Can Cuba survive the loss of Venezuela's Hugo Chávez?

Many in and out of Cuba wonder if the loss of Chávez is the death knell of the Castros’ Revolution, or if it could inject urgent momentum into Raul Castro’s reform agenda, just in the nick of time.

Revolution Studios/Cubadebate/REUTERS/File
Former Cuban leader Fidel Castro (l.) looks on as Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez reads a document in Havana in this 2011 file handout photo.

• A version of this post ran on the author's blog, The views expressed are the author's own.

As Venezuelans and foreign observers examine the legacy – both the accomplishments and failures – of the charismatic and bombastic Hugo Chávez, discussion inevitably turns to the implications for allies on which he lavished generous aid and trade benefits. Perhaps none is quite so vulnerable in the wake of Chávez’s death as Cuba, an island nation of some 12 million people whose Socialist Revolution, with Chávez’s mentor Fidel Castro at the helm for more than 45 years, managed to hang on and hang on in spite of US disapproval and interference. Indeed, Socialist Cuba hung on in spite of itself, achieving inspirational heights in public health and education, and enjoying international influence far beyond its means, but never achieving the most crucial change of all: economic sustainability. In the past twenty years, Cuba has experienced one crisis after another.

After one such crisis is where Hugo Chávez came in, following the worst, broadest felt economic crisis Cubans have known, when Cuba’s ally and patron, the Soviet Union, collapsed, and the island’s economy shrank by more than one-third, and imports dropped by 85 percent. In those dark years, the Cuban people suffered crippling food shortages (and many were malnourished), extended blackouts, and all the other indignities that come from a sudden withdrawal of creature comforts and basic necessities they’d become so accustomed to. Reluctantly, Fidel Castro adopted a few limited measures – most importantly, embracing tourism – to stop the free fall, but it was his mentee, Hugo Chávez, whose increasingly generous trade and aid, who helped re-stabilize the Cuban economy at the turn of the 21st century. Cubans were no longer starving, but the vast majority would never recover the living standards they’d enjoyed before. As the cracks in the Cuban economy widened (and the gains of the Cuban Revolution slowly degenerated) Hugo Chávez filled them in with cut rate Venezuelan oil.

At the same time, it became clear to any honest observer inside or outside Cuba that the nation was headed for serious trouble; relying so singularly on the largesse of Hugo Chávez could have perilous consequences. When Raul Castro took the reins from his ailing older brother provisionally in 2006 and then formally in 2008, he focused, for the first time publicly, on the need for deep changes. The economic downturn of 2008, coming as it did with soaring world food prices and a punishing hurricane season (in which Cuba was walloped by four major storms that wiped out food stores and hundreds of thousands of homes), brought the reality starkly home.

The younger Castro’s rhetoric has been consistent and tough on economic mismanagement and corruption, but his apparent desire for consensus building (and avoiding destabilizing shocks that could jeopardize power) coupled with his inability to rein in a reluctant bureaucracy meant that Cuba’s economic restructuring has been slow and largely ineffectual – so far. Key reforms in real estate and migration, which offer many Cubans unprecedented potential economic empowerment and mobility, and also leverage an increasingly reconnected diaspora, offer hope of more and deeper reform, but other reforms, such as in expanding the non-state sector and reforming the tax code, have been too piecemeal or conservative so far.

Not unsurprisingly, many in and out of Cuba now wonder if the loss of Chávez is the death knell of the Castros’ Revolution, or, perhaps could it inject urgent momentum into Raul Castro’s reform agenda, just in the nick of time? In some ways, the loss of Hugo Chávez, on its face so devastating for Cuba, might actually be a good thing for the island. With Nicolas Maduro a favorite to win the special presidential election a month from now, Cuba will likely retain significant influence. But Maduro is no Chávez. He’ll have to focus on building up his own political capital, without the benefit of Chávez’s charisma. While he surely won’t cut Cuba off, to maintain power he will almost certainly need to respond to increasing economic pressures at home with more pragmatic and domestically focused economic policies. And that likelihood, as well as the possibility that the Venezuelan opposition could win back power either now or in the medium term, should drive Cuban leaders to speed up and bravely deepen their tenuous economic reforms on the island. And if there was any hesitancy among Cuba's leaders to open more space between the island and Chávez, they now have the opportunity to do so. Under Raul Castro, Cuba has mended and expanded foreign relations the world over. Particularly if it shows greater pragmatism in its economic policies, countries such as China will no doubt increase economic engagement of the island.

Raul Castro, who has at most five years – this second and final term as president - to save the fruits of the Cuban Revolution and chart a more sustainable course for the island, now has more incentive than ever to take the bull by the horns. Time will tell, perhaps sooner rather than later, whether he can.

– Anya Landau French is the editor of and a frequent contributor to the blog The Havana Note.

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