Cuba after Fidel: Economic reform? Sí. Political reform? No.

The passing of Fidel Castro paves the way for Cuba to open its economy more. But several factors keep Cuban political reform at bay. 

Ricardo Mazalan/AP
Students sign a book of condolences and a loyalty oath for the late Fidel Castro at a community center in Havana, Cuba, Monday, Nov. 28, 2016. Cuba's government has declared nine days of national mourning.

Fidel Castro spent much of his final decade planning for the survival of his 1959 Communist revolution once its towering psychological and ideological pillar – himself – passed on.

With Mr. Castro’s death Friday, 11 million Cubans, some 2 million Cuban-Americans, and the rest of the world are about to see how good a job he did.

Virtually no one foresees abrupt change for the Caribbean island nation, either politically or economically. But with the economy in crisis and failing to produce employment for vast numbers of Cubans, many regional analysts expect a scenario under which economic reform accelerates even as the one-party political system remains untouched.

“In Cuba they’ve been thinking about transition and ‘the day after’ for a long long time, but that debate has focused on to what degree to open up the economy and whether to go farther toward a Vietnam or China model,” says Eduardo Gamarra, an expert in Latin American politics and democratization at Florida International University in Miami.

“But there really has been no parallel attention to what political reforms might accompany the economic change,” he adds. “They believe they have a political model that is going to withstand the test of time.”

If anything, the year since Cuba and the United States normalized relations has witnessed a political crackdown, with stepped-up arrests of dissidents and snuffing out of fledgling expressions of political diversity – signaling a dual approach to opening up the economic and political systems.

“Fidel’s death will mean that a generation of economic reformists and moderates will now be able to emerge and push for the changes that the very tough economic realities may require,” says Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington. “But the political side will be harder and will take much more time.”

If anything, a renewed push for economic reforms is likely to mean even less openness to political change, Mr. Shifter says. “The economic uncertainties mean that something has to change [on the economic side], but that raises the likelihood that the political transformation won’t happen for a while.”   

The elements of this “economic reform, , political change, no!” model have been on full display in recent years as Castro withdrew almost fully from Cuba’s public stage.

President Raúl Castro is in firm control, as he has been since his elder brother turned over the reins to him in 2006. Raúl Castro orchestrated the opening to the US that Fidel didn’t like, but he made sure that intolerance of internal political change accompanied the overtures to the US.

Forces for the status quo

Moreover, Cuba remains in the tight grips of a socialist bureaucracy that the elder Castro built up over five decades and which remains heavy on inertia and light on openness to change.

A key element of that state structure is a military with controlling interests in the state-run economy. Economists estimate that one military-controlled holding company, Gaesa, alone accounts for about 40 percent of the Cuban economy.

Another factor making political change unlikely is the flow of migration to the United States, which has accelerated in recent years to levels not seen in several decades.

“They still have the safety-valve of migration to the US that relieves the tensions that might otherwise be there,” says Dr. Gamarra. This year more than 44,000 Cubans will have migrated to the US by simply arriving at American shores or borders and under US law being immediately welcomed in. That’s in addition to the 20,000 Cuban immigrants the US accepts annually under accords signed with the Cuban government.

The Trump factor

The uncertainty of US policy toward Cuba under a President Trump is also bound to encourage caution on the part of an already change-averse regime.

During the presidential campaign, Mr. Trump lambasted President Obama’s opening to Cuba as a “bad deal” that gave the Cuban regime too much in exchange for too little in terms of human rights and religious freedoms. Trump pledged to reverse Obama’s actions, and since the election surrogates have echoed his words.

Trump’s chief-of-staff-in-waiting, Reince Priebus, said Sunday that the “bad deal” accepted by Obama wouldn’t stand under Trump and that the “one-way street” of the US offering all the concessions while Cuba changed nothing was over.

But some analysts say the genie is already out of the bottle – the first commercial flights in 50 years between the US and Cuba start up this week, for example – and that Trump is unlikely to undo much of what Obama did, particularly in terms of bilateral commerce.

“Trump is not an ideologue, he’s a business person, and I think he knows he’d face a lot of pressure from the business community if he tried to reverse some of the changes under Obama,” says Shifter. “It’s fair to assume he’s not going to try to lift the embargo, but as far as reversing some of the measures that the business community and agriculture have liked, I doubt he’d do that.”

Such steps would likely be counterproductive, Shifter adds, unleashing more repression and hunkering down by the Cuban regime. “We tried to pressure Cuba and to isolate Cuba,” he says. “It didn’t work then and it’s even less likely to work now.”

Cuba’s task now will be “to figure out where they fit in a globalized world,” says Gamarra, adding that the options for formulating the island’s future are probably a bit broader now with Fidel gone.

After Raúl, another Castro?

But everyone agrees that while significant change – economic or political – is not imminent, the real key to Cuba’s future lies in the power transition that will take place after the 85-year-old Raúl Castro steps down. Mr. Castro has said he will relinquish the presidency in 2018 – an eventuality that set off a flurry of speculation well before Fidel’s passing over whether the successor will be an economics-oriented technocrat or another Castro – perhaps Raúl’s son, or his powerful son-in-law, Gen. Luís Alberto Rodriguez López-Callejas, president of the Gaesa holding company.

“Fidel’s death opens a path for the moderate and reform-minded factions to gain ground, but we also know that many in the Cuban-American community think the system will replace Raúl with another Castro – and continuity,” says Shifter. “About the only thing we can say for sure is that there will be a power struggle within the government over the next president and the country’s direction.”

What that may mean is that Cuba’s biggest transition will come as the country shifts in the months ahead from “What happens to Cuba after Fidel?” to “What happens after Raúl?”

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