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.”