Getting Ready for Post-Castro Cuba
Getting Ready for Post-Castro Cuba
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
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.