The limited economic changes introduced by Gen. Raúl Castro in Cuba following the decades-long rule of his brother, the revolutionary communist Fidel Castro, encouraged some observers to proclaim the end of communism and the dismantling of the totalitarian system in the island. Notwithstanding Raúl Castro’s own statements that he was not elected to restore capitalism, these observers insisted on their belief that economic reforms would be deepened and Cuba would march merrily toward capitalism, or at least toward a Chinese-style capitalism.
If the objectives of the Castro government were truly to move toward a market economy, it would not limit, as it presently does, economic enterprises to some 200 relatively insignificant activities (e.g., barbershops, shoe shining, pizza parlors); or lease vacant lands to farmers to produce mostly subsistence agriculture; or refuse to liberalize the real estate and auto markets. In addition, the onerous taxes, regulations, and license fees imposed on the enterprises that are now afforded greater freedom are not conducive to the development of a prosperous and free market.
It is very difficult for Castro to reject his brother’s legacy of political and economic centralization. Raúl’s legitimacy is based on his status as Fidel’s heir. Any major move to reject Fidel’s “teachings” would create uncertainty among Cuba’s ruling elites—both the party and the military. It could also increase instability: Some would advocate rapid change, while others would cling to more orthodox policies. Cubans might see this as an opportunity for mobilization, demanding faster reforms.
For Castro, it would seem the uncertainties associated with uncorking the genie’s bottle of reform in Cuba are far too great; better to keep the lid on and move cautiously. For the past five decades, political considerations have always driven the economic decisions of the communist leadership in the island.
But at 86 years of age, Castro appears content to muddle through these difficult times, introducing limited changes and maintaining tight political control and continuous repression. His aim is to pacify an increasingly unhappy population and to prevent a social explosion, not to transform Cuba into a capitalist society. By his actions and statements, Castro is signaling that Cuba will remain a failed totalitarian experiment for the foreseeable future.
By relinquishing the presidency to a minor communist-party bureaucrat in early 2018, while remaining as secretary general of the party and de facto leader of the military, Castro is clearly indicating only limited succession, not a transition to new leadership. The new president, Miguel Díaz-Canel, has no military or popular support and will be beholden to the wishes of Castro and his close military allies in the party’s politburo. The recent creation of a military “troika” to rule over the three regions of Cuba is a further example of a militarized succession in the island.
President Barack Obama’s normalization of relations with Cuba had little impact on Castro’s alliance with Iran, Russia, and Venezuela. The closer relations that these countries have developed with Cuba were not affected, nor is their aid conditioned on changes in Cuba. They share with Castro a virulent anti-Americanism as well as a belief that a convergence of the world’s forces is moving against the United States. Despite economic difficulties, Cuba is unwilling to renounce these alliances and accept a role as a small Caribbean country friendly with the U.S.
Since assuming formal power in Cuba in 2006 following Fidel Castro’s illness, Raúl has continued this close alliance with Venezuela, Iran, and China and has expanded military cooperation with, and purchases from, Russia. Venezuela’s vast acquisition of Russian military equipment, the close Venezuela-Iran relationship, and the Cuba-Venezuela alliance are troublesome. Although it is not known if Venezuela is transferring some of the weapons she has purchased to Cuba, Caracas remains an open back door for Cuba’s procurement of sophisticated Russian weapons, and is Cuba’s principal financial backer. The objectives of this alliance are to weaken “U.S. imperialism” and to foster a world with several centers of power.
Cuba has also renewed military cooperation with Russia. Russian economic and diplomatic support have long been important to Cuba. In 2015, Cuba and Russia signed agreements providing the Kremlin with naval and aerial facilities on the island. Russia’s growing presence in the Caribbean, while not directly challenging the U.S. militarily, allows for the projection of Russian power, forces the U.S. to increase her defenses and monitoring capabilities on her southern flank, and heightens the perception in Latin America and elsewhere that the U.S. is being challenged in her own sphere of influence. This, in turn, weakens American influence in the region and encourages anti-American leaders to take positions inimical to U.S. interests. Castro does not seem ready to provide meaningful and irreversible concessions for a long-term U.S.-Cuba normalization. On the other hand, avenues for serious negotiations have never been closed.
Castro is unwilling to renounce the support and close collaboration of countries like Venezuela, China, Iran, North Korea, and Russia in exchange for an uncertain relationship with the U.S. At a time when anti-Americanism is strong in the Middle East and elsewhere, his policies are more likely to remain closer to regimes that are not particularly friendly to the U.S. and that demand little from Cuba in return for generous aid.
Yet in the U.S. there persists the strong belief that economic considerations could influence Cuban policy decisions, and that a deteriorating situation could force the Castro regime to move Cuba toward a market economy and eventually toward political reforms. This has not happened and is not likely to happen.
Many in the U.S. still believe the embargo is the cause of Cuba’s economic ills. This notion has been consistently propagated by the Castro regime in the hope of forcing the U.S. to lift sanctions unilaterally.
In reality, the cause of Cuba’s economic problems is not the embargo, but a failed economic system. Like the Soviet and Eastern European Marxist economies, Cuba’s system is antiquated, inefficient, and corrupt. It does not encourage productivity or individual initiative. If Cuba were to produce and export more, she could buy any products she needed from other countries. For Cuba, the U.S. is the closest but not the cheapest market. What the Castro regime welcomes is American tourists and credits to help the country scrape by without making major economic or political changes.
Castro has a long-term commitment to remaining in power. Compromise is seen as a short-term, sometimes forced, tactical move to achieve long-term strategic objectives. As a result, negotiations with the Cubans are usually of little value, and agreements of short duration.
America’s long-held belief that we can influence Castro’s behavior through negotiations and incentives has been weakened by his unwillingness to provide major concessions to the U.S. He prefers to sacrifice the economic well-being of the Cubans. Neither economic incentives nor punishment has worked with Cuba in the past. Such measures are not likely to work in the future.
Cuba’s smuggling of weapons in a North Korean freighter in 2014, during talks between the U.S. and Cuba aimed at a normalization of relations, indicate Castro’s commitment to internationalism and his willingness to violate international laws to support an ally. As in the 1970s and 1980s, when the Castro brothers played a major role in Africa and the Middle East (with Soviet support), this incident revealed that even without the backing of a major power Cuba is capable of being a player in foreign affairs.
However, today Cuba’s involvement in regional politics is limited, with Castro preferring to work behind the scenes, muting his espousal of anti-Americanism to avoid jeopardizing his chances of getting further unilateral concessions from the U.S.
Speaking in Miami in 2017 after his inauguration, President Donald Trump announced changes to the Obama’s administration’s policy of rapprochement with Cuba. Aware that the Obama approach had produced very limited changes in Cuba’s internal developments or in Havana’s foreign policy, Trump issued regulations that prohibit transactions with businesses controlled by the Cuban government or its military. The new policy also requires that Americans are allowed to travel to Cuba only as part of organized tour groups. Twelve travel categories are allowed, including those involving religious, cultural, or educational purposes.
The new policy reiterates the importance of extraditing fugitives, isolating the Castro regime, weakening its relationship with Venezuela, and preventing the use of the island for drug trafficking. The policy retains some Obama initiatives, such as the establishment of diplomatic relations and the termination of “wet foot, dry foot” immigration. It also keeps open the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay.
The Trump administration argued that restricting transactions with Cuba’s regime-controlled businesses, including hotels that Americans frequent, will force money directly to the Cubans instead of the regime. The aim is to squeeze the Castro government into providing internal changes, including more freedom.
Reacting violently, Castro’s government insisted that:
. . . the United States government resorted to coercive methods of the past, adopting measures to intensify the blockade . . . which not only causes damage and deprivation to the Cuban people and constitutes an undeniable obstacle to the development of our economy, but also affects the sovereignty and interests of other countries, inciting international rejection.
The statement emphasizes that such measures are “destined to fail as has been shown repeatedly in the past.”
U.S. policy toward Cuba has recently become enmeshed in the crisis in Venezuela. Three factors—Washington’s support for the opposition in Venezuela’s bitterly contested election, the humanitarian crisis in the country, and the rise of John Bolton as U.S. national security advisor—have had the effect of lumping Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua together as a singular threat, with eerily familiar language. In a November 2018 speech, Bolton referred to the three countries as “a troika of tyranny” and emphasized that “the troika will crumble.”
This anti-troika strategy carries significant dangers. Trump’s measures are not likely to force the Cubans into reforms or weaken the alliance with Russia, Venezuela, and Iran. Unless U.S. sanctions are broader and sustained over a long period, they are not likely to work. Cuba will wait out the Trump years in the hope of a future, more friendly U.S. administration.
If opposition leader Juan Guaidó is unable to unseat Nicolás Maduro, conditions in Venezuela will worsen, with greater involvement by Cuba and Russia and an increase in the out-migration of Venezuelans. At this writing, an estimated 3.4 million Venezuelans have already fled their country. If the policy of diplomatic and economic pressure fails in Caracas, the U.S. is left with arming the opposition or considering unilateral or multilateral intervention—both costly and complicated options. The most embarrassing alternative would be to accept an anti-American, pro-Russian, pro-Cuban, and pro-Iranian regime in Venezuela.
In the meantime, the Trump administration’s Cuba policy remains static. The idea that Castro’s Cuba will be the next in line to fall if Maduro’s hold on Venezuela collapses, is at best a faint hope. In the 1990s, Cuba survived the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of subsidies, including oil. Cuba muddled through those difficult years and emerged successfully in part because of the rise of Hugo Chávez, which gave Cuba access to Venezuelan oil. Today, for several reasons, Cuba seems to be in a better position than she was in the 1990s to deal with the shock of a pro-American Venezuela: tourism revenue; remittances from friends and family in the U.S.; the rental of doctors and military personnel at an estimated payment to Cuba between eight and ten billion dollars yearly; and aid from Russia, Iran, China, and others. Even without Venezuela’s support, the Cuban regime is likely to survive. The loss would create a broad impact and extensive pain, but the Cubans are accustomed to living with little.
If Raúl Castro were to die or become incapacitated, the Politburo of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Cuba will decide on his replacement. While Castro designated Miguel Díaz-Canel as Cuba’s new president, his permanency will depend on the circumstances. If the disappearance of the last Castro occurs under increased social pressure or violence, it is likely that the Politburo will select a hard-liner, probably from the military, especially since most of the Politburo members hail from the military. Although Díaz-Canel also has military rank, it is not likely the generals in the Politburo will turn to him in a time of crisis.
If the succession is peaceful Díaz-Canel will continue as president and will have to contend with the power of the older generals and of Raúl’s son, Alejandro Castro Espín, a colonel/coordinator of the military and security services and an emerging political force. Without support within the military or the party, Díaz-Canel remains a puppet figure with limited power and leverage.
The key question about post-Castro Cuba is not who its new rulers will be or what they would like to accomplish. The key question is whether the institutionalization of the revolution under the control of the military, the party, and the security apparatus will survive the end of Castro’s rule. Equally important, what can any emerging leadership hope to accomplish within the existing sociopolitical and economic context?
Will the new rulers be able to exercise any major options at all? Will they fear upsetting the multilevel balance of interests upon which a new government will certainly depend?
The impediments to major change are significant.
First, Cubans are a terrorized, disorganized, and fearful population hoping for change from above. There is a strong belief among the people in the efficacy of the security services, yet an overwhelming fear of their repressive capabilities. The political elite see the development of civil society as a major challenge to their absolute authority and a threat to their long-term control. The limited gains made in the past few years by a civil society independent of the Castro brothers are the result of several factors: a deteriorating economy; disillusionment with the revolution and growing unhappiness with the Castro regime; the influence of outside forces; and a limited relaxation of the system’s control. Yet Cuban society remains weak, ineffective, and carefully monitored by security forces.
Second, the military, the most important institution in contemporary Cuba, enjoys significant legitimacy and respect and is a disciplined and loyal force. It controls more than 60 percent of the economy. Will it be willing to relinquish this economic control and its prominent role? One of Cuba’s major post-Castro challenges will be to extricate the military from the economy and put it back in the barracks.
The possibility of regime continuity, therefore, seems stronger for Cuba than it was for other failing communist states. Although their ends came suddenly, it took decades of decay and successive leadership changes to weaken critically the Eastern European and Soviet regimes before they collapsed. Cuba may suffer the same fate, but if present conditions are any indication, the end of the Castro era may neither usher in a period of rapid political or economic transformation, nor result in a collapse of the system. The stability of the Cuban regime is based primarily on the strength of the military, the security apparatus, and the party structure. The strength of the bureaucracy that has grown around these institutions seems to ensure at least short-term continuity. Barring the imponderable or unpredictable, rapid change is not likely.
Perhaps the critical challenge for a post-Castro regime will be to improve the economy and satisfy the needs and expectations of the population, while maintaining political control. Too-rapid economic reforms may lead to a loosening of this control, a fate feared by the military and other allies bent on remaining in power and continuing to profit from their privileged positions.