Fidel Castro, asesor electoral / Ibsen Martínez

Fidel Castro, Electoral Consultant


Fidel Castro has placed his extensive experience as an electoral observer and forecaster at the service of Hugo Chávez.

Few political leaders in the world have followed, step by step, minutely and exhaustively, as many electoral processes as the Cuban dictator has since he took power in 1959.

For him, it has not been strictly about accurately predicting who will be the new president of the United States every four years. Rather, it has been for crucial reasons of survival and in order to update the changing political map of the Latin American nations from time to time.

Among so many grotesque paradoxes that Latin America knows how to offer, what stands out is the spectacle of the inaugurations of many of our presidents where, invariably, the star is the ancient dictator of Cuba, a country which has not known a presidential election for over fifty years—if you take into consideration the fact that the previous Cuban dictator, Fulgencio Batista, led a coup in 1952, precisely in order to interrupt elections.

Perhaps the diplomatic formality of inviting the Cuban dictator to an inauguration is the rhetorical and less expensive way for a Latin American leader to declare his anti-imperialist vocation.

Naturally, as soon as Castro returns to Havana the elected leader is free to do whatever he chooses. What counts is the gesture. What counts is inviting the guilty brother and seating him at a table as close as possible to the North American ambassador, even though immediately afterwards one proceeds to set into motion an electrocuting plan of economic adjustments of a decidedly IMF bent.

In this respect, we should remember the coronation of Carlos Andrés Pérez in February 1989, and how Castro literally charmed the vain ladies of the Country Club set, just days before the “Caracazo.”

And I suspect that for Castro this business of attending inaugurations is not merely an embrace of diplomatic protocol and of the spirit of community among neighboring nations whose political models differ from one another.

No, the elections in our countries are extremely important to Castro, and that is why he follows them so very closely. And when he can, he does whatever possible to have an influence on the results.

Since 1959 there has been no shortage of candidates in our countries who, being more or less inclined toward the left, enjoy an occasional majority of sympathizers and who threaten the status quo.

Sometimes they’ve won, sometimes they haven’t. Invariably, Castro has bet in favor of them despite having always shown, in public and in private, his dislike of representative democracy. A dislike which he expresses in a doctrinarian manner through his well known and strong words about the corruption of the “bourgeois” political parties, in his preference for what chavista talk calls “direct democracy” and for the mobilization of masses around slogans that descend from above, etc, all of these traits being favorites of totalitarian autocrats, whether their name is Benito, Adolf or Fidel.

One does not need to read the stupendous biography of Fidel Castro, written almost two decades ago by Tad Szulc, in order to know how Castro keeps himself updated when it comes to elections in our countries. It would be enough to simply ask any “star” politician or journalist, Latin American or otherwise, who has visited Cuba and has engaged in conversation with Castro.

Since the Cuban dictator is not exactly a foolish right field dreamer, over time he has become a well versed reader of polls, a very subtle interpreter of electoral tendencies. It is not an exaggeration to say that, if by chance Fidel Castro were to be without a job someday, he could very well establish himself as a Latin American electoral consultant, alongside such well established names as Joe Napolitan.

However, in contrast to the electoral consultants that we’ve known throughout four decades of democratic life, Castro would not be prolific regarding ideas for publicity. He would most likely be, to use the terminology of that field, a “USP” consultant—for Unique Sales Proposition—: a consultant with a single proposal for sale. And his recommendation would always be—in fact, this is true right now—the same: “Don’t count yourself.”


My speculation ends up being suggestively consistent with what, according to a testimony attributed to Luis Miquilena, the Cuban dictator recommended to Chávez a long time ago.

Of course, there’s no shortage of analysts today who will speak against consummated events and who will insist that in 1979, when the Somoza dictatorship was recently defeated, Castro would have advised the Sandinistas to call for elections immediately, in order to take advantage of the enormous support that they enjoyed among the Nicaraguan people at that time.

The truth is that, set in the trance of an election they had no chance of winning, that “Don’t count yourselves” was the only advice—not to say direct order—that Castro gave the Sandinistas, at the risk of losing absolute power and becoming—this is the most serious matter, from a revolutionary’s point of view—what they are today: another political party, subject to the changes in democratic life, which are organized by constitutional cycles, by the rules for political parties, by the norms that condition reelection, etc. Joaquín Villalobos, the former Salvadoran guerrilla leader who in the eighties led one of the most successful military factions of the Frente Farabundo Martí, carries with him what might be the most illuminating experience regarding Castro and his expectations for the recall referendum that, far from his liking and despite all of his tricks, is now falling on top of Chávez.

At the end of a bloody war that took 40,000 Salvadoran lives in one decade, Villalobos—along with other guerrilla commanders—opted for a negotiated exit from the armed conflict, which would lead to a general election and to the normalization of political life in his country. Many important sectors from the right and from the military agreed, from their own perspectives, with his decision.

Eventually, a difficult peace process was put into action. It was a process which would end one of the most bloody “low intensity” conflicts that characterized the final phase of the Cold War.

How did Fidel Castro take the news that one of the most formidable guerrilla armies he has ever supported—almost 20,000 armed soldiers—was willing to negotiate a peace accord and to discuss, the horror!, terms under which it would participate in a general election? Villalobos’ life has been, up until now, an exceptional Latin American biography, in regards to superlative transformations: from a mythical guerrilla commander in whose “honor” the very own CIA established an entire unit dedicated exclusively to accomplishing his physical elimination, he has gone on to become, today, a respected international expert in the negotiation of peace processes, who is studying for a doctorate in Political Science at Oxford. It was there, a few weeks ago, that I asked him that question: “How did Fidel take it?”

“With nearly 300 injured fighters permanently rotating through his military hospitals, and with all the resources he gave us for years, I traveled to Havana frequently,” Villalobos replied, “and I sustained long conversations with him (Fidel Castro).

“At first, when I informed him of our intention to go to a peace process, I noticed that his opinions and advice were those of someone who assumed that we were planning for a truce in order to regroup and accumulate our forces for a final assault. But when he heard about the elections, that’s when I didn’t see him again.” I then wanted to know if he said “I didn’t see him again” figuratively. Villalobos told me emphatically that no, he was speaking literally: “I spoke to him about elections and I never heard from him again. Up until this very day.”


In a stroke of bad luck for Fidel Castro, Chávez, the man who couldn’t take Miraflores Palace by force, had to end up being a poor executor of his only recommendation.

Setting aside the politically relevant fact that the referendum which Chávez tries so desperately to derail was his own invention, it is enough to observe the clumsy arbitrariness with which he has attempted—fruitlessly, if we study it closely—to place obstacle after obstacle against an electoral solution to our crisis.

It is true that, in the process, he has acquired almost all-encompassing powers, but only at the price of losing his legitimacy exactly when a decidedly electoral climate is about to install itself in Venezuela.

I write these notes before the start of the signature repair process scheduled for the weekend. But, independent of their outcome, it is clear that we have reached this stage thanks to the unified purpose which the democratic sectors of the opposition have made prevail. That purpose brings with it a defeat, not only for the militaristic right that craftily kidnapped the civic efforts of the opposition in April 2002, but also for the regime’s main electoral consultant.

How long will the always-pragmatic Fidel Castro take before electorally abandoning his student?

{ Ibsen Martínez, El Nacional, 31 May 2004 }

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