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.
By Anya Landau French, Guest blogger / March 7, 2013
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
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.