Even as Fidel Castro made his first televised appearance (Bloomberg) in months in late January, the murmurs anticipating his passing—and what it might mean for communist Cuba—continued unabated. The United States has held out hope that political turnover might bring an opportunity to end the decades-long freeze in diplomatic relations with Communist Cuba. American officials hope to promote democratic change on the island by reaching out to Cuban civil society during a period of political transition, as the State Department’s Cuba Transition Coordinator Caleb McCarry describes in this new CFR.org Podcast.
Raul Castro, the country’s acting president and Fidel’s brother, added to speculation that change might be afoot with a series of speeches (Reuters) in December asserting his frustration with the country’s bureaucracy and launching a campaign to bolster the country’s low food output. For some analysts, Raul’s recent statements amount to a move in the direction of China’s relatively liberalized Communist economic model.
William Ratliff of the Hoover Institution argued just this, writing last August in the Latin Business Chronicle: “In the near, post-Fidel future, Cuban leaders are likely to follow the Chinese lead in maintaining the revolutionary image of their original great leader even as they dismantle much of his economic thinking and system.” Much more recently, Newsweek’s Latin America Editor Joseph Contreras wrote that Raul may “ditch Cuba’s Soviet economics in favor of Beijing’s free-market model.” Contreras says Raul has studied China’s economy since a 1997 trip to Beijing, and that he may be willing to loosen the government’s grip on property ownership—currently over 90 percent of Cuba’s land is publicly owned.
The idea of a modernizing Cuban economy cheers many U.S. foreign policy experts, who view the decades-old political and economic standoff between Washington and Havana as self-defeating. But it may be a bit early for celebrations. CFR's Julie Sweig writes in Foreign Affairs the transition is already well underway and that, while change in Cuba is inevitable, “the pace and nature of that change will be mostly imperceptible to the naked American eye.” Even assuming Raul Castro does hope to push ahead a slightly more modern economic agenda—and that is far from proven—other domestic factors could be a stumbling block in the way of rapid change. London’s Daily Telegraph noted in a recent article that Cubans themselves might not be wholly in favor of economic liberalization, even if their leader was more amendable: “There are plenty of Cubans who treasure their equality, even if it means shortages for all.” Nor are major economic reforms likely to happen without significant input from Hugo Chavez, Venezuela’s socialist president. Chavez already subsidizes Cuba’s economy (Miami Herald) with nearly 100,000 barrels of oil per day, and it stands to reason that he would lean heavily on the country’s leadership in a period of political and economic transition.
So what of the China-model murmurings? While certain reforms may come under Raul, experts say a seismic shift is far from certain. This Backgrounder describes the multitude of factors complicating any easy normalization of U.S.-Cuba relations. The Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba, a research panel appointed by President Bush in 2003, has called for large scale democracy promotion initiatives from the United States to foster a democratic government in Cuba. But other U.S. officials have reiterated that money alone is not the answer. “Ultimately no political solution can be imposed from outside,” said Thomas Shannon, the State Department’s assistant secretary for the western hemisphere, in a recent speech. In this CFR.org online debate, two Cuba experts discuss what diplomatic approach the United States should take to a post-Fidel Cuba.