On April 19, Raúl Castro, the brother of the late Fidel Castro, will retire from the presidency of Cuba. It will be the first time in 60 years that Cuba is not led by a Castro. This shift is a potentially great boon for the Cuban people and an opportunity to renew reconciliation efforts between the United States and Cuba, but a series of obstacles can be expected to stand in the way. One such obstacle is the expectation that Cuba will dramatically liberalize without the leadership of the Castros. It is important that policy makers and engaged citizens familiarize themselves with the structural factors at play in Cuba and make sure that the diplomatic and economic efforts they spearhead are reasonable within the given framework.
First, it must be stressed that Raúl is not going into complete retirement. He will remain in his position as First Secretary of the Communist Party of Cuba and so will continue as the de facto head of state (Financial Times, “Cuba Braced for Life After the Castros,” 03.04.2018). Nevertheless, he is 86 years old and can be expected to retire alongside the remaining old guard when his term as secretary expires in 2021, although he might pass away before its completion (Miami Herald, “Raúl Castro is Expected to Step Down Soon. And Recent Moves Suggest He Won’t Be Alone,” 03.02.2018).
This does not diminish the significance of Raúl’s retirement from the presidency. He will stop being the face of the Cuban state, and that symbolic shift is critical in a country where political rule has been highly personalistic. During his lifetime, Fidel Castro assumed a godlike stature in the eyes of pro-government Cubans. Much of Raúl’s legitimacy is deeply rooted in being Fidel’s brother in addition to his contributions to the revolution.
The anti-Cuban government statements of the United States have historically taken up this same personalistic logic by directing the majority of their invective against the Castro brothers as embodiments of brutality and corruption instead of pursuing a more dull systemic critique of Communist Party rule. Deprived of the Castros, anti-Cuban government rhetoric will have to target a faceless Communist Party. It will be more difficult to drum up the resentment necessary for the continued justification of the embargo.
The Communist Party of Cuba will probably remain in power for the foreseeable future. Cuba held parliamentary elections on March 11 with a turnout of 85.7 percent (Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, “Cuba”). Most Cubans were under heavy pressure from municipal government bodies to go vote, and virtually all of the candidates were members of the Communist Party (the only legal party), but the elections are a clear reminder of the Cuban government’s continuing capacity to mobilize its population on a mass scale. The turnout was lower than in past elections, but not enough to signal a fundamental crisis of legitimacy. The coercive and persuasive capabilities of the Cuban regime remain robust.
However, just because the party will stay in power does not mean it will govern in the same fashion. The powers of the government bureaucracy, party apparatus and military were united by the Castro brothers for over half a century. Fidel was head of the government and the party, and Raúl was head of the armed forces until he succeeded Fidel as President of Cuba in 2008 after the former grew ill. This centralization allowed for the brothers to mediate between different interest groups in the party-state and prevent the formation of rival power centers.
After Raúl gradually exits from the stage, there will be no figure with such centralized authority. His projected successor Miguel Diaz-Canel, a former education minister and now Vice President of the Council of Ministers, is a prominent bureaucrat but has no experience in military leadership like the Castros did. The military and its client constituencies will probably jostle for more autonomy under new leadership. This possibility is significant because the Cuban military does not simply have a monopoly on force but is also a major economic player. The Armed Forces Business Enterprises Group (GAESA), the military’s conglomerate, owns the vast majority of firms that operate engaged in trade, from hotels to foreign exchange houses to ports, which gives it control of up to 60 percent of incoming hard currency (The New York Times, “Goodbye Castros, Hello Communist Party,” 02.26.2018). Any attempt to significantly reform the moribund Cuban economy will pit elements of the civil and military administrations against one another.
Heightened divisions between factions in the government could be either good or bad for Cuba. At its worst, it could devolve into a civil war, but it could also lead to increased democracy and consensus building within the Communist Party. Different factions would try to deliver improvements in living standards to their constituencies (e.g., farmers, factory workers, veterans) to cultivate political capital for their elite struggles. In this scenario, Cuba would remain a dictatorship with a poor human rights record, but it would be more representative and responsive to the Cuban public than previously. A process similar to the one described took place in China following the death of Mao Zedong.
The United States government needs to understand that the Cuban party-state has room to maneuver when it comes to sanctions. If the embargo continues, the rising party leadership will be able to establish their legitimacy with the claim that they are fighting against a renewed American imperialist onslaught. Even though Cuba can expect less economic aid from Venezuela as the country continues to grapple with its crisis, it can still turn to the ingenuitive strategies for economic survival and regime continuity it developed in the Special Period, an extended period of economic crisis in the 1990s. If the embargo terminates, the party can claim to have ended a decades-old conflict and ushered in a new era of prosperity for Cubans.
Given the win-win position of the Cuban regime, the United States should choose the most mutually beneficial option–the cessation of the embargo. The economic deprivations of everyday Cubans will ease, and American firms will find a potentially lucrative outlet for business. Additionally, ending the embargo would be a great way to restore the United States’ credibility overseas, which has been damaged by the confrontational and erratic policies of the Trump administration. Last year, the UN passed a resolution condemning the embargo 191 to two, with only Israel and the USA voting against (Bloomberg, “U.S. Votes Against UN Resolution Condemning Cuba Embargo,” 11.01.2017). Following the lead of the overwhelming majority of the international community would be a bold demonstration of a renewed commitment to multilateralism.
Since the Republican Party cannot be expected to take such a course given its desire not to alienate conservative Cuban-Americans in the swing state of Florida, the Democratic Party should plan to renew negotiations with Cuba as soon as it retakes the presidency (Sunshine State News, “Carlos Curbelo Continues to Take Aim at Castro Regime as It Looks for Successor,” 03.14.2018).
The opportunities presented by Cuba’s generational transfer of power will not last forever. It’s time to put this anachronistic conflict to rest.