RAUL CASTRO TO RETIRE
Even before his death on November 25, 2016, it was clear that history would record Fidel Castro as the most significant figure in post-Batista Cuba, serving as revolutionary leader, president for over 50 years and, globally, as one of the few remaining figureheads of Cold War communism after the USSR’s fall. Yet, it is at the end of Raul Castro’s tenure that Cuba is perhaps set to undergo its greatest shift since the Castros came to power on January 1, 1959.
NEW ERA FOR CUBA
Caribbean nations have changed substantially since 1959, many having gained independence, but Cuba has famously changed little. Much of this can be attributed to the US embargo and other trade sanctions that prevented the country from expanding its economy.
Sanctions notwithstanding, the narrative of the Castros remained defiant and, with it, the Cuban economy remained stagnant. Other nations, like the People’s Republic of China, while retaining an authoritarian bent and disinterest in democracy or greater recognition of human rights, nonetheless shifted towards a greater free market economy.
The Castros’ grip on power in Cuba proved unshakeable. Now, though, there is momentum for substantive change in Cuba within its government and society. A number of external and domestic factors suggest that when Raul Castro’s tenure comes to an end in February 2018, so, too, may some of the hallmarks of the Castro brothers’ reign.
Compared to the world of 1959, 2017 presents a dramatically different picture for Cuba. The USSR as a communist force has been replaced by China, as the Communist Party of China has sought to expand its influence domestically and around the world. Even if China has ambitions to be a global superpower, its next few years are likely to be focussed at home on navigating growing domestic challenges such as the rich-poor gap, and attending to strategic issues within the Asian region. Any Cuban revolutionaries who hope that China’s rise would deliver a return to Cold War-style communism are sure to be disappointed.
NORMALISATION OF RELATIONS WITH THE US
While the Castros were stubborn in their resistance to the outside world during their almost 60 years of rule, it is undoubted that changes within the Caribbean and the wider world diminished some of the revolutionaries’ rallying cries. Opposition to intrusion from Europe in local affairs has long been a feature of Caribbean regional identity, yet independence gained by many nations in the region eroded the strength of the Castros’ anti-colonial narrative.
The end of the Cold War saw a step back from Washington’s more hawkish attitude towards the Caribbean, with the strategic threat of USSR-backed communism removed. Further, while Mikhail Gorbachev’s Perestroika reforms saw economic ties weaken between Havana and Moscow during the 1980s, the Soviet collapse saw an official end to any prospect of Soviet-led global communism. At the start of the 1990s Cuba looked isolated indeed, and it remained that way for years.
It was with the election of Barack Obama in 2008, and Raul Castro’s replacement of his brother Fidel as president, that a substantial shift occurred. After many years of overtures and secret negotiations between the Obama Administration and Castro’s government, on July 20, 2015 diplomatic relations between the two nations were restored, and a number of US sanctions lifted.
This normalisation was not to last. Outcry among many US politicians (led by US Senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, both children of Cuban emigrants), saw newly-elected US President Trump suspend what he called a ‘One-Sided Deal With Cuba’ and restore many sanctions.
Despite this, diplomatic relations between the two nations, and embassies, have remained open. The US’s evacuation of non-essential personnel in September 2017 after a number of American diplomats came down with mysterious health issues, feared to be the result of a sonic attack, was a setback. Yet, overall, the presence of a US Embassy in Havana, and a Cuban one in Washington, is a vivid display of closer ties between the two nations in the post-Fidel era.
UPCOMING CHANGE OF LEADERSHIP
Cuba’s future will now be its own to determine, free of allegiance to a larger communist state seeking an ally in Cold War geopolitics, and free of a Washington that regards Havana as an immediate threat ‘just 90 miles from Florida’. So how may Cuba progress, and reconcile its future with its revolutionary past?
While many presumed Fidel would rule till death, Raul’s succession of his brother, at the age of 75, meant that not only would he serve for a far shorter tenure, but the succession by the next generation of Cuban leaders would be delayed. This has increased odds that the leadership change in 2018 will come with some major shifts in policy.
Attention centres on Cuban Vice President Miguel Diaz-Canel. An engineer and teacher before fully turning his attention to politics, Diaz-Canel is held to have achieved a rapid rise through the party by keeping his head down and not overshadowing the Castro brothers as a potential ‘leader in waiting’. Aged 57, he has only ever known a Castro-led Cuba and does not have a personal connection to the events of January 1, 1959, as do revolutionaries.
POSSIBLE INTERNET AND MEDIA REFORM
Diaz-Canel has shown some recognition that governance in Cuba cannot remain ‘business as usual’ and has cited reforms to the nation’s state-run media and improvement of its internet access as key goals for Cuba’s future. Somewhat paradoxically for a leader in an authoritarian state, Diaz-Canel has acknowledged that the internet is full of real and fake news – a small but significant step in placing emphasis on the power of people over politicans in determining what information to believe.
Diaz-Canel justifies improved internet access on the basis of its importance as a tool for human development. These remarks may seem minor to some – especially if seeking from Diaz-Canel a commitment to democratic reform and greater human rights recognition – but it is with the internet that the greatest potential for progress in Cuba may reside. Even if the regime continues to censor what it deems to be contentious political content, the popularity of VPNs and other workarounds means ‘free and fair’ internet access could quickly thrive in Cuba, if only in an unofficial capacity.
Just as many Eastern Europeans sought to demolish the Berlin Wall and bring an end to the USSR due to the economic opportunities they saw in the West, so, too, would Diaz-Canel face increasing opposition if seeking to suppress Cubans’ pursuit of opportunities in the online era. Greater internet access for Cuba’s business community would offer it the chance to build stronger in the Caribbean and around the world. Given the potential for eCommerce growth, and the innovations in the digital world that many Cubans have already displayed, Cuban business clearly has a bright future ahead of it online, provided that the government does not obstruct it.
WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR THE CARIBBEAN ECONOMY?
A more open Cuba would mean a more active contributor to life in the Caribbean, and to its regional identity, but the exact areas of influence are unclear. The experience of the Cuban cigar is illustrative of this: though the end of a US import ban on the cigars brought with it expectations of greater demand, doubts endured surrounding the capacity of Cuba’s cigar industry to meet a large increase in orders.
A Cuban economy that has greater transparency, a more open market, and operates free of sanctions could indeed draw dollars away from other nations, including in the lucrative tourism industry, but it is unlikely that the Cuban economy as a whole is ‘shovel ready’ for its new era.
Even if it is, the potential for Cuba to outperform the longstanding tourism industries of other nations like Saint Lucia appears minimal; the experience of American tourists following the restoration of relations evidences this: though the lifting of travel sanctions saw an initial surge in American tourists to the nation, this interest subsequently waned.
Further, while Diaz-Canel’s government may seek to project a more open and tourist-friendly Cuba, any scandal out of Havana that resembles a return to Fidel Castro’s era, or any strong response by an overseas nation, such as the Trump administration’s restoration of sanctions, will trigger a sharp decline in tourism.
In 2018 Cuba will see a change of leadership and an end to the Castro brothers’ rule. If Miguel Diaz-Canel does become president, he will be the leader of a nation that is primed for economic growth and reform.
In 1959 it may have been possible to keep the world at bay beyond Cuban shores but we now live in a world that is more globalised, interconnected and free than ever before. The Cuban people long for freedom and reforms, and it appears that Diaz-Canel recognises this. If he is to lead a government that aspires to ‘Power to the People’ and greater prosperity for Cuba – as promised by the Castro brothers’ revolutionary ethos – then ensuring that the Cuban people have their rights to personal and internet freedom observed and recognised, and that the Cuban business community can thrive in the digital era, will go a long way to creating a foundation for Cuba’s economic growth and the improvement of its people’s lives.
Movement towards greater freedom for the Cuban people is essential. Recent years have shown that the global community is ready to work with the Cuban government if such changes are made. Never has the potential to quickly bring about an improvement and greater prosperity in the Cuban people’s lives been so great. No matter what, the end of the Castro brothers’ rule in Cuba will be historic. If Diaz-Canel is to be Cuba’s next leader, it will be up to him to earn the love of the Cuban people and the support of other nations by delivering on the opportunities on offer.