Posted on Tuesday, 05.15.12
Foreign Policy: Preparing for Life after Castro
Early this month, a senior Cuban official raised the possibility of
loosening travel restrictions, potentially making it far easier for
Cuban citizens to travel abroad as tourists. So far, little is known
about the details of the policy Havana has in mind. But the flurry of
interest stirred by this news reminds us that change in Cuba can
potentially have far-reaching strategic and political implications, for
its own people as well as for the regions that surround it.
There is a great deal that can be done in advance to prepare for the day
when the post-Castro transition begins. The Cuba Transition Project
(CTP) at the University of Miami, created in 2001 with the support of
the U.S. Agency for International Development, has become a major
authority on Cuban affairs. The project has released major studies on
transition by both academics and experts, as well as a variety of other
reports on topics such as political parties, labor unions, a free press
and economic reform. (The works cited in this article have all been
produced under CTP auspices.)
In the early 1990s, many people expected the communist regime in Cuba to
collapse. Those of us who followed the situation closely knew better,
and subsequent events have borne out our caution. The post-Castro
transition will indeed come one day, but when it does, it promises to be
a long and complicated process.
The challenges are many. First, there will be the tremendous task of
economic reconstruction. For nearly four decades, Cuba's extreme
dependence on the Soviet bloc for trade, and the distorting effects of
huge subsidies from Moscow, created an artificial economy. Most of
Cuba's exports are in decline, and poverty is correspondingly growing.
The internal market is weak, as domestic consumption is controlled by a
strict and severe rationing system. Many transactions take place in the
black market, which operates in American dollars and with merchandise
stolen from state enterprises or received from abroad. The Cuban peso
has depreciated, and its purchasing power has waned considerably. Huge
and persistent government deficits, and the absence of virtually any
stabilizing fiscal and monetary policies, have accelerated the downward
spiraling of the economy.
Moreover, sugar production, Cuba's mainstay export, has dropped to Great
Depression levels. With low prices, a decline in sugar consumption
worldwide, an increase in the number of competitive sugar producers, and
widespread use of artificial sweeteners, sugar is a losing commodity
with dire prospects for the future. Thus tourism, nickel exports, and
even exile remittances have replaced sugar as the mainstay of the
economy. Oil exploration in Cuba's northwestern waters seems promising,
but profits must be shared with foreign partners, and costs are
In addition to these vexing economic realities, there will be also a
maze of legal problems, particularly concerning foreign investment and
the status of assets acquired during the Castro era. Obviously, Cuban
nationals, Cuban-Americans, and foreigners whose properties were
confiscated during the early years of the revolution will want to
reclaim them or will ask for fair compensation.
The U.S. and other countries whose citizens' assets were seized without
compensation are likely to support such demands. Cubans living abroad
await the opportunity to exercise their legal claims before Cuban
courts. The Eastern European and Nicaraguan examples vividly illustrate
the complexities, delays, and uncertainties accompanying the reclamation
Cuba's severely damaged infrastructure is in major need of rebuilding.
The outdated electric grid cannot supply the needs of consumers and
industry. Transportation is inadequate. Communication facilities are
obsolete, and sanitary and medical facilitates have deteriorated so
badly that contagious diseases constitute a real menace to the
population. In addition, environmental concerns such as the pollution of
bays and rivers require immediate intervention.
Economic and legal problems are not, however, the only challenges facing
Cuba in the future. A major problem that will confront post-Castro Cuba
is the power of the military. Cuba has a strong tradition of militarism,
but in recent years, the military as an institution has acquired
unprecedented power. Under any conceivable future scenario, the military
will continue to be a decisive player. Like Nicaragua, Cuba may develop
a limited democratic system in which Cubans are allowed to elect
civilian leaders, but with the military exercising real power and
remaining the final arbiter of the political process.
An immediate and significant reduction of the armed forces will be
difficult, if not impossible. A powerful and proud institution, the
military would see any attempt to undermine its authority as an
unacceptable intrusion into its affairs and as a threat to its
existence. Its control of key economic sectors under the Castro regime
will make it difficult to dislodge it from these activities and to limit
its role strictly to external security. Cutting the armed forces will
also be problematic. The civilian economy may not be able to absorb
large numbers of discharged soldiers quickly, especially if the
government cannot come up with viable programs for retraining them.
The role of the military will also be shaped by social conflicts that
may emerge in a post-Castro period. For the first half of the twentieth
century, political violence was seen by many as a legitimate method to
effect political change, and this could well have an effect on societal
expectations in the future. Communist rule has engendered profound
hatred and resentment. Political vendettas will be rampant; differences
over how to restructure society will be profound; factionalism in
society and in the political process will be common. It will be
difficult to create mass political parties as numerous leaders and
groups vie for power and develop competing ideas about the organization
of society, economic policy, the nature of the political system, and
unraveling the legacy of decades of communist dictatorship.
A newly free and restless labor movement will complicate matters for any
future government. During the Castro era, the labor movement remained
docile under continuous government control; only one unified labor
movement was allowed. In a democratic Cuba, labor will not be a passive
instrument of any government. Rival labor organizations will develop
programs to protect the rights of workers, and to demand better salaries
and welfare for their members. A militant and vociferous labor movement
will surely characterize post-Castro Cuba.
Similarly, the apparent harmonious race relations of the Castro era may
also experience severe strains. There has been a gradual Africanization
of the Cuban population over the past several decades due to greater
intermarriage and out-migration of a million mostly white Cubans. This
has led to some fear and resentment among whites in the island. At the
same time, blacks feel that they have been left out of the political
process, as whites still dominate the higher echelons of the Castro
power structure. The dollarization of the economy and the recent
relaxation in the amount of remittances allowed to flow from the U.S. to
Cuba has accentuated these differences. Since most Cuban-Americans are
white, black Cubans receive fewer dollars from abroad. Significant
racial tension could well result as these feelings and frustrations are
aired in a politically open environment.
Perhaps the most difficult problem that a post-Castro leadership will
have to face is acceptance of the rule of law. Every day, Cubans violate
communist laws: they steal from state enterprises, participate in the
black market, and engage in all types of illegal activities, including
widespread graft and corruption. They do this to survive. Getting rid of
those necessary vices will not be easy, especially since many of them
pre-date the Castro era.
Unwillingness to obey laws will be matched by the unwillingness to
sacrifice and endure the difficult years that will follow the end of
communism. A whole generation has grown up under the constant
exhortations and pressures of the communist leadership to work hard and
sacrifice for the sake of society. The youth are alienated from the
political process, and are eager for a better life. Many want to
immigrate to the United States. If the present rate of visa requests at
the U.S. consular office in Havana is any indication, more than 2
million Cubans want to move permanently to the United States.
Under the normalization of U.S.-Cuban relations, Cubans will be free to
visit the United States. Many will come as tourists and stay as illegal
immigrants; others will be claimed as legal immigrants by relatives who
are already naturalized citizens. A significant out-migration is
certain, posing an added major problem for U.S. policymakers at a time
of increasing anti-immigration sentiment.
While many Cubans want to leave Cuba, few Cuban-Americans will be
inclined to abandon their lives in the United States and return to the
island, especially if Cuba experiences a slow and painful transition
period. Although those exiles who are allowed to return will be welcomed
initially as business partners and investors, they are also likely to be
resented, especially if they become involved in domestic politics.
Readjusting the views and values of the exile population to those of the
island will be a difficult and lengthy process.
The future of Cuba is therefore clouded with problems and uncertainties.
More than five decades of communism have left profound scars on Cuban
society. As in Eastern Europe and Nicaragua, reconstruction may be slow,
painful, and tortuous. Unlike these countries, Cuba has at least three
unique advantages: a long history of close relations with the United
States; excellent preconditions for tourism; and a large and wealthy
exile population. These factors could converge to transform the
country's living standards, but only if the future Cuban leadership
creates the necessary conditions for an open, legally fair economy and
an open, tolerant, and responsible political system. Unfortunately, life
in Cuba is likely to remain difficult for a while longer.
Jaime Suchlicki is the founding Director of the Cuba Transition Project
at the University of Miami and Director of the Institute for Cuban and
Cuban-American Studies. He is also the Emilio Bacardi Moreau
Distinguished Professor of History and author of "Cuba From Columbus to
Castro," now in its sixth edition.