Despite surviving numerous assassination attempts during his long period of rule, it was always an undeniable fact that Cuba’s Maximum leader, Fidel Castro, could not remain in power forever. For years the Cuban people, the United States, and the rest of the world waited in anxious anticipation for the day the aging dictator would fade into senility or disappear into death, and the question remained whether his revolution would follow suit. Then, on July 31, 2006, following reports of stress induced intestinal surgery and ailing health, it was revealed that the then 79-year-old President had transferred day-to-day governing power to his brother Raúl Castro for the first time since seizing control of the island in 1959. Although originally meant to be a temporary move, as Fidel claimed he would resume his role as Head of State once fully recovered, the Cuban dictator ultimately chose otherwise and Raúl officially took over the presidency in 2008. Almost five years his junior and in better health, Fidel’s younger brother had always seemed the most viable option to take on the challenge of running the island, and keeping the legacy of Fidel and ‘la revolución’ alive. As such, in similar fashion to the series finale of many enduringly popular television shows, it would seem that Fidel decided to step out of the limelight while still ‘on top,’ leaving Raúl to deal with the political, economic, and ideological mess that has, inadvertently, been created.
The island that Raúl inherited is often considered a historical backwater in a world that has otherwise moved on. The country’s Communist policy of ‘equality for everyone’ is better expressed in theory than in practice, and has been deteriorating for years. Any hopes Fidel once had that his people would remain truly unspoiled by the introduction of foreign influence, owing to the establishment of tourism on the island, have long been extinguished. Although the Cuban people have maintained a certain admiration and respect for the part Fidel played in their history, over time they developed a general sense of dissatisfaction with their current state of affairs. This attitude grew as the result of increased contact with foreigners, resulting in an improved understanding of the possibilities available outside the constraints set by Communist orthodoxy. The fact remains that, even prior to the transition of power, Fidel’s revolution had already begun to slip from his historically iron-clad grasp, and the revolutionary fervour that once ignited passion and patriotism amongst Cubans had already lost its lustre. The question, therefore, remains: how capable will Raúl be in leading an increasingly disillusioned country that has existed in the shadow of a charismatic dictator for more than four decades?
Some believe that true change cannot, and will not, occur until Fidel is completely gone from the scene, namely since he is still capable of influencing his brother and the decisions of the Cuban government despite being publicly recluse. After all, it is to be expected that, with his infamous reputation as a staunch Communist dictator, his presence alone still incites fear, commands compliance and invites cries of solidarity. Yet, it is undeniable that Cuba is waning under the stress of its own ideals, and even Fidel has recently resurfaced to state that, “the Cuban model doesn’t even work for us anymore.” The statement is debatable as Fidel argues that the media has misinterpreted his words by suggesting that his statement proves he no longer agrees with the Communist dogma steering the country, which he claims is the complete opposite of the truth. Nevertheless, as the global economic crisis continues to stir up hardship and chaos, the Cuban government seems to have reached an impasse and come to the realization that the country can no longer function, and survive, as it once had under the existing system.
It is common knowledge among analysts that Raúl is not as relentlessly dogmatic as Fidel, notwithstanding his own long-held Communist ideologies. As such, the current President Castro is seeking to improve Cuba’s government by relaxing the ideological stronghold that had always aided in the provocation of increased American hostilities, economic strain, as well as opposition on the island. Raúl’s post-Fidel government, therefore, has gradually begun to transition into more liberal policies, maintaining its leftist track politically, while economically and socially opening itself up to the contemporary world. One of the most significant decisions made by the Cuban government towards a liberalization of the economy took place just last month with the announcement that up to one million public sector jobs will be cut in the hopes that the unemployed will become self-employment and private enterprise might develop. In order to facilitate this process, the government will lift many of the bans that once prevented private businesses from expanding in a country where the state employs 85 per cent of the citizenry.
Yet, as Raúl’s government begins to step gingerly into the realm of liberal reforms, it will be faced with the question of how rapidly to implement certain reforms. A balance must be struck between meeting the needs of the people and maintaining the stability and legitimacy of the leadership. Cubans have been waiting, by and large with remarkable patience, for the opportunity to have their say in the political system and the future of their island. As such, if the new government too hastily introduces the process of liberalization, it will unwittingly present an occasion for the people to overwhelmingly voice their demands and expect them to be met immediately. However, many of these same challenges will also undoubtedly arise should the government be too slow in implementing reforms on the island. Either way, the risk is that the people could become increasingly restless and intolerant, possibly forcing the government to resort to aggressive action as a means of repressing any unruliness or perhaps even an insurgency. Finding the right balance between continuity and change will be an arduous task. Consequently, will the dismissal of a million state employees negatively tip the scales? Or will it be gradual enough, with an initial 500,000 employees being let go by March 2011, to retain the delicate balancing act necessary for modest Cuban liberalization to be realized?
Nevertheless, although Cubans have been denied political freedoms for years under Fidel’s vision of egalitarianism, is it possible that with the introduction of economic reforms a greater degree of social differentiation can be expected to emerge over time? Some may hope that through liberalization policies, positive ‘spill over’ will eventually seep into the political realm, leading to fewer restrictions on the people. However, the probability of such an occurrence would be minimal under an authoritarian government that continues to adhere to Communist principles. After all, any complete acceptance of political freedoms in Cuba would mean a transition towards democracy, and that is unlikely to occur.
Regardless of the governmental structure that ultimately emerges under new leadership, the most important factor of a post-Fidel administration will be to reform a number of Fidel’s longstanding ideologically motivated policies. Economic liberalization will aid in the improvement of Cuba’s currently stagnant economy, and certain political or individual liberties may be hoped for as a welcomed consequence. Though the full impact of such reforms remains to be seen, it can be assumed that the overall security and well-being of the population will improve as Cubans are offered the opportunity to indulge in self-determinant progress. Politically, however, the country will presumably remain stringent in its authoritarian rule, disallowing free and fair competitive elections, at least in the short run.