In February 2008, longtime Cuban president Fidel Castro transferred power to his younger brother Raúl, sparking a worldwide dialogue regarding the implications of the first major transition of power seen on the island in almost five decades. Most would agree that Havana, in fact, has carried out a number of changes. However, the ultimate significance of these cumulative reforms and the prospect of a broadening of Cuban democracy are still being widely debated. Some, like the Bush administration, believe that the recent changes are cosmetic and do not signal a transition into a more representative, democratic government because of continued instances of repression and state control over the economy and the Cuban people. Others maintain that the overall combination of the numerous structural changes occurring on the island, as well as the changed social patterns, should be seen as a precursor to a democratic future. Still others believe that Raúl Castro is himself merely a transitional figure who is mainly preoccupied with maintaining stability, due to concerns that Fidel Castro’s death could destabilize a system that has revolved around him since its inception.
The Cuban Revolution awarded power to a charismatic leader who permeated every aspect of Cuban society during his 48-year rule. Fidel’s resignation has left Raúl with the inevitable yet difficult task of continuing a system based on fidelismo without Fidel. It is undeniable that Raúl’s primary concern has been the establishment of an effective succession mechanism to guarantee a peaceful and stable transition of power. After all, the 77-year old Raúl will not enjoy as long a presidency as his brother did. However, to overlook the value and prospects of the reforms implemented by Raúl would be a mistake of the highest order. If nothing else, the appearance and public persona of the president of Cuba has changed dramatically since Raúl Castro shed his guerrilla uniform in favor of a western, dark gray business suit. For a country defined by its guerilla birth and military rule, it is especially significant that the island’s new president, the decades-long head of the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias, has decided to change his appearance in this way. Before speculating whether the new Cuban president will be a different kind of Castro or a continuation of the same old Fidel, it may be beneficial to enumerate the many changes being witnessed by Cuba since Raúl’s rise to power in July 2006.
Expectations at the Time of Succession: The Practical Castro
- 1. Openness to a Free-Market: Raúl has demonstrated a willingness to experiment with capitalist-style measures in the past. When Cuba lost the vital flow of economic aid after the fall of the Soviet Union at the start of the 1990’s, Raúl adopted a pragmatic approach. He convinced his brother to carry out a partial liberalization of the economy, first in the private agricultural market and then in the tourism industry, in order to replace the existing sugar monoculture by opening the portal to private capital. Raúl also spearheaded Cuba’s dollarization, self-employment, cooperative agriculture, and a banking reform.
2. New Labor Disciplinary Measures: In April 2007, Raúl implemented new measures to improve order, discipline, performance, and education in the labor market.
3. Admirer of Chinese Communism: Raúl Castro has expressed his respect and enthusiasm for countries that have adopted free-market reforms without sacrificing Communist ideals. Some have speculated that he might be inclined to implement the Chinese economic model, which allows for greater private enterprise and fewer restrictions on foreign investment.
Economic Reforms and Property Rights
- 4. Promise of Structural Change: In July 2007, Raúl asserted the need to strengthen the economy by redressing the existing “absurd inefficiencies” through “structural and conceptual changes.” These would include market-oriented reforms such as allowing more private enterprise, gradually revaluing the Cuban peso, and providing greater purchasing power to the average Cuban.
5. New Property Regulations: The first step towards private property rights has been established through greater housing security. Currently, Cubans do not own their housing, but merely possess a right of use. The Cuban government controls where its citizens live, determines if they can move, and forbids real estate transfers or sales. However, in April 2008 the Cuban government announced that state workers will be able to receive titles to their homes and enjoy the right to keep them even if they leave their jobs, as well as transfer them to their family members upon their death.
6. Salary and Pension Increases: As President, Raúl has promulgated new laws that benefit the Cuban labor force. In April 2008, he announced that about 2.1 million Cubans will receive a pension increase of 20% per month so that the minimum monthly amount will be about US $9.50. That same month, Raúl also announced that approximately 9,000 court workers and judges will receive a salary increase.
7. Return to Market Prices: The state has raised the price of meat and dairy products produced in private farms by 250%. This reform sharply varies from Fidel’s policies, which had skewed the Cuban market by allocating unparalleled subsidies to state-owned farms.
8. Introduction of Market Wages: In a significant blow to fidelismo, the Cuban government announced on June 11, 2008 that by August it would eliminate the egalitarian wage system that gave skilled and unskilled workers equal salaries. The national newspaper, Granma, stated that this newly revised system of “socialist distribution” ensures that workers earn “in accordance with [their] contribution…in accordance with quality and quantity” so as to improve efficiency, outputs, and services through economic incentives. This act creates the possibility of wealth accumulation and is a step towards the adoption of the Chinese economic model, with all of its strengths and weaknesses.
- 9. Decentralization of the State-Dominated Agricultural Sector: The Ministry of Agriculture has handed down extensive responsibility over land-use planning, resource allocation, and sales to municipal-level ministry offices, which are expected to solve local issues without taking them to the Ministry.
10. Efficient Land Use: As a means of combating the ongoing food crisis, Raúl Castro has authorized farmers to rent unused land from the government’s collective farms just two months after officially taking office. On the lands, the farmers can grow and sell crops, such as coffee and tobacco, at market prices.
11. Better Conditions for Farmers: Private farmers seem to believe that, under Raúl, their concerns will be better addressed and their economic situation will be improved. In April, they received a salary increase and were granted greater autonomy from government planners in determining the appropriate use of their land. Farmers now enjoy fewer limitations when acquiring machinery and supplies at government stores. This process was previously regulated by the Ministry of Agriculture in Havana. Finally, private farmers are now overseen by the Ministry instead of by a subordinate department.
Human Rights Protection
- 12. Improved Situation for Political Prisoners: Cuba is experiencing a decrease in the number of political prisoners under Raúl’s rule. For example, Francisco Chaviano, the longest-serving political prisoner in Latin America, was released from jail in August 2007. Furthermore, four prisoners of conscience were conditionally released in 2007, thirty death sentences were commuted to prison terms of thirty years to life, and Raúl has made it clear that death sentences will only be used in extraordinary cases, such as against terrorism.
13. Freedom of the Press: Though Cuba continues to uphold the most restrictive laws on free speech in the hemisphere, in October 2007 the government allowed Cuban televisions and newspapers to broadcast a fragment of President Bush’s speech before the State Department on the subject of United States relations with Cuba. This was an unprecedented event, especially considering Bush’s scathing criticism of the Cuban government during his speech. Additionally, the press has recently published several exposés condemning the critical situation in Cuba regarding corruption and shortages of food, transportation, and housing. Such reports equip society with an instrument to conduct an internal review of the excesses associated with the current economic and political system. On Raúl’s 100th day in power, the Times of India reported that “Intellectuals live less in fear of decrying censorship, television has fewer taboos imposed, and even Granma, the venerable mouthpiece of Cuba’s Communist Party, has taken to publishing grievances from residents.” The World Press Freedom Review declared that harassment by the authorities had declined on the island in 2007. Bloggers have documented that the government is tolerating satirical television programs dedicated to social criticisms and is allowing greater access to American video clips.
14. Adherence to Human Rights Treaties: Demonstrating an increased commitment to human rights, Cuba signed the United Nations’ International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights only days after Raúl was officially chosen as president in February 2008. This covenant binds the state to the protection of labor rights and the rights of its people to access to health, education, and an adequate standard of living. Cuba also signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, making the government accountable for any human rights violations before the United Nations’ Human Rights Committee.
15. Human Rights Dialogue: Building on these developments, Cuba signed an agreement in April 2008 with the Spanish government that created a Bilateral Consultation Mechanism to discuss the importance of protecting human rights.
16. Reform of the Health Care System: In March 2008, Raúl lifted a regulation that forced people to receive their medical prescriptions only from a pharmacy specifically assigned by the government, reducing state control over the process through which Cubans obtain their medicines.
17. Right to Own Property: Also in March 2008, Rául Castro announced that Cubans could own cell phones, computers, and other electronic devices. This served to decrease the prices of these products on the black market and to reroute that revenue to the state, while allowing for freer communication.
18. Freedom of Movement: Starting in March 2008, Cubans were permitted to stay in major private hotels, once exclusively reserved for tourists.
19. Rights for Homosexuals: Raúl Castro has allowed a very active gay community to emerge in a country where homosexuality was previously considered an aberrant criminal offense. In May 2008, this newly empowered group organized a government-supported campaign against homophobia. It was the first time since the Revolution that Cuban society has been allowed to gather and speak about this topic. In addition, the state television network transmitted the American feature film about a homosexual affair titled “Brokeback Mountain” over its prime-time schedule. Equally significant, the Cuban parliament is discussing proposals to legalize same-sex unions and give homosexual couples the same legal benefits enjoyed by heterosexual couples. Just last month, the authorities stated that not only would restrictions on sex-change operations be lifted, but that the government would offer them free of charge to qualifying individuals. Even with the setback witnessed with the detainment of the organizers of what would have been the first gay parade, which aimed at obtaining an apology from the government for its past repression of homosexuality, it would be a mistake to deny that “change is coming,”1 and that “important strides have been made… [homosexuals are] slowly gaining a space in society and that’s important.”2
20. Existence of Public Opposition: Opposition groups, though banned officially, have been able to publicly voice their positions regarding state policies since Raúl took office. For example, dissenting blogger Yoani Sanchez has been able to continue disseminating information from inside the country to her worldwide audience. Harassment and detainment of opposition activities and figures has continued, but its severity has noticeably decreased.
Rule of Law and Greater Popular Participation
- 21. Eliminating Fraud: In January 2007, the government implemented new rules aimed at decreasing “undisciplined” state activities and widespread financial fraud in state enterprises.
22. Encouraging Greater Participation: Beginning in September 2007, the government organized meetings among Communist Party members urging them to sincerely express their concerns and criticisms. Even though Raúl Castro cautioned against expressing opinions in an inappropriate manner, this opportunity for more active participation in government processes by unorganized ordinary Cubans would be difficult to conceptualize under Fidel Castro.
23. Decentralizing Power: After officially taking office, Raúl Castro stated that Cubans should begin to think more locally and rely less on the central government. He later proposed allocating more authority to provincial governments and restructuring the central government’s bureaucracy. Finally, he affirmed that Cuba would be ruled by a collective leadership after Fidel’s death.
United States-Cuban Relations
- 24. Advocate for Amicable Dealings: After the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the United States began sending suspected al-Qaeda terrorists to the Guantánamo Bay Detention Facility, but still was concerned about Fidel’s reaction. Many believe that Raúl played a crucial role in promoting tolerance towards the United States’ decision and assuring American authorities that, in the event of an escape, Cuban security forces would be called upon to help capture and return the prisoner.
25. Willingness to Improve Relations: On multiple occasions, Raúl Castro has reiterated a willingness to negotiate and normalize relations with the United States. Perhaps as an act of good faith, in May 2008, Cuban authorities arrested and deported an American fugitive charged with sexual abuse and possession of child pornography, even though Cuba has no extradition treaty with the United States. This was the fourth such American fugitive deported by the Raúl Castro government.
A Promising Future?
These reforms have indeed distinguished the governing styles of the Castro brothers. Within a year of his rise to power, Raúl Castro has implemented policies that Fidel had blocked for decades. Most of the reforms respond to criticisms and concerns, especially of a younger generation of Cubans. Thus, even if the Raúl Castro government does not particularly seek radical socioeconomic and political change, it is at least minimally concerned with rallying popular support and maintaining the population satisfied, which in turn has given Cubans a little more say when it comes to determining broad government initiatives.
Moreover, even if Raúl is not interested in implementing further reforms in Cuba, by enacting the aforementioned changes, he has committed the risky act of raising expectations on the island and abroad, which has contributed to the mobilization of a citizenry intent on witnessing change. He has also risked displeasing his ally and personal banker, Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, whose economic aid has been crucial to Cuba’s survival in the last decade, and who is a passionate fellow advocate for socialism in Latin America. Therefore, reversal of the process could potentially result in significant opposition that could bring on a dangerous destabilization of the entire system.
Meanwhile, one must not forget the ubiquitous presence of Fidel Castro in the lives of all Cubans. He episodically continues to comment on Cuban domestic and international affairs, and sometimes seems fit to contradict statements issued by Raúl regarding Cuba’s future policy direction. In September 2007, he vehemently rejected the possibility of economic reforms in Cuba and, in February 2008, the National Assembly gave Fidel consultative authority over matters dealing with defense, foreign policy, and socioeconomic developments. He also recently hosted a visit by President Chávez to Cuba. Fidel’s continuing presence and influence over different aspects of Cuban affairs could pose a significant impediment to the realization of a new Cuban state. Furthermore, almost all of Raúl Castro’s are younger and likely to be more ideologically pure than him. Thus, they pose yet another possible limitation on the new government’s ability to easily put Fidel’s legacy aside and create a new image of state leadership, while constructing a dramatically different path for the Cuban people.
Despite the many difficulties faced by the new Castro government, it is undeniable that Fidel Castro’s departure from office will continue to herald a period of unprecedented changes that are likely to counter many of fidelismo’s traditional beliefs. Much remains to be done but, as an independent journalist in Havana stated, “Under Fidel Castro, everything here in Cuba was prohibited.” Therefore, these changes have created great hope for the Cuban people.
Spectators should not define progress in Cuba as immediate compliance with western democratic standards. The Cuban government has controlled most aspects of its citizens’ lives for almost fifty years. Fidel Castro was the overseer and micromanager of every functioning facet of the island, and the government became synonymous with his persona. Five decades of this kind of governance cannot be drastically transformed overnight. Thus, now that he has formally stepped down from office, the government will need to create an executive office autonomous of Fidel Castro in order to adapt to the new style of governance that will likely ensue. Raúl has not been overly aggressive in transforming the state created by his brother, but he has definitely taken meaningful steps towards the possibility of the rise of a very different Cuba.
Therefore, the international community should recognize the potential of a constructive Raúl Castro government and react accordingly. The European Union took the first step on June 19, 2008, when it lifted the diplomatic sanctions against Cuba. These were imposed as a way to pressure the Cuban government to moderate and democratize. However, they tended to be utterly ineffective. Not even the US economic embargo, which severely hurt the Cuban economy, was effective in coercing Fidel Castro to protect human rights and strive to be a representative government. The embargo’s only accomplishments were alienating the island and further deteriorating the quality of life of the average Cuban. One should not forget that the rationing system was implemented due to the lack of food and supplies that accompanied the economic hardship caused by the embargo. Since Washington’s hard-line approach to the Cuban revolutionary government has failed thunderously, critics call for a different tactic.
By lifting the sanctions, the EU is not merely opening the path to dialogue, but it is also increasing its ability to exercise leverage over Raúl Castro and help him consolidate the island’s transition to a more open and democratic society. This decision could be an enormous act of good faith that has the potential to restore the Cuban government’s connection to the international community. The question now remains: is the US willing to follow suit, or will it maintain its uncompromising and failed stance that has only hurt Cuban society while providing few discernable benefits?
1 Cuban gay activist Mario José Delgado
2 Cuban Félix López