As The Eagles’ so aptly put in their song Hotel California, “some dance to remember, some dance to forget.”
Fidel Castro’s long-awaited death has caused tears of sorrow in Havana, and tears of joy in Miami. Regardless of one’s opinion of the eccentric “El Lider Maximo” of Cuba, his death signifies a symbolic transitory period, indicating the end an era where the country was once a crucial actor in the Cold War, and an intense enemy of the United States for decades. For many in Cuba, Fidel’s death presents an opportunity for Cuba to endeavor on a path of sustainability, economic progress, globalization, and a chance to escape the failed shackles of caudillo politics.
There is no doubt that the state-sponsored nine-day mourning will have a profound emotional effect on the island. It may even have a stronger political effect as the Communist Party seeks to further solidify its strength in the country. However, it is important to note that Fidel’s death will lead to no radical change in the nature of Cuba’s government and its hardline political and economic policies. For the past 10 years, Fidel’s brother and closest confidante, Raúl Castro, has been running the show in Cuba. It is unfair to say that the future of Cuba under Raúl will be as dim as it was under Fidel; Raúl has already made instrumental steps toward healthier economic policies and geopolitical relationships, and his own ambitions and goals will set the course for Cuba’s future. Thus, before Raúl’s expected retirement as President of Cuba in 2018, he will likely preserve the key structure of his brother’s ideology within the regime, while striving to stabilize its features in order to adapt it to an ever-changing world.
A State of Despair
Cuba needs a leader dedicated not just to an ideological set of beliefs, but also to the promotion of a robust and stable economy. While Fidel’s egalitarian efforts led to improved healthcare and education, Cuba’s economy suffered enormously under his watch. Beginning in the early 1960’s, Cuba was bankrolled by the Soviet Union due to the island’s extremely important status as an ideological base in a hemisphere of American dominance. With an economy dependent upon Soviet support, the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989 also resulted in a collapse of Cuba’s economy. Without a formidable ally to ensure their economic security, and without a proper plan to jumpstart the economy, Cuba has been on life support throughout the past quarter century. The Cuban people are plagued with a lack of basic necessities, including food, medicine, and clothing. These hardships are only amplified in supermarkets and grocery stores, where citizens must wait in lines for hours to get basic food items. The decline of the country’s once vibrant agricultural industry has exacerbated this problem, and the island now imports more than 70 to 80 percent of its food.
In an effort to rectify the damage done by the Soviet collapse, Cuba has once again leveraged its position to depend on other nations—this time China and Venezuela. Neither of those countries have been able to solve the deeper problems facing Cuba. Venezuela itself faces crisis as falling oil prices have derailed its economy.
Oddly enough, the plan of action Cuba needs to implement now is nearly identical to the one proposed in late 1960 by Adolf Berle, an American diplomat and important member of President Franklin Roosevelt’s “Brain Trust”. Just like today, Berle acknowledged that “preachments about…private enterprise and investment and the usefulness of foreign capital [are]…a little silly,” and that while both private and foreign investment has helped, it alone cannot rescue Cuba from economic oblivion. In order to sustain any economic future, Cuba now has to have its own government emphasize the importance of technology. Berle defended this policy when he wrote that “chief capital developments have to be carried on…by public enterprise.”
Raúl: Behind the Scenes
In stark contrast to his eccentric and blustering showman of his brother, Raúl Castro has often been the sensible force residing in Cuba’s government. While Fidel was an ideological stalwart who used his charisma and powerful personality to rule Cuba, Raúl is known to be a much more reserved, deliberate and organized bureaucrat.
With his quiet presence, after more than a decade in power, Raúl has simultaneously expanded the dictatorial power of the presidency and pushed Cuba in progressive directions. Unable to ensure the dependence of the Cuban people due to his lackluster personality, Raúl has made political and security control within his government harsher than under Fidel. With his inclination toward Chinese and Vietnamese-style economics, he has also been more realistic and pragmatic on economic issues—proven when last year, he reached an unexpected agreement with President Obama in order to end a half-century of tension, and to open economic barriers that have significantly impaired Cuba’s growth for decades.
Politically, Raúl has helped the country by kicking out some of Fidel’s long-time advisors in exchange for his own trusted staff—a defiant move towards eradicating corruption within the government. He also has set limits on presidential terms and promised to step down as President of Cuba in 2018—in order for his named successor, Miguel Diaz-Canel, to assume the role.
With regard to the economy, Raúl’s envisions a continuation of the ideological revolutionary principles he and his brother fought for, applied (with reservations) to build “a prosperous and sustainable socialism.” The development of more progressive economic policy will be aided by his efforts, and could go great lengths towards finally steadying the unruly Cuban economy.
Economy Under Raúl
Upon Raúl’s assumption of the reins of the government in 2006, he noted that the country needed to transition to a more sustainable economy that embraced both technology and self-sufficiency, and he was absolutely right. In order to fundamentally improve the economy, Cuba must stop depending on China and other foreign governments. Chinese aid has borne little result because Cuba does not need any more investment from external powers—it needs an economic reconfiguration and transformation in order to address the perpetual decay that troubles Cuban industry. In order to adapt to the 21st century world economy, Cuba will have to step away from its heavy reliance on sugar, and continue to broaden its technological prowess by increasing broadband access and teaching digital skills to its youth.
While still retaining strong government control over the economy, Raúl has tried to turn his economic aspirations for the country into reality. He has begun reshaping Cuba’s socialist programs by injecting market-style economic reforms. On a macroeconomic scale, Raúl has increased and encouraged small private enterprises. After 15 years of a stagnant number of entrepreneurs in Cuba (roughly 150,000), in 2011 the number increased to 357,000, and was estimated to be approximately 550,000 in December 2015. The loosening of travel restriction has been another popular reform under Raúl, which now allows Cuban citizens to travel abroad freely for up to two years without losing citizenship status. His efforts to increase international cooperation and relationships have been well-received as well, especially when he co-negotiated the end of the diplomatic standoff with the United States.
Many scholars contend that Fidel’s presence was holding Raúl’s reforms back, and now that Fidel is dead more sweeping mandates will lead the country to a more prosperous future. While Raúl has no doubt slowly whittled away some of the failed Communist policies of his brother, it is foolish to believe that Fidel’s entire ideology will be discarded upon his death by the Cuban government or people. Such wishful American thinking represents Fidel’s radical philosophy, and not Raúl’s thoughtful pragmatism. In all likelihood, Cuba will keep to the same path it has been on under Raúl. Fidel will continue to serve as a captivating symbol to represent the spirit of the government in death as he did in life, but Raúl’s lack of charisma, and Cuba’s prolonged economic woes, will require him to make the island economically viable in order to justify continued Communist Party control.
Image Source: Wikimedia Commons/Estudios Revolución Consejo de Estado de Cuba