Cuba 2010: Worst-case Scenario Could Become Reality

April 2, 2008

Editor’s Note: During Cuba’s transition from Fidel Castro in 2008, Vicki Huddleston hypothesized what the country may look like in 2010 following further changes at the leadership level, including the death of Fidel’s brother. She stated that one thing likely to remain constant “is the enmity between Washington and Havana.”

Raúl Castro died on Jan. 2, 2009, after serving less than a year as president of Cuba. José Ramón Machado Ventura, 79, stepped up briefly, but because of his poor health the National Assembly selected Gen. Abelardo Colome Ibarra, 70, and Gen. Julio Casas Regueiro, 74, as president and first vice president. Subsequently, they were given the top positions in the Communist Party.

Fidel, who hasn’t been seen in live video footage for over three years, wrote an opinion piece praising the new leadership. President Colome promised early provincial and regional elections in 2011. Another transition — or succession — has taken place without internal upheaval, indeed, hardly a murmur.

Colome has continued the economic reform program initiated by Raúl Castro. So far, the regime has been successful in improving the quality of the lives of average Cubans. Incomes have increased and there is greater access to information and the Internet. Reforms in the agricultural sector have reduced discontent in rural Cuba by improving prices and market access.

A return to more liberal family investment measures similar to those in place during the “Special Period” has undercut pent-up frustration that might have threatened the regime. Faced with protests from both students and dissidents, the police acted quickly but with limited violence by jailing the instigators for several weeks. Support for the dissident movement has declined as there is little benefit in taking the risk of joining.

At the same time, church attendance is at a record high since the visit of Pope Benedict XVI in December 2008. The burgeoning role of both Catholic and Protestant churches stems from their provision of health services, meals for the elderly and activities such as sports, libraries, videos and other diversions, especially for the youth.

Cubans seemed to be in a “wait and see” mode, and those who are especially unhappy have put their energies into illegal migration. It is not that Cubans are happy — but they are a bit less unhappy.

Raúl Castro gained in respect and credibility. Never a risk-taker, he avoided political reforms but improved his international image by releasing most of the political prisoners to Spain and Mexico. An agreement signed with Brazil in late 2008 — after Fidel wrote that rising energy prices caused by America’s avarice forced Cuba into the ethanol market — will open an initial revenue stream of $1 billion a year by late 2010.

Offshore oil exploitation, now that a test well has proved positive, will make Cuba energy self-sufficient by 2012. Cuba’s economy keeps growing at about 5% annually as revenues from nickel, tourism and remittances remain relatively strong, and relaxation of some requirements on foreign firms has increased investment in tourism, ports and telecoms.

Cuba’s relations with the world are good. The Colome regime is considered no worse than Raúl Castro’s. Given the age of the leadership, the international community and most Cubans expect younger — and possibly civilian — leaders within a few years. But the island’s hawkish foreign minister, Felipe Roque Pérez, appears to be the heir-apparent, rather than Carlos Lage who seems to lack the toughness and perhaps the ambition.

The new U.S. administration — like those before it — continues to isolate Cuba. There is little or no expectation that sanctions will bring about regime collapse. Cuba remains a domestic policy issue. Less than 50% of exiles in Miami support the embargo but pressure for ending sanctions diminished after the administration eased travel restrictions on Cuban-Americans and began licensing more cultural, religious and educational travel.

Although these measures provided some relief and hope to Cubans on the island, it will be a long time before Cubans are ready to effectively organize a challenge to the oneparty system.

If the past is prologue, then this is Cuba’s story past, present and future. The only constant is the enmity between Washington and Havana. Is this a coincidence or a symbiotic relationship in which the Cuban revolution survives because of American policy?