On the Precipice
With the Trump threat looming and Raúl Castro possibly stepping down, the future of the Cuban Revolution is uncertain.
If Raúl Castro stays true to his word, he will no longer be president of Cuba as of February of next year. When he began his current term, he pledged that it would be his last. His relatively brief time in power has been characterized by some of the most sweeping reforms the country has seen since the early years of the revolution. While many focus on the shifts in economic policy, the opening up of Cuban society to degrees of criticism of the government has also been important, though the latter falls short of what most Cubans would wish.
Despite these changes, the Cuban ship of state seems to risk crashing on the rocks of several looming crises. First, the economic collapse of Venezuela and the threat it poses to a post-Soviet Cuban recovery premised on aid from its South American ally. Second, the question of who will succeed Raúl and how smooth such a transition would be. Finally, the election of Donald Trump and the looming threat of a return to Cold War–era policies on Cuba, which could in turn trigger a rollback of some domestic reforms.
Of course, there remains a strong possibility that Raúl does not step down at all.
The economic recovery of the late 1990s and early 2000s was largely underwritten by heavily subsidized Venezuelan oil which served both domestic needs and as a source of hard currency, though government re-exportaiton of its surplus on the international market. According to the United Nations, Cuba earned $500 million thanks to the re-exportation of Venezuelan oil in 2013 alone. The amount in 2016 was just $15 million. This significant reduction in hard currency helps explain last year’s recession despite the surge in tourism. In short, when Caracas so much as sneezes, Havana catches a cold; when Caracas catches a cold, how will Cuba fare?
Fear of Venezuela’s collapse already stalks the streets of Cuba, causing many to worry that it would signal a return to something like the “special period” of the 1990s; a time when rolling blackouts were common, there were no products to be had even with hard currency, and temporary blindness due to vitamin deficiency was a recurring problem. The collapse of the Soviet Bloc caused the island to lose over three-fourths of its imports and exports, then remain at little better than subsistence levels for years.
The worst of the crisis culminated in the maleconazo street riots which were barely defused through a counter-march personally led by Fidel Castro, preventing an open uprising against the government.
While Cuba is nowhere near as dependent on Venezuela as it had been on the Eastern Bloc before 1991, such a loss would still be a major impact with unpredictable consequences.
Compounding this economic crisis, the United States is now led by an ultra-reactionary loose cannon who seems poised to roll back normalization with the Caribbean country in an alliance with the right wing of the Cuban American exile community. Within Cuba, a return to aggressive US policy threatens to tip the domestic balance back towards orthodox hardliners within the government who attempt to enforce the “monolithic unity of the Cuban people” and may shift away from the political liberalization of the past decade.
Both these issues doubtless weigh on Raúl’s mind, though whether they will prevent him from fulfilling his promise to not run again is a matter known only to himself and, at best, a handful of trusted advisers. However, if he does plan to hand over power next year, he has done precious little to prepare the way for his successor.
It has long been an open secret that one of Cuba’s several vice presidents, Miguel Díaz-Canel, has been the favorite to succeed Raúl in 2018. When his name first circulated around Havana as Raúl’s potential pick, at least as early as 2013, his understated public presence and sporadic public appearances did not seem that odd. After all, there was still plenty of time.
Four years later, Raúl’s term has less than twelve months left and Díaz-Canel still remains largely in the shadows. He rarely speaks in public, when he does speak he appears to have the charisma of a wet paper towel, and when I asked Cubans what they felt about him as recently as this past December all his name elicited were shrugs. Even several Cubans who were excited about the prospect of Díaz-Canel in 2013 were now barely lukewarm towards him.
This nonchalant attitude is outright dangerous for the government, based as it is on at least some degree of popular support. Elections remain the thinnest of fig leaves, attempting to at least give the barest appearance of a functional democratic process. However, Cuba is not and has never been a jack-boots military style dictatorship either. Both Fidel and Raúl Castro have enjoyed important levels of popular support.
In Fidel’s case, this was personal, populist support which could lean on but did not depend on political ideology. As one working-class black woman put it to me years ago, “I dunno about Communist, but I know I’m a Fidelist.” The Revolution’s fulfillment of many of its early promises to some of Cuba’s most economically marginalized communities was not soon forgotten, although many government supporters today lament that “gratitude isn’t hereditary.”
The fact that the Castros stood up to American interventionism is also foremost in the minds of many, who see it as a defense of Cuban sovereignty and self-determination. Che Guevara famously thanked a representative of the US government for the political gift of the failed Bay of Pigs invasion.
Both Fidel and Raúl also benefited from the legitimacy of having resisted the bloody Batista dictatorship of the 1950s which brutalized and murdered thousands, during most of which it enjoyed the public support of the US government. Whenever Fidel needed to bolster his popular backing, he needed to merely recall the fulfilled promises of the early revolution, the defeat of the Batista regime, and the Daniel and Goliath narrative of defense against American imperialism.
In a system where democratic elections are largely for show, this has been an extremely important aspect of governance and legitimacy.
In contrast, Díaz-Canel did not fight Batista or los yanquis, nor does he does appear to have any massive popular following. Without these heretofore key mechanisms of legitimation, how else can he ask supporters of the revolution to make sacrifices in light of current or future crises? How can he reform and curtail the excesses of Cuba’s sprawling bureaucracy? Ambitious potential leaders within the Cuban government have kept their heads low under the Castros, but who is Díaz-Canel to tell them to step aside? Who is he, that never fought the Americans at the Bay of Pigs or the South Africans in Angola, to stand up to the army’s most reactionary dictates and avoid being accused of duplicity with the Americans and called a Cuban Gorbachev?
Obviously, the Cuban government has never been alien to repression. Critics could be blacklisted, an action which had special significance when between 1968 and until Raúl’s reforms, most jobs were government jobs. Another tactic has been the infamous actos de repudio (“acts of repudiation”), where government agents would mobilize people’s neighbors to throw eggs at the houses of dissidents or critics or emigrants, encouraging neighbors to yell obscenities at their targets. Such actions have become far rarer than they were at their height during the Mariel Boatlift Crisis in 1980, but are still used from time to time.
The darkest and most brutal tool of repression, the UMAP forced labor camps of the mid-1960s, are rightly attacked as criminal actions of basic human rights where LGBT peoples and other undesirables were rounded up for re-education through forced labor. The camps were thankfully closed after a massive public outcry from the domestic and international left and Fidel accepted responsibility for the camps in a 2010 interview with La Jornada. Finally, the looming presence of US imperialism has often served as a useful excuse for whatever measures were deemed “necessary” to brutally enforce the “monolithic unity” of the Cuban people.
While any analysis would be remiss if it did not address these repressive policies in some form, they have never been the mainstay of the post-1959 government, which serves as a stark contrast with the way murder, torture, and “disappearing” people were pillars of the Chilean, Argentinian, and Guatemalan military regimes of the last half century.
Legitimacy was built through a combination of genuine popular support and prestige for defending against US aggression in the region. These subjective pillars are also very difficult (possibly impossible) to simply “transfer” to someone else. They must be earned. In Díaz-Canel’s case, they haven’t been and it does not appear that he’ll have the opportunity to gain them before assuming power next year. That’s a problem with no clear solution.
The question becomes, why? This is an incredibly difficult question to tackle because while the obstacles to Díaz-Canel’s assumption of power are clear, the reasoning behind Raúl’s current strategy is unclear. Even if Díaz-Canel is being thoroughly trained behind the scenes, they are at the very least ignoring the issue of popular support and the atypical pillars of legitimacy which the Cuban state has depended on for decades.
Could the lack of a spotlight on Díaz-Canel be explained by Raúl supporting a different successor? This is a real possibility. One figure with popular support is Central Committee member Lázaro Expósito, though he has shown no signs that he is being groomed for the presidency. Recently returned member of the Cuban Five Gerardo Hernández also has important degrees of popular support and his time in American prison for espionage would win the respect of the military, but at the moment he is only the vice rector of the ISRI (which trains Cuba’s diplomatic corps). During my most recent visit I heard one Cuban voice support for Bruno Rodríguez, minister of foreign relations, who always seems quite chummy with Raúl at public or televised events, and certainly has name recognition, but no one else voiced similar support of his candidacy.
None of the above should be taken as meaning that a weaker executive in Cuba is entirely negative. It also opens up important opportunities for Cuban reformers within and outside the government. A weak executive is more likely to need to make concessions as the price for stability. These could potentially include reforms of democratic institutions, turning them from nominal organs of popular representation into real engines for popular power. Limited experiments with cooperatives could truly expand and flourish under local control. New mechanisms to defend individual rights could be obtained. All this would require space in civil society for working people to exert their own pressure, in an island where private capital is playing an increasing role.
Regardless of who Raúl chooses, as a man in his mid-eighties he cannot defer the decision much longer. Only two things seem certain for whoever dons the purple after Raúl: their last name is unlikely to be Castro and even in the best circumstances the obstacles they face will be enormous.