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By Lissa Weinmann
An explosion of interest in and questions about the future of Cuba has burst forth in the days since Fidel Castro’s passing. The symbolism of his death is potent, especially in juxtaposition to the rise of Donald Trump, whose threatening tweets are already disrupting the relationship developing between the U.S. and Cuba. Those ties are already tenuous, with the continuing reality of the U.S.’ stiff, unilateral economic embargo, which has depressed and distorted Cuba for more than 60 years. But as both countries have demonstrated, people tend to rally behind a strongman, whether a glittering brand name or a bona fide revolutionary.
Let’s focus on what we already know. Fidel Castro stepped out of the daily functioning of the Cuban government 10 years ago. Even before the official change in leadership, he had been slowly abdicating responsibilities to others, especially his brother Raúl Castro. The younger Castro has a very different personality and leadership style. During his tenure, he has led a series of far-reaching reforms that have changed life on the island and substantially raised people’s expectations for more economic opportunity and better living conditions. A central economic priority for the new president was addressing Cuba's international debt, which the government is just beginning to service again, knowing it was key to expanding much-needed foreign investment. Beyond the policies Raúl has implemented in the past decade, the country’s political system underwent that significant transition in a peaceful and orderly manner, demonstrating its capacity to withstand significant change.
We know that another transition is imminent because when Raúl came to power he announced plans to retire in 2018. Since that time, a likely successor has been floated and is being groomed. Miguel Díaz-Canel is, at 56 years old, one of the youngest members of the Politburo, which directs the Cuban Communist Party and which Cuba's constitution defines as the "leading force of society and of the state." As First Vice President of the Councils of State and Ministers, he is next in line for the presidency. In his former position as minister of education, he supported expanded use of the internet for all Cubans and has made comments supporting more freedom of the press in the country. He advanced within the party from the ground up in Santa Clara province, where he was born, and later in Holguín, where he developed a reputation as a thoughtful, humble, hands-on leader who rode his bike to work and spoke out against corruption. Tall and white-haired but vital-looking, Díaz-Canel has been thoroughly vetted by the party, allowing him to rise this far.
We know that, for all the focus on Fidel and Raúl Castro, the Cuban Revolution was built and is sustained today by hundreds of thousands of well-educated people driven by a powerful ethos of social justice. Despite the growing number of non-Communist Party members elected to Cuba’s parliament, the 600-member National Assembly of People’s Power, and the various provincial and municipal assemblies over the years, most rise to positions of power by working within the Party—though even in the Communist Party there are countless hues of red.
The 7th Communist Party Congress, held in April 2016, was attended by more than 1,000 Cuban delegates and 300 international guests. At the Congress, Raúl Castro outlined age limits for party leadership posts and term limits that must still be amended in the Cuban Constitution by referendum in the National Assembly and take effect after the next congress, expected to take place in 2021. New membership in the party leadership will be limited to those 60 and under, while those 70 and older will retire. All five new members of the Politburo are civilians, three of them are women, and all are well under the average age of the current Politburo, indicating that the transition to a younger generation of leaders unaffiliated with the military has already begun.
We know that Fidel’s death will create more wiggle room for reformers in Cuba simply because the most powerful, enduring voice for the economic and racial equality that market reforms have tended to undermine is now gone. “The introduction of the rules of supply and demand are not at odds with the principles of planning … as has been successfully demonstrated in the reform processes in China and the renovation in Vietnam,” Raúl Castro said at that last party congress. We can expect to see further economic liberalization in the months to come, as Raúl has also said, “without haste but without pause.” He has prepared the nation for a task he said was essential to combating growing inequality in Cuba: unification of the dual currency system, which pays state workers in pesos and tourism workers and others in convertible currency. Experience proves that any decision now to clamp down by the U.S. will strengthen the hardliners in Cuba who wish to roll back these economic reforms and crack down on new ideas.
We know that for first time since the Revolution began, a discussion of a new “conceptualization” of the socialist economic and social model took place at this year’s congress. A new strategic development plan through 2030 is expected to be completed in 2017 and will be widely debated nationally before being submitted to the National Assembly for final approval. The document will serve as a guideline for Raúl’s successor.
We know that despite the rapid and expected continued growth of the private sector, especially the cooperative sector, three-quarters of Cubans still have jobs in the public sector. Those working within the system over the past decade have been younger, increasingly female, and often internationally educated—people like Josefina Vidal, lead negotiator in U.S.-Cuban diplomatic discussions in her position as head of the United States division at Cuba’s Ministry of Exterior Relations (MINREX). Cubans are tough, having survived the “special period” of the early 90s after the Soviet pullout, when people went hungry for the first time since the Revolution, and having endured the draconian laws passed by the United States in 1992 and 1996 that tightened the embargo in order to, in the words of one former U.S. senator, “bring Cuba to its knees.” The Cuban people and public officials have proven their resilience during difficult periods, and they now compose durable institutions created slowly and methodically over a long period of time. This new generation in Cuba represents an era of stability the U.S. should seek to cultivate and maintain.
Lissa Weinmann is a senior fellow at World Policy Institute.
[Photo courtesy of the National Museum of American History]