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    Getting Ready for Post-Castro Cuba

    Getting Ready for Post-Castro Cuba

    Arturo López-Levy

    April 10, 2013

    In Cuba, a post-Castro era is looming on the horizon. The Obama

    administration should muster the political will to prepare the United

    States for February 2018, when neither Fidel nor Raúl Castro will remain

    at the helm of the Caribbean island.

    In 1960, the year Cuba's new first vice president was born, Fidel Castro

    had already been ruling Cuba for a year. Neither the Beatles nor the

    Rolling Stones had conquered rock-n-roll. Dwight D. Eisenhower led the

    United States, becoming the first of eleven U.S. presidents (including

    Obama) to apply the failed embargo policy against the Castros and the

    political project they represent.

    But against the calendar, there are no victories. In 2006, Fidel

    Castro's illness forced the first transition in the Cuban leadership

    since 1959. Raúl, then age 76, replaced Fidel, who was almost 80.

    Despite the fact that it was a succession between brothers of the same

    generation, the presidency of Raúl Castro has had important

    consequences. Faced with the loss of Fidel's charismatic leadership, the

    Cuban Communist Party (PCC) began economic reform and political

    liberalization. It was an effort to rebuild their capacity to govern

    under the new conditions.

    In the last five years, the Cuban government has created an important

    institutional foundation for a parallel transition to a mixed economy

    (symbolized by the encouragement of non-state-sector firms) and a

    post-totalitarian relationship between the state and civil society

    (symbolized by relaxed travel restrictions).

    With the election of a new Council of State in February, the last phase

    of the transition to the post-Castro era began. Raúl Castro was

    reelected to the presidency, and for the first time a leader born after

    1959, Miguel Díaz-Canel, became his second in command. Although this

    gradual transition is unfolding with the same party and president in

    power, one can begin to discern a new leadership and changing priorities.

    Looking at the Communist Party as a corporation (an analogy that should

    not be abused), Díaz-Canel is a manager who has served at various levels

    of the production chain. He worked at its foundation, as a university

    teacher and youth leader. Later, in the strategic provinces of Villa

    Clara and Holguin, he administered the implementation of economic

    reforms and directed the opening of the economy to foreign investment

    and tourism—all while maintaining party control over both processes.

    Díaz-Canel is part of the network of provincial party czars who are

    important in the implementation of the proposed changes, particularly

    decentralization. Having worked in central and eastern Cuba, the new

    first vice president has cordial ties with regional commanders of the

    armed forces—the other pillar, along with the Communist Party, of the

    current Cuban system. He is a civilian, the first in the line of

    succession to have little military experience. But he is steeped in the

    networks of power and well versed in carefully managing reform.

    Challenges for Cuban Leaders

    If Cuba implements the type of mixed economy proposed by the last

    Congress of the Communist Party—a new, more vital relationship with its

    diaspora and the world—it may also experience a political

    transformation. As the economy and society change, the political status

    quo cannot hold. The rise of market mechanisms and an autonomous

    non-state sector will reinforce the newly open flows of information,

    investment and technology. These new sectors will seek representation in

    the political arena. Citizens will have greater access to the Internet,

    and will be able to associate more horizontally.

    For at least the next five years, this does not imply a transition to

    multiparty democracy. But economic liberalization will force an

    expansion of the current system. Economic and migration opportunities

    will channel some of the energy in the direction of new businesses and

    travel, but it will not be enough. The party system will be reformed in

    order to remain at the helm of social and economic life. Political

    liberalization will probably start in the lower rungs of government,

    allowing citizens to vent their frustrations at that level. Raúl

    Castro's decision to limit leadership positions to two terms, at a time

    when the older generation is leaving power by attrition, will result in

    a more institutionalized leadership that promotes younger leaders in an

    orderly fashion.

    Time for Presidential Action

    In this new context, the United States should open a path for those

    regime voices who have an interest in backing more serious reforms.

    Washington should weaken the naysayers within the Cuban elites by

    showing what Cuba can gain through opening up. This requires a U.S.

    willingness to test Havana with real incentives in ways it has not done

    since the Ford and Carter Administrations.

    Washington's current strategy—ignoring Raúl Castro's promarket moves and

    using USAID regime-change programs to meddle in Cuba's domestic

    politics—is yielding diminishing returns. The United States would gain

    more by allowing its own business community to trade and invest in the

    emerging Cuban non-state sector and beginning a limited engagement with

    the new leaders in Havana. A dynamic Cuban market would whet corporate

    appetites and put the U.S. embargo against the island in jeopardy. This

    vision lines up with the criticism of Cold War-era U.S. Cuba policy

    expressed in the past by President Obama and his new secretaries of

    state and defense, John Kerry and Chuck Hagel.

    The opportunity to redesign U.S. policy towards Cuba will not last

    forever. A failure to respond to Raúl Castro's overtures for negotiation

    with Washington would be a strategic mistake. Unfortunately, the 1996

    Helms-Burton law codified the embargo as a legislative act, limiting

    presidential authority to terminate sanctions in response to changing

    conditions. But President Obama still can make a significant difference

    in bilateral relations if he decided to lead on the issue by using his

    prerogative as a diplomat-in-chief.

    The president can begin by taking Cuba off the State Department list of

    state sponsors of terrorism. It would be a positive gesture towards

    Havana and a signal to the world that he meant what he said when he

    advertised a new diplomatic approach towards U.S. adversaries. It will

    not be a concession to Cuba, since Havana has not been connected to any

    terrorist actions for at least the last twenty years. The misuse of the

    list to serve the agenda of the pro-embargo lobby undermines its

    credibility against real terrorist threats.

    Taking Cuba off the State Department terror-sponsor list also will

    provide a framework to negotiate the Alan Gross affair. Gross, a USAID

    subcontractor, is serving a fifteen-year prison sentence in Havana. He

    was arrested by Cuban authorities because of his covert mission

    providing satellite access to internet to several Cuban civil-society

    groups, circumventing government controls. The Cuban government admits

    that Gross was not a spy but found that his actions could make Cuba

    vulnerable to cyber warfare by the United States. Gross's activities are

    provided for under section 109 of the Helms-Burton law, a program

    designed to promote regime change on the island.

    Negotiation on the Gross case is held up because of the false premise

    that he is a hostage of a terror-sponsoring nation. But the situation

    might become manageable if the two countries negotiate an agreement that

    could be face-saving for both governments. Such an agreement could be

    the first step in a course of engagement and people-to-people contact.

    If the United States is to have some influence during the transition to

    a post-Castro Cuba, it must start this process today.

    Arturo López-Levy is a PhD candidate at the Josef Korbel School of

    International Studies at the University of Denver. He is coauthor of the

    book Raúl Castro and the New Cuba. Twitter: @turylevy.