Cuba finally has to move on from Castro era
When Raul Castro stepped down from the Cuban presidency three years ago, the renowned Cuban singer Raul Torres wrote a song for the occasion entitled “The Last Mambi.” The term “mambi” originally referred to the guerrilla fighters who fought against Spain for independence in the late 19th century. Half a century later, Cuban revolutionaries saw themselves as carrying the torch of the liberators from Spanish colonialism, this time with the aim of toppling the military dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista.
Though he stepped down from the presidency in 2018, Castro did not vacate the political scene entirely. He stayed on in the all-important position of first secretary of the Communist Party — the only party in Cuba — keeping a watchful eye on the next generation of leaders, making sure they didn’t stray too far from the revolution’s legacy. On Friday, in his opening speech to the eighth congress of the ruling party, the 89-year-old, who was one of the pillars of the revolution, made the anticipated announcement of his resignation. Though not surprising considering his advanced age and his more than 60 years at the heart of some of the most dramatic events in Cuba’s recent history, the end of his political career signifies the end of an era.
For the first time in more than six decades, there isn’t a Castro at the helm of this Caribbean island, which has adhered to its ideology and values in the face of much greater forces, in particular its staunch American nemesis. These are not easy times for Cubans. The island suffers from a severe economic crisis that the coronavirus pandemic has contributed to considerably, the bite of US sanctions that were reintroduced by the previous American administration, and dissenting internal voices calling for change. All of this takes place at a time when the country is implementing some of its most far-reaching reforms since the revolution seized power.
Castro’s retirement completes the transition that started when he relinquished the role of president, which was taken up by Miguel Diaz-Canel, who belongs to the generation born after the revolutionaries came to power. Castro lived many years in the shadow of his charismatic brother Fidel and, to an extent, of the immortal Ernesto “Che” Guevara. Nevertheless, his contributions to the revolution throughout the struggle to topple Batista’s dictatorship and in shaping the direction of Cuban policy during the stormy waters of the Cold War and its aftermath deserve more recognition.
To a large degree, he was an ideologue of the more radical strand of socialism during the revolution’s early years. At the same time, it was under his leadership that Cuba began the long road toward finding a model of economy and governance that didn’t abandon the core socialist values of the revolution, but allowed for a gradual liberalization of the economy, suitable for the 21st century’s global conditions. It was also Raul Castro who was ready to bury the hatchet with the US. He embarked on a rapprochement with the Obama administration that led to an easing of the cruel and senseless embargo, initially imposed by President Dwight Eisenhower, which had become increasingly punitive under each successive American administration. Considering the numerous attempts on his brother’s life by the CIA, and occasionally on his own, as well as the general misery the US caused this peaceful island, it was an act of great vision, overcoming a personal grudge for the sake of Cuba.
It is likely that Diaz-Canel, who many observers expect will also become first secretary of the Communist Party, will continue the revolution’s journey on the path that Castro paved after he replaced his brother in 2006. Castro’s legacy, in particular his ability to accept and adapt to the changing circumstances in the global economy and balance of power, is extremely impressive. This is especially so considering that, until 15 years ago, the whole workforce of the country was employed by the government, salaries — regardless of profession and role in the economy — varied very little, taxes didn’t exist, and neither private enterprise nor private ownership of property were allowed. Not many revolutionaries, especially those who stayed in power for so long, have been capable of adapting to changing conditions while holding on to their core beliefs in the way Castro did.
Diaz-Canel has some of the characteristics of his predecessor in terms of adhering to the basic tenets of Cuban socialism. On his watch, the momentum of reforms has continued, including authorizing private activity in most sectors, increasing from 127 activities to more than 2,000.
A major hurdle for change in Cuba and the improvement of economic conditions remains the relationship with its powerful neighbor to the north. President Joe Biden doesn’t seem to be in a hurry to return to the rapprochement policy initiated by the Obama administration when he was vice president. He has also done little to reverse the damage done to Washington-Havana ties by the Trump administration. Cuba is not a high priority on this administration’s agenda; it is more swayed by the US Cuban diaspora’s demands than what is good for either US interests or the Cuban people. Without a change to the US-Cuban relationship — which Havana under Castro and now Diaz-Canel has proved to be open to — the pace of improvement in the economic and social conditions in Cuba will be much slower.
Raul Castro’s legacy, in particular his ability to accept and adapt to changing global circumstances, is extremely impressive.
Castro’s parting words to the party congress were: “Let no one doubt that, as long as I live, I will be ready, with a foot in the stirrup, to defend the homeland, the revolution and socialism.” This reflects that, at heart, he has remained as committed to the cause as when he and his comrades reached the island in their rickety yacht “Granma” in November 1956. However, the realist in him knows that the romantic days of the revolution are gone and his beloved Cuba has a huge task if it is to move forward and build on the achievements of the revolution in education, health and science, while also preserving some of its admirable values. Yet it has to do that with confidence and courage to address its imperfections and find a Cuban model that is socialist, rewards excellence and enterprise, and is tolerant toward individualism and those who challenge the system.
- Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations and an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg