The Post-Fidel Moment

Facing imprisonment for treason in 1953, Fidel Castro famously remarked that history would absolve him of his rebellious actions against the decaying dictatorship of General Fulgencio Batista. The prophetic declaration marked a turning point in Cuba’s development, culminating in a full-fledged revolution six years later. As Fidel himself now fades into history, Cuba again appears on the verge of change. While the scope of the island’s ongoing transformation pales in comparison to the tumultuous events of the 1950s, the reality of new leadership in Havana does create the conditions for a long-awaited warming in United States-Cuba relations.

Although the Cuban government has yet to make it official, the long era of Fidel Castro is finally over. On January 20, the octogenarian revolutionary was reelected to the National Assembly despite not being seen in public for over a year and a half. When the Assembly convenes on February 24, however, it’s possible that members will choose to retire the ailing leader by nominating someone else to head the Council of State, the government’s executive branch. If not, Fidel may decide to formally announce his resignation from public life, as he has hinted at on a number of occasions.

In a recent letter, Castro wrote that he could no longer stand in the way of the next generation of Cuban leaders. It was a stunning acknowledgement from the man who has outlasted nine U.S. presidents while personalizing Marxist rule in Cuba and personifying the struggle against Yanqui imperialism in the Americas. Having survived Washington’s nearly 50-year vendetta, Fidel is set to leave power largely on his own terms, succumbing only to the constraints of his rapidly deteriorating health.

Raul the Reformer

Raul Castro, Fidel’s younger brother and longtime heir apparent, has been Cuba’s “acting president” since July 31, 2006. At 76 years old, Raul is no spring chicken, nor does he have the charisma of his predecessor. By most accounts, Raul is primed to be a transitional figure, one whose relatively brief tenure will quickly give way to a more thorough – and contentious – political realignment. This is not to say that Raul won’t leave an indelible mark on Cuban society as Lider Maximo (“Maximum Leader,” Fidel’s unofficial title for decades). His willingness to address Cuba’s economic problems and open paths to public dialogue has already created an atmosphere of budding optimism in the country.

Cuba’s political future post-Raul is just one of the many questions facing the country over the long term, issues which include the island’s notoriously rocky relationship with the Untied States. Will Raul be succeeded by another dominant leader, such as Vice President Carlos Lage or National Assembly President Ricardo Alarcon? A power-sharing arrangement featuring some sort of collective leadership? Or will Cubans construct an altogether different political system in line with their unique historical experience? Furthermore, what would be required, in both Havana and Washington, for the beginnings of a normalization process to take hold?

These uncertainties aside, the short-term trajectory of Cuba’s political economy appears to be settled. The fundamentals of the country’s socialist system will remain in place, with Fidel’s official departure providing Raul heightened maneuverability to curtail the corruption, inefficiency, and overly-bureaucratic planning that have dogged the Cuban economy for years. On July 26, 2007, Raul gave a major policy speech in which he stated that his government was actively looking for new ways of securing foreign investment without abandoning socialism.

Contrary to Washington’s portrayal of Raul as a mere clone of his older brother, Cuba’s new leader has emerged as a reformer – albeit a tepid one. His calls for structural changes to Cuba’s economy remind observers of Deng Xiaoping, the architect of China’s economic liberalization process, who introduced market mechanisms to “modernize” the country while maintaining the Communist Party’s firm grip on power. As noted by veteran Cuba watcher Brian Latell, among others, Raul is an open admirer of the Chinese system. Ultimately, the younger Castro may prove to be more of a Gorbachev figure, releasing economic forces that usher in calls for substantive political change, resulting in trends toward liberal democracy.

Washington’s Stubbornness

In a shock to many anti-Castro ideologues, Fidel’s prolonged departure has not produced political instability or social chaos, let alone a democratic uprising. It has, however, produced clear openings for change – both within Cuba, as Raul’s reformist gestures have demonstrated, and in the island’s relationship with its neighbor to the north. The United States, it would seem, can now engage Cuba without dealing directly with its old nemesis, allowing the superpower to save face as it moves toward a more rational relationship with the island.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, even the faintest glimmerings of rapprochement have yet to materialize in Washington. As stated by Wayne Smith and Jennifer Schuett of the Center for International Policy (CIP), while Cuba sits on the “cusp of change,” the Bush administration is essentially “sitting on the sidelines, failing to take advantage of the new opportunities for meaningful engagement.” The immediate post-Fidel moment has, for practical purposes, nearly come and gone, and the U.S. government remains as committed to its archaic and counterproductive Cuba policy as ever.

Among the major candidates running for the U.S. presidency, only Barack Obama has called for a departure from the status quo on Cuba. As outlined by the Latin America Working Group’s (LAWG) “Cuba Policy Presidential Scorecard,” Obama is alone among top-tier Democrats and Republicans in advocating a loosening of the family travel and remittance restrictions. All the leading candidates, including Obama, support a continuation of the broader travel ban and the overall economic embargo, which the United Nations General Assembly condemned for the sixteenth straight year on October 31 by a record margin of 184 to 4.

The candidates’ conservative attitudes are partly attributable to the influence of South Florida’s hard-line exile community, a crucial swing vote in one of the largest swing states. Fortunately, the next occupant of the White House may be compelled to reassess the U.S. approach toward Cuba regardless of their campaign position. For one, demographic shifts within the Cuban American population are making pragmatism vis-à-vis Cuba a more tenable policy stance. Although the diversifying social dynamics among Cuban Americans have yet to result in more moderate political leadership, a tipping point of sorts may not be far on the horizon. According to a 2007 poll conducted by Florida International University, approximately 65% of Cuban-Americans in the Miami area support dialogue with the Cuban government, up from 55% in 2004.

Additionally, Cuba is in the midst of a highly publicized oil boom, much to the frustration of U.S. oil companies, which continue to be frozen out of the Cuban market. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the North Cuba Basin has potential reserves of between 4.6 and 9.3 billion barrels of crude, all of which remain off-limits to American firms. What’s more, a recent report by the Government Accountability Office concluded that the embargo on Cuba distracts federal agencies from higher priority missions, such as countering terrorism and combating narcotics trafficking, and is therefore damaging to national security efforts.

The Progressive Response

A harsher, more restrictive, and more inhumane Cuba policy will be one of the hallmarks of the Bush administration’s legacy in Latin America. Progressives should be concerned with not only repairing the damage of the Bush years, but also rectifying the historical legacy of Washington’s unrelenting hostility toward the Cuban government and, by extension, the Cuban people.

The progressive response to the post-Fidel moment should center on calls to rollback the embargo as quickly as possible, beginning with a reinvigorated effort to end the travel ban and repeal the 1996 Helms-Burton Act. Following the lead of CIP, LAWG, and the Washington Office on Latin America, progressive activists should pressure Democratic politicians to reassess their misplaced support for the embargo while simultaneously strengthening alliances with business groups who advocate an overturning of trade restrictions for less-than-altruistic purposes.

When it comes, the dismantling of the embargo will probably be a slow process involving tit-for-tat cooperation with Havana and at least a modicum of political reform in Cuba. However, the likely slow pace of the process should not obscure the gravity of the present situation. Those who wish to see an end to the sorry saga of the cruel U.S. embargo must challenge the policy with renewed vigor and a sense of urgency. If the current moment is allowed to lapse without meaningful progress being achieved, a similar opportunity may be years in the making. Such a scenario, however improbable it may seem now, would be consistent with the irrationality of the embargo itself.

Rubrick Biegon, a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus, holds a Master’s degree in International Politics from American University’s School of International Service.