Revolution Interrupted

Between Fidel’s departure and Trump’s arrival, everything is up for grabs in Cuba.

Cubans wait for the passage of the urn with the ashes of Cuban leader Fidel Castro on its way to the cemetery, near Revolution Square in Santiago, Cuba on December 4, 2016 .
A Cuban woman waits for Fidel Castro’s ashes to pass by on the way to the cemetery in Santiago, Cuba, on Sunday.

Ronaldo Schemidt/Getty Images

This article is part of a series published in cooperation with the Mexican magazine Letras Libres.

Despite the impression given by last month’s “end of an era” headlines, the death of Fidel Castro likely won’t mark a dramatic break in the island’s politics. The former Cuban leader had little influence in his brother Raúl Castro’s government. When his opinions were made public, they usually rejected the re-establishment of diplomatic relations with the United States as well as the economic reforms undertaken by the Cuban government in the past few years that have included a cautious market opening; a more permissive attitude toward businesses owned by families and individuals; the lifting of prohibitions against purchasing, selling, and renting homes and automobiles; easier credit and investment opportunities; and, in 2013, the relaxation of migratory laws.

As a result, there’s a popular idea that Fidel’s absence will benefit reformists in the government that those among the island’s political elite who believe in diplomatic normalcy may soon become more vocal without his long shadow still looming over Cuban politics.

The biggest test for whether this is the case will come in February 2018, when Raúl plans to leave office. His most likely successor is Miguel Díaz-Canel, the first vice president of the Council of State. If not him, it will be another politician born a few years before or after the revolution of January 1958. The scenario in 2018 could take the form of a generational baton-passing, but it’s unlikely to make the current totalitarian regime more flexible.

It’s also possible that Fidel’s death could have the opposite effect. If Raúl and the political class of Cuba feel in any way threatened by their new orphanhood, they may very well respond by hardening their positions; this could be potentially disastrous for the island and its relations abroad. The advent of Donald Trump could serve as the perfect alibi for political immobility. It could also result in a conservative backlash against those who favored the political opening promoted by Barack Obama’s administration. At the beginning of summer, when Fidel turned 90, that was exactly how most outlets saw it. Cuban media often described Obama’s 2016 visit, and especially his speech at the Alicia Alonso Grand Theater in Havana, as an “attack.”

It’s hard to imagine where international support for a Cuban counter-reform might stem from. Venezuela, the country that supported Fidel during his final years in government and provided both energy subsidies and geopolitical support, has collapsed; President Nicolás Maduro’s lack of legitimacy tarnishes his credentials as an ally. The countries of the late Hugo Chávez’s Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America, the international organization that for years gave Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Nicaragua, and Cuba a pulpit from which to preach, have lost power in Latin America as a result of the losses sustained by the left in the region. Latin America, in general, is looking much more politically heterogeneous: There are leftist, centrist, and rightist governments currently in power. Many of them are explicitly hostile to populist models such as 21st-century socialism, the economic model coined by Chávez in the mid-2000s and championed by several neopopulist leftist governments in Latin America.

Vladimir Putin’s Russia is a likely partner of Raúl, albeit a more geopolitical than economic one, but this partnership could be tested by Moscow’s current love affair with Trump. If a mutual understanding on foreign policy between Trump and Putin takes shape in the next few months, it’s unlikely that Russia will support a hardline stance in Havana. The same can probably be predicted of China, whose leader, Xi Jinping, steered away from Trans-Pacific Partnership controversies at the recent Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Lima, Peru. China and Russia wish to maintain good relations with Trump and are likely to suggest Castro take a pragmatic approach to U.S. relations. Moscow and Beijing will probably serve as mediators between Trump and Castro: They’ll want to ensure that Obama’s loosening of the trade embargo stays in place.

Raúl’s offer to Trump will likely consist of more of the same: a controlled opening of the precarious nonstate economic sector of Cuba coupled with zero political reform. Will the next U.S. president accept the offer? Perhaps, even though recent statements indicate otherwise.

Trump’s foreign affairs doctrine, such as it is, does not preclude working with dictators, such as Putin and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, as long as they offer the United Stated something in return. The American right was harsh in its criticism of Obama for coddling the Castros; however, the new Republican president seems to propose the exact same approach in dealing with dictators in the Middle East, Africa, and Southeast Asia.

Rather than a return to Cold War–era totalitarian Marxism, the current global context offers Cuba the perfect opportunity to entrench itself in the type of market-friendly but politically authoritarian model—Xi in China, Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, Putin in Russia—that is becoming characteristic of the 21st century. A democratic transition seems more and more distant, especially in the short term. This is not only the result of the systematic repression of peaceful opposition; it’s also because the Cuban regime offers few options for internal democratization. If said regime had been reformed—even slightly—before Fidel’s death, we’d be facing better chances of a transition that included generational change, as well as greater civil and political rights. Raúl and Fidel are largely to blame for the current political paralysis affecting the island. Their economic legacy is an unproductive and broken economy that for too long depended on the Soviet Union and Venezuela.

The two brothers who ran the country for 60 consecutive years learned the art of Cold War politics. Of the lessons learned there’s one they’ve retained: In order for a small country in the Caribbean to challenge U.S. hegemony, it must build alliances with Washington’s superpower rivals. Today, these superpower rivals seem more interested in building agreements with the new Republican administration than in extending old conflicts.

There are currently three paths open to Cuba: a return to the Marxist totalitarianism of Fidel, the more market-friendly authoritarian route that Raúl has been working toward, or democracy. All have advocates, but at this uncertain moment, there are no leaders confident and powerful enough to make any of them a reality.