Published on April 20, 2013
A Post-Castro Era Looms For Cuba – OpEd
By Arturo Lopez-Levy
With a post-Castro Era looming on the horizon, the Obama administration
should muster the political will to prepare the United States for
February 2018, when neither Fidel nor Raul Castro will remain at the
helm of the Cuban state.
In 1960, when Cuba’s new first vice president Miguel Diaz-Canel was
born, Fidel Castro had already been leading Cuba for a year. Neither the
Beatles nor the Rolling Stones had conquered rock-n-roll. Dwight D.
Eisenhower ruled the United States, becoming the first of eleven United
States presidents, including Obama, to apply the failed embargo policy
against the Castro regime and the political project it represents.
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 aged 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
for politics and the Cuban economy. Faced with the loss of Fidel’s
charismatic leadership, the Cuban Communist Party began processes of
economic reform and political liberalization in order to rebuild its
capacity to govern under the new conditions.
In the last five years, the Cuban government has created an important
institutional foundation for the 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 the new
Council of State on February 24th, the last phase of the transition to
the post-Castro era began. Raúl Castro was reelected president, but for
the first time a leader born after 1959, Miguel Diaz-Canel, became the
second in command. Although this transition is unfolding with the same
party and president in power, and is both gradual and limited, a new
leadership and changing priorities are discernible.
If we think of the Communist Party as a corporation (an analogy that
should not be abused), Diaz-Canel is a manager who, over time, has
served at various levels of its 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 the while maintaining
party control over both processes.
Díaz-Canel is part of the network of provincial party czars who are very
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, which, along with the Communist Party, is the other pillar
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 the controlled management of reforms.
Challenges for Cuban and United States leaders
If Cuba implements the type of mixed economy proposed by the last
Congress of the Communist Party and establishes a new, more vital
relationship with its diaspora and the world, it will also transform
politically. With the economy and society changing, the political
environment cannot remain intact. The rise of market mechanisms and an
autonomous non-state sector will reinforce the new pluralizing flows of
information, investment, and technology. The new social sectors will
seek representation in the political arena. Citizens will have greater
access to the Internet, from which civil society will benefit.
This does not imply a transition to multiparty democracy over the next
five years. But even without regime change, economic liberalization will
force an expansion of pluralism within the current People’s Power
system. Candidates for local elections could come from the new non-state
sectors, or previously unrepresented religious or social groups, and
demand a transparent use of local taxes. Pressures for systemic
political changes could increase as the economy adopts more
market-oriented structures and more Cubans are able to travel abroad.
Then the party system could be reformed in order to remain at the helm
of social and economic changes.
Political liberalization will probably start at the lower levels of
government, allowing citizens to vent their frustrations at that scale.
However, the pressure is sure to rise. Raul Castro’s decision to limit
political office holders to two five-year terms, at a time when the
older generation is leaving power by attrition, will result in a less
personalized and more institutionalized leadership that promotes upward
mobility of new politicians in an orderly fashion. The central challenge
facing Cuban leaders is to have the audacity, creativity, and
self-confidence to accelerate economic reforms, without losing control
of the ongoing political liberalization.
In this new context, the U.S challenge is to open a path for those in
the regime who have an interest in backing more serious reforms. The
United States should discredit the naysayers within the Cuban elite (and
Washington’s as well) by showing what Cuba can gain through opening up
its politics and society, rather than maintaining excessive controls.
This requires a U.S. readiness to present Havana with real incentives in
ways the United States has not done since the times of the Ford and
Washington’s current strategy—ignoring Raul Castro’s pro-market moves
and using USAID programs to meddle in Cuba’s domestic politics and
promote regime change—is yielding diminishing returns. The United States
has more to gain by allowing its own business community to trade and
invest in the emerging Cuban non-state sector and engaging the new
leaders in Havana. A dynamic Cuban market that appeals to U.S. investors
would put the U.S. embargo against the island in jeopardy.
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 and limited
presidential authority to terminate sanctions in response to Cuba’s
changing conditions. But President Obama still can make a significant
difference in bilateral relations if he decides to lead on the issue by
using his prerogatives as diplomat in chief.
The president can begin by taking Cuba off the State Department’s list
of “state sponsors of terrorism.” It would be a positive gesture towards
Havana and signal to the world that Obama meant what he said when he
called for a new diplomatic approach towards American adversaries. It
would not be a concession to Cuba, since Havana has not been connected
to any terrorist actions for at least 20 years. The misuse of the list
to serve a petty political agenda of the pro-embargo lobby delegitimizes
its credibility as a useful tool of the United States against real
Taking Cuba off the State Department’s list would also provide a
framework for resolving the Alan Gross affair. This problem is currently
intractable because of the false premise in Washington that Gross is a
hostage of a terrorism-sponsoring nation. The issue might become
manageable if the two countries could negotiate a comprehensible package
that would save face for both governments. Such an agreement could be
the first step to stabilize a course of engagement and broad
people-to-people contacts over the next four years—a critical goal, if
the U.S. is to have some influence during the final transition to a
Arturo Lopez-Levy is a PhD Candidate at the Josef Korbel School of
International Studies of the University of Denver. You can follow him on