Last week's commemorations of the 200th anniversary of the battle of Waterloo brought to mind a satirical poem, The Expiation, written by Victor Hugo about the decline of Napoleon Bonaparte's glory. The poem kicks off with a reference to the French emperor's first major military reversal: the fiasco of his Russian campaign in 1812. Aware that the retreat would severely hobble his ambitions to rule the European continent, Napoleon in the poem wonders whether the setback was inflicted by a divine force in retribution for some of his wrongdoings. He asks the God of armies: "Is this my punishment?" A mysterious voice replies, "No."
Cue the Waterloo rout. Napoleon asks once again the same question, and again hears the same voice telling him, "No".
After Waterloo, the dethroned emperor suffered the humiliation of exile at Saint Helena, a British territory where he counted the last of his days guarded by the troops of his archenemy, England. This time Napoleon is left with no doubt, and he apostrophizes Providence: "Oh Lord, to whom I beg, this is my punishment!" The enigmatic voice replied in no less emphatic a tone: "Not yet!"
In Victor Hugo's poem, the real punishment came after Napoleon's death. It consisted in leaving as his political heir a figure lacking brilliance and charisma, namely his nephew, Napoleon III, who established the so-called Second Empire in 1852 by means of a coup d'état.
Hugo famously utilized his rhetorical skills to overemphasize Napoleon III's deficiencies. All the same, The Expiation turned out to be a premonitory poem: Two decades after it was written, Napoleon III led France to a major defeat in the Franco-Prussian War (1870), which irreversibly wiped Bonapartism off the European geopolitical chessboard.
Ghosts of Hugo in Latin America
More than a century later, a similar chain of setbacks has been at work in the so-called Cuban Revolution, which has held power since 1959.
The disintegration of the Soviet bloc was to the Castro regime something very similar to what the Russian campaign's failure meant for Napoleon. It brought an end to the assistance the Soviet Union extended to Cuba's dysfunctional economy and, no less important, it shattered the myth of the superiority of socialism over capitalism - a quintessential dogma of the Revolution. In the same way, the outcome of the Russian campaign represented the fall of the myth of Napoleon's invincibility.
The end of Soviet aid forced the Cuban regime to impose draconian economic restrictions on the population during what was called the Special Period (the last decade of the 20th century). That period had a point in common with Napoleon's exile in the island of Elba: In both cases, the prospects of regime survival were near to nil.
And yet, in the same way Napoleon managed to return to power during the so-called Hundred Days government after his exile on Elba, so the Castro regime has managed to survive - and for a much longer period - thanks to the transfusion of $5 million to $15 billion per year from Hugo Chavez's Venezuela. Aid and investment from Venezuela contribute an estimated 22 percent of Cuba's gross domestic product.
The problem is that Chavez's so-called 21st Century socialism has wrought havoc on Venezuela's economy. Not even that country's huge reserves of oil - the biggest in the world - can sooth Venezuela's economic despair.
The Castro brothers know the assistance coming from Caracas is bound to vanish; indeed, it is thinning already. And with no new benefactor on the horizon, the Cuban regime has had no other choice than to bet on the development of commercial, financial, and technological ties with the United States.
The Castro regime and like-minded Latin American allies have tried to frame the thaw in Cuba's diplomatic relations with Washington as a major success of the Revolution. But the resumption and development of economic ties with the United States may instead prove to be the Castro brothers' Waterloo. Indeed, here you have a regime whose raison d'être was to do away with capitalism, but it is now obliged to tie its fate to the capitalist economy par excellence - its own archenemy.
The bet is risky. As economic links with the United States grow, it will be difficult for Cuba's ruling class to limit those ties without jeopardizing their country's fragile economy. This foreseeable dependence on the U.S. economy will, in turn, give future U.S. governments a powerful tool to push for concrete and meaningful progress in regards to the respect of human rights and free enterprise in Cuba - concessions that could sound the death knell for the island's repressive political order. Just as Napoleon Bonaparte spent his last days under the watch of enemy troops in Saint Helena, so the Castro brothers will live out their last years fighting the encroachment of political and economic liberalization in Cuba.
Today's tropical socialism has, too, its Napoleon III. His name is Nicolas Maduro, the current president of Venezuela who to a significant extent is a creation of the Castro regime. Not only was Maduro trained in the Cuban schools of agitprop, he was also anointed president of Venezuela - with the lobbying of the Castro brothers - by a moribund Hugo Chavez with waning intellectual faculties who was receiving medical treatment in Cuba.
The role of the Cuban regime in bringing Maduro to power crystallizes the economic ineptitude of the Castro brothers.
In 1959, the regime inherited Latin America's third economy by measure of per capita GDP. They wrecked it in a few years by putting in place a socialist model that had succeeded nowhere in the world. When Hugo Chavez assumed power in Venezuela in 1999, they acquired a decisive influence over that country. They allowed and probably encouraged the Venezuelan leader to repeat the same mistakes that had stifled the Cuban economy.
Finally, when given the opportunity to make amends and advise a moribund Chavez to appoint a successor with a minimum ability to run a country's economy, they advocated instead for their own pawn, Maduro, a man visibly mesmerized by the Cuban Revolution but demonstrably lacking the skills needed to form a coherent economic policy (as even prominent Chavistas have begun openly to acknowledge).
Napoleon Bonaparte died in 1821 - well before his political legacy was squandered by his nephew, Napoleon III. The Castro brothers have not been so lucky: They have lived long enough to witness the irreparable damage caused by their pupil, Nicolas Maduro, to whatever remained of popular sympathy for Latin American socialism. This, more than any other setback or defeat, is the worst punishment that destiny will have inflicted on the brothers who have tyrannically ruled Cuba for over half a century.