Latin America Advisor

A Daily Publication of The Dialogue

Does Fidel’s Death Pave the Way for Change in Cuba?

Fidel Castro, the Cuban revolutionary who outlived many of the U.S. presidents he bedeviled, died Nov. 25 at age 90.

Fidel Castro, who led the revolution that overthrew Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959 and transformed Cuba into a one-party communist state, bedeviling 11 U.S. presidents and at one point bringing the world to the brink of nuclear war, died Nov. 25 at age 90 after years of declining health. His brother Raúl, to whom he officially ceded Cuba's presidency in 2008, has said he would step down from the presidency in 2018. Will Fidel's death pave the way for any significant political or economic changes in Cuba? What is on the horizon for Cuba's political system, with one of the Castro brothers gone and the other pledging to step down in two years? Will the revolution's ideals remain intact with the changing of the guard?

Peter Hakim, member of the Advisor board and president emeritus of the Inter-American Dialogue: "Great flux and uncertainty characterize Cuba today. Beyond the death of Fidel Castro, who shaped Cuban life and politics for six decades, the island is still awkwardly adjusting to its new relationship with the United States. It will soon have to deal with a very different U.S. administration, one that may oppose reconciliation. Raúl Castro’s 10-year presidency is supposed to end in 2018. And, as Venezuela nears economic collapse, an already shaky Cuban economy may lose its primary source of hard currency. These complex, intersecting developments make it almost impossible to forecast what comes next in Cuba’s evolution. Cuba’s politics are hardly transparent, and Donald Trump is impulsive and capricious, regularly shifting his views on issues, people and policies. Cuban politics are unpredictable because they are opaque. Trump is opaque because he is so unpredictable. With that disclaimer, it is reasonable to expect Fidel’s death to give Raúl more independence, allowing him, at a minimum, to pursue the essential economic reforms that he has long proposed. Yet, Raúl may now have to reinforce his authority. It may not be the time to disregard his brother’s apparent resistance to political or economic opening. Cuban suspicion of U.S. intentions will rise with Trump, and Raúl will surely defy any White House pressure for changes. It would seem highly irrational of Trump to reverse course on Cuba. What for? There is no serious political or economic gain. Outside of Miami, where Cuban-Americans are divided, Cuba is of little interest. Why force losses on U.S. airlines and tourist industries? Why destroy Cuba’s embryonic but promising private sector and dash the hopes of millions of other Cubans? Why aggravate relations with Latin America? Well, Cuba is where Trump can display his authority and show the world that he is ready to use American power. Whatever costs are involved, they will be far less than acting against Mexico, China or Iran. Still, after all is said and done, my best guess is that not much will change. Reform will remain at a snail’s pace in Cuba and the United States will not offer any further concessions."

Arturo Lopez-Levy, lecturer at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley: "Fidel Castro’s death will have more symbolic than tangible effects on the economic reform and political liberalization taking place in Cuba. The reform process is sustainable because Cuban civil society is more market-oriented, more connected with the rest of the world, more autonomous from the state and more pluralistic than at any other time after 1959 in social, economic, cultural and political terms. Losing Fidel Castro and the charismatic pillar he represented increases the need for the Cuban Communist Party (CCP) to find new sources of legitimacy (such as through economic performance and limiting corruption) and by reinforcing old ones (nationalism, distribution of social welfare, political order and public security). Nationalism and skepticism about the intentions of the United States, reinforced by Trump’s return to hostile rhetoric, are central paradigms of Cuba’s government. But, important changes in the revolution’s ideals have already occurred. President Raúl Castro has called on the CCP to facilitate economic development without stigmatizing private property, foreign investment and market mechanisms. The expansions of religious liberties and the rights to travel and to own private property are already testing whether a market-oriented economy is ultimately reconcilable with a Leninist party system. The most important test for the one-party system in the short term is the intergenerational transition at the helm of the Cuban party-state between 2018 and 2021. The CCP apparatus and the military seem to be well positioned in support of Miguel Díaz-Canel’s rise to the presidency, while Raúl Castro remains temporarily in charge of the party to reduce frictions within the leadership. The announced succession has heightened expectations for more changes such as a constitutional reform, the adoption of term limits for party and government officials and a flexible attitude toward market competition and political decentralization."

Otto Reich, former assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere Affairs under President George W. Bush and president of Otto Reich Associates: "Anyone trying to predict what will happen in Cuba after Fidel must understand that the Castro family is as fully in control of the island as the Assads are in Syria and the Kims in North Korea. The new head of the ruling family, Raúl Castro, will try to keep the ideology and the myth alive as much as possible, but the principal purpose of the Castro’s rule from the outset was to hold power. Staying in power by force is the only thing that mattered. Nothing else has worked: even the military jeep carrying Fidel’s ashes to their final resting place broke down and had to be pushed by soldiers. Raúl has said he would step down as president in 2018, but not as secretary general of the Communist Party, the regime’s most important position. He will remain behind the scenes in the role of Big Brother, just as Fidel did before him. Meanwhile, Raúl has spent the eight years since he took over the family business from Fidel placing his designated successors in key positions. The two most important institutions of any totalitarian regime are the secret police and the military-industrial conglomerate. Raúl has his son, Col. Alejandro Castro Espín, and his former son-in-law, Gen. Luis Alberto Rodríguez López-Callejas, respectively, as his trustees in those positions: Alejandro as head of counterintelligence (domestic espionage) at both the ministries of Interior and of Armed Forces, and Luis Alberto, the father of his grandchildren, as manager of GAESA, which controls 70 percent of Cuba’s economy, including all of the tourist sector which, thanks to President Obama’s unilateral concessions, is now the largest single contributor to Cuba’s GDP. Those are not indications of ‘hope and change’ for the Cuban people, but of the continuation of the longest-lasting military dictatorship in the history of the Americas. The ‘Revolution’ died long before Fidel. What is left is an empty uniform."

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