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This interview (conducted on August 15, 2013) is the second in a series of discussions with American and international policymakers who have been involved with efforts to advance freedom and democracy. We continue the series with a three-part conversation with Elliott Abrams. This third section of the interview covers Cuba and the democratic decline in Latin America. Read part one of the conversation, Leadership and Freedom, here.  Read part two, Syria and Post-Conflict Democracies, here.


FS: Would you have ever thought when you were Assistant Secretary for Human Rights in 1981 that Fidel Castro would still be alive and another Castro would be running Cuba over thirty years later? And how do you think Cuba will transition out of Castro rule?


Abrams: I thought that Castro would fall after the collapse of the Soviet Empire. And I certainly had that one wrong. I’m surprised that the regime is still completely intact in 2013. I fear that the regime will be able to hold on, frankly, using brute force with the army and the police to prevent any real evolution toward democracy after Fidel and Raul are dead. One of the reasons I fear it is that had they both died at a moment of democratic expansion in Latin America it might have been hard for the system to remain in place, but we’re now seeing democratic contraction. Places like Bolivia, Ecuador, and Venezuela are really not democratic countries at this point. Neither is Nicaragua. You see unfortunate steps, for example, to squelch freedom of the press in Argentina.


There are a lot of examples where democracy is weaker in 2013 than it was perhaps ten years ago. That would suggest that if the Castros were to go now, there are models that aren’t democratic that Cuba might adopt in an effort to maintain the regime. Although, I have to say, in these other cases you usually have a charismatic leader at the top, and I don’t know who the charismatic leader would be after Fidel is gone. Raul I think can keep the system in place. But after they are both gone, it will be a challenge for the regime. I think  there are things we can do to make sure it doesn’t happen that way. In other words, so that the communist party apparat and Cuban military cannot hang on to a viciously anti-democratic tyrannical form of government. I fear that there is going to be a reaction not just on the part of countries in Latin America but also on the part of Europe that “Oh, ok, the Castros are gone. Not even the Americans have an excuse for being mean to Cuba and having a boycott.” I would hope we can organize, starting with European allies and Canada, a way to increase the pressure because that would be the moment at which we really ought to try and collapse the tyrannical system and force a move toward a more open and democratic system.


FS: There’s been a great deal of writing about how Venezuela really stepped in to save Castro by providing cheap energy supplies, political support, and financial support. That it was really Chavez who allowed the Castros to survive those periods of extreme stress to the Cuban system when they lost Soviet subsidies. I’m curious if it will be a hand-in-hand project, that when the Chavista regime goes, the Castro regime might fall as well?


Abrams: It’s probably a matter of sequencing. I don’t think that while Fidel and Raul are alive even the collapse of the Chavista system tomorrow morning would collapse the Cuban system, but I think you are absolutely right in saying that the survival of that system has depended on large part on the subventions from Venezuela. If you subtract Fidel, Raul and Venezuela, then there’s a great moment when we might be able to help force change by not permitting the bailout of that system by international financial institutions or other donors. Because it will collapse at that point, if no one gives it financial aid.


Elliott Abrams is senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) in Washington, D.C. He served as deputy assistant to the president and deputy national security adviser in the administration of President George W. Bush, where he supervised U.S. policy in the Middle East for the White House.