party’s role – through the impact of time and especially through its obvious subordination to the leader – was paralleled by the even more obvious decline of its “transmission belts” the youth and women organizations and trade unions. That further cut it from the population at large, especially from a youth interested in rock in Romania, and rap in Cuba, rather than in ideology – any ideology.

The chain of events that led to the collapse of the Ceausescu regime was regional. Romania’s collapse followed that of Communism in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, East Germany, and Bulgaria, and was decisively influenced by the attitude of Moscow. The end of Castroism, when it comes, will take place in a Latin American, rather than East European context, one increasingly defined by capitalist globalization and by a still strong, albeit declining, support for democracy among Cuba’s neighbors. A brief examination of the nature of Romania’s transition since 1989 may serve to reinforce the point.

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