For decades, Cuban schoolchildren were taught a slogan about the kind of pioneers of Communism they should aspire to be: “Seremos como el Che!” (We will be like Che!), that is, like the Argentine insurgent Ernesto “Che” Guevara, who played a leading role in the 1959 Cuban revolution and later sacrificed his life in pursuit of revolution in Bolivia. In the wake of Fidel Castro’s death at age 90 on November 25, 2016, however, the school curriculum now includes songs and posters that state “Yo Soy Fidel.” Indeed, “I am Fidel” has become a new mantra of revolutionary commitment heard and seen throughout the island.
History will record Fidel as the undisputed comandante of the Cuban revolution, the charismatic and grandiose former guerrilla leader who transformed a Caribbean island that had served as a playground for wealthy Americans, the mafia, and other malevolent US interests into a proud nationalist country with an outsize role on the world stage. But it is the legacy of his younger brother, Raúl, who officially steps down as president this week, that may prove to be even more compelling for Cuba’s future.
Over the dozen years that Raúl led the country—he replaced his ailing brother in July 2006 and officially assumed the role of president in February 2008—Cuba has slowly evolved away from a tightly controlled, hyper-state-centric system toward a more dynamic and modern, if still fundamentally socialist and authoritarian, society. Raúl Castro opened the door to many basic necessities that Cubans had been denied—access to cell phones, the Internet, freedom to travel, the sale of private property such as homes and cars, and a functioning private sector, among other needed freedoms that affect the daily lives of many average citizens. He also achieved a historic modus vivendi with the United States—no small feat given the years of US aggression and perpetual hostility to bilateral relations.
Raúl Castro’s agreement with the Obama administration to reestablish normal diplomatic ties certainly ranks as one of his greatest accomplishments. He assigned his son, Alejandro Castro Espín, a high-ranking intelligence officer, to lead 18 months of secret negotiations with President Obama’s representatives—and secured a deal that not only fulfilled Fidel’s promise to obtain the return of Cuba’s imprisoned spies, known as the Cuban Five, but also bring bilateral relations into the realm of normalcy, with more open commerce, travel, and diplomatic interaction. Despite pushback from wary hard-liners in the Communist Party, including Fidel himself, Raúl hosted President Obama’s historic March 2016 trip to Havana. “To destroy a bridge is easy and takes little time,” Castro presciently stated during their joint press conference in Havana. “To reconstruct and fortify it is a much longer and more difficult task.”
Despite the Trump administration’s efforts to sabotage that bridge of better relations, Cuba and the United States remain connected economically, culturally, and diplomatically. In recent weeks, the two governments have approved an expansion of US commercial air and cruise-ship travel to Cuba. Some 620,000 US travelers—among 4.7 million international tourists—visited Cuba in 2017, despite Trump’s travel warnings, restrictions, and hostile rhetoric. “We’re, as you know, very tough on Cuba,” Trump told reporters in Florida yesterday, commenting on Raúl Castro’s departure. His administration, Trump vaguely claimed, is “taking care of Cuba.”
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The expansion of Cuba’s tourist sector has contributed to Raúl Castro’s efforts to create a functioning private sector—again, despite forceful opposition from doctrinaire Communist Party officials who oppose the economic inequalities that moving toward a more mixed economy inevitably brings to Cuban society. His nonsocialist economic reforms created categories for licensed self-employment that have resulted in close to 600,000 private-sector small businesses. Those cuentapropistas, as Cuban entrepreneurs are called, are in turn employing tens of thousands of other Cubans. According to some estimates, four in 10 Cuban workers have a foot in the private-sector work force. “Raúl’s legacy in economic policy lies in breaking once forbidding ideological barriers,” points out Richard Feinberg in a study for the Brookings Institution, even though those reforms have failed to end the crisis-level stagnation of Cuba’s socialist economy. “Regardless, these changes have paved the way for the successor generation of leaders—if they dare—to push Cuba forward into the 21st century.”
The post-Castro era now begins; at least that is the conventional narrative of the US media. In reality, Raúl Castro’s tenure as first secretary of the Cuban Communist Party—arguably a more powerful position than the office of the president—will continue for several more years, and he is retaining his role in the Cuban military, which he has commanded since 1959. His continued power is likely to be used to advance the agenda of his handpicked successor, Miguel Díaz-Canel, who assumed the presidency on April 19. “You can look at Raúl Castro and Díaz-Canel as mentor and disciple,” notes Carlos Alzugaray, a former Cuban diplomat and political observer. Indeed, in his acceptance speech to the Cuban National Assembly, the newly inaugurated president made it clear he was still a disciple. “Raúl Castro, as first secretary of the Communist Party, will lead the decisions about the future of the country,” Díaz-Canel stated. “Cuba needs him, providing ideas and proposals for the revolutionary cause, orienting and alerting us about any error or deficiency, teaching us, and always ready to confront imperialism.”
Díaz-Canel will be the first non-Castro to lead Cuba since the revolution, as well as the first non-member of the original July 26 revolutionary movement. His legitimacy, therefore, will depend on the discernible changes he can deliver to ease the struggle of daily Cuban life, end the brain-drain of highly educated Cubans who continue to exit the country in droves, and modernize the economy and society at large. During his steady rise to the pinnacle of the Cuban Communist Party, he has gained a reputation as a listener, a consensus builder, a hands-on manager, a non-elitist, and an accessible administrator. At 58, he is approximately 30 years younger than the few surviving leaders from the generation of the revolution who have governed Cuba up until this point. International observers assume he’s modern and forward-thinking because he carries a computer tablet and is often seen working on it during meetings.
For Cubans, this generational change in leadership carries high expectations for a different, if not better, future, instead of the nationalist nostalgia for the heyday of Cuba’s revolutionary past that tends to dominate the propaganda of the Communist Party. Díaz-Canel faces the daunting challenge of providing both continuity and change to address competing social, economic, and ideological pressures as Cuba moves forward. To succeed, he will have to lead the country through this historic political transition toward a far more significant socioeconomic transformation. Raúl Castro often said his reforms would continue sin prisa pero sin pausa—without hurry but without pause. As the cachet of the Castro era fades into history, the country’s new leadership may well decide to pick up the pace of change.