What Does Fidel Castro’s Retirement Mean for Cuba?

February 20, 2008

In one of the most anti-climactic moments in the last 50 years, Fidel Castro— America’s best enemy from the 1962 Missile Crisis to the triumphal return to Cuba of the shipwrecked little Elian Gonzalez—has resigned … But is he gone?

Not really. Fidel, from a slightly greater distance, will watch over his brother Raul Castro to ensure his—and the Revolution’s —legacy … The consummate man-behindthe- scenes, Raul’s traditional subservience to his brother has served him well.

He knows how to work within the hierarchy of the Cuban elite that has governed Cuba over five decades. He is tough, and like Fidel he is a pragmatist.He will do whatever is necessary to stay in power. He will carry out economic reforms because he must, and by doing so he will establish his legitimacy with the Cuban people. He has already started the process with a national dialogue.

But Raul and the Cuban elite intend to control the process because undertaking reforms is all about staying in power—not losing power. Will Raul succeed? My guess is that he will. His government will slowly open up—first economically, and later there will be additional political space. Religious and local grassroots institutions will be able to carry out more projects that help the young, the elderly, and the ill.

As Cubans’ lives slowly begin to improve, there will be less fear of loosening controls on travel, investment, and private initiatives. It will take a much longer time to end the monopoly of the one party system and to allow the formation of a true opposition.

As for the United States, we may well become irrelevant. Cuba’s offshore oil reserves and sugar cane ethanol will allow it to diversify and end its dependence on Venezuela. By opting to isolate Cuba, the Bush administration slows up the reform process and places the United States on the sidelines. If we want to play a role in a future Cuba, we need an engagement and reconciliation policy that is geared to quicken regime evolution.