On July 31, Fidel Castro issued a proclamation stat- ing that power had been temporarily transferred to his brother Raul Castro and to a small group of Cuban leaders. Despite press releases from Cuban authori- ties claiming that Castro was recuperating well from intes- tinal surgery, for nearly two weeks the actual condition of Fidel Castro’s health could not be independently verified. There were rumours that he was already dead, concern by some that this was all an elaborate smoke-out engineered to bring Cuban dissidents out into the open, and speculation about the severity of his illness and the length of his recov- ery. During these two weeks many plans for Castro’s succes- sion were dusted off and put on ready alert for deployment. The US government highlighted the recommendations of its latest plan, the ”œCommission for Assistance to a Free Cuba,” and unveiled a draft immigration policy aimed at stalling a mass illegal exodus while assisting legal departures from the island. Cuban exiles danced for joy in the streets of Miami and New Jersey, contemplated packing their bags to return home and readied their flotilla to rescue their beleaguered compatriots still on the island. The US and international business communities glimpsed the possibility of the eagerly awaited end of the US-imposed embargo and leafed through consulting reports on opportunities in a post-embargo Cuba.

By August 14, photos of a recuperating Fidel, some of him flanked by Raul and by Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, began appearing in the national and international press. Apparently, news of Fidel Castro’s demise were, again, vastly exaggerated. Raul Castro’s first pronouncements as acting president appeared on August 18 in the Communist Party’s newspaper. Raul stated that Cuba remained open to normalized relations with the United States but warned the US that it would not respond to threats, pressure or aggres- sive acts. He added that tens of thousands of Cuban troops had been mobilized. The US State Department quickly responded that it was not ”œenamoured” with the first words from ”œFidel light.”

In the next few months or perhaps even years, some combination of the three following scenarios is going to take place in Cuba. One, Raul Castro continues to serve as the head of the Cuban state because Fidel is too sick to reassume power or because Fidel wants him to stay in power. Two, Fidel Castro recu- perates and takes back the reigns of power. Three, Fidel Castro dies and a new leadership takes over. Scenarios one and two are not mutually exclu- sive, and could happen sequentially or even intermittently. Both would, how- ever, inevitably culminate in scenario three. Scenarios one and two are likely to have the same results ”” ”œdead calm” on the island and in the US lots of bluster combined with political paralysis on the topic of normalization of rela- tions. Scenario three will unleash major change inside and outside Cuba.

Not much is known outside top Cuban political and military circles about the internal plans for Fidel’s suc- cession, except for the well-publicized fact that his successor is his brother Raul Castro. This plan has been in place for a very long time. What is less certain, though, is what changes a gov- ernment led by Raul Castro would bring and how long the 75-year-old Raul himself will last.

Fundamentally, Cuba is facing an era of underlying uncertainty, mostly because no one really knows what to expect from a Cuba without Fidel or even one with less of Fidel. There are, however, many powerful dynamics at work inside and outside Cuba aimed at achieving relative calm and stability.

As confirmed by Raul’s first official public statement, the Cuban security apparatus is on full alert. Most Cubans, including dissidents, are likely to lay low and take a wait-and-see attitude. In just a few days in August, the Cuban government demonstrated that it was ”œin control.” The Cuban government and security forces are likely to repeat this seamless tightening of state con- trol if Fidel becomes gravely ill again or if he dies. In fact, they may never lower the state of security alert that Fidel’s August health scare instigated. On the ground in Cuba, expressions of dissent will not be tolerated; large demonstrations and attempts to take to the sea en route to US soil will be severely punished.

There will be continuity of ideals and personnel with Raul in power. The military out of uniform already holds the commanding heights of most key sectors of the Cuban economy, and it is in their interests to maintain relative calm. Raul, a military leader, is respect- ed by this community and will surely garner their support. Raul does not, however, have the loyalty-inducing charisma of his brother. Thus, this sol- idarity may be short-lived. Though at times Raul has been the political hard- liner, he is also known to be more pragmatic and less ideologically ”œpure” in economic matters than his brother. Cautiously and slowly, he is likely to open Cuba up to market forces, albeit in a state-controlled, China-like style.

Stability and continuity will surely be aided by Cuba’s recent economic recovery. High nickel prices, buoyant tourism, the efficient functioning of the relatively liberalized domestic agri- cultural sector and, especially, Venezuelan largesse, have all con- tributed to an estimated growth rate of 8-10 percent in 2005. Venezuela, Cuba’s main trading partner, provides the island with an ample supply of cut- rate oil (an estimated 100,000 barrels a day), which helps satisfy domestic consumption and gives Cuba an opportunity for wind-fall profits through the re-export of this oil at world market prices. Estimates of the value of this oil-based financing approximate the US$2 billion mark. Cuba pays for Venezuelan oil in part through the services of thousand of Cuban doctors and advisors (some in military and security matters) and exports of sugar-refining and medical equipment and parts.

Internal political stability will necessitate economic liberalization. Though there is a small and active political dissident community inside Cuba, most of the dissatis- faction with the Revolution these days is due to the never-ending economic hardships faced by ordinary citizens. Raul would shore up support for his adminis- tration if he were able to bring about sustained economic growth and a better quality of life for ordinary Cubans.

The US government will also endeavour to maintain calm and stability on the island. The last thing it needs or wants in the first decade of the new millennium is another inter- national crisis, a wave of illegal immi- grants, or armed conflict, especially one 90 miles from its shores. Nevertheless, the Cuban exile commu- nity, especially that residing in the US, will instigate upheaval on the island and will wax eloquently about the imminent demise of the regime.

Along with US State Department communiqués aimed at tempering Cuban exiles’ hopes for a swift regime change in the island, we are likely to see an increase in tough anti-Castro (Fidel and/or Raul) language and renewed funding for projects allegedly aimed at destabilizing the Cuban regime and capturing the Cuban- American vote in Florida and New Jersey. The prospect of normalizing relations will be reviewed yet again.

As far as an exodus from Miami to Cuba or from Cuba to Miami, neither movement of people is likely to hap- pen in the short to medium terms. Cuban exiles face many travel restric- tions, some imposed by the Cuban government but most imposed by the US government on its citizens and per- manent residents, including those of Cuban origin. Once relations are nor- malized, Cuban exiles will visit their homeland in droves, begin procedures to legally reclaim their former proper- ties, and invest in and support a tran- sition. However, they are no longer likely to relocate in significant num- bers. Time has taken its toll, and there are few survivors of the early wave of exiles who vowed to return to a free and democratic Cuba. Second- and third-generation hyphenated Cuban- Americans have a strong identification with the island and with its history of diaspora, but they have become well integrated into American life and few are likely to take on the hardships of rebuilding a nation.

Movement from Cuba to the US will be hampered by several factors. The repressive apparatus of the Cuban state will not tolerate dissent, and unless it chooses to promote an exodus, like it did with the 1980 ”œMariel” boatlift, or cannot prevent one, as in the case of the 1994 ”œHabanazo” boatlift, escape and asylum-seeking will continue on a small scale. Legal migration to the US, the EU, Canada and Mexico will remain steady. A draft new US immigration pol- icy announced in August 2006 institut- ed impediments to illegal immigration by Cubans while assisting legal depar- tures from the island and family unifi- cation. In an effort to dull one of Cuba’s few public relations weapons, the draft law encourages the immigration of Cuban doctors. Preoccupied by the never-ending conflict in the Middle East and by the likelihood of terrorist attacks, the US State Department and the White House have apparently con- cluded that while tough words are vote- getters, Cubans and their problems are best kept at home for now. Until rela- tions are normalized between the two countries and substantial legal immi- gration quotas negotiated, the number of Cuban immigrants to the US is likely to stay relatively modest. Lastly, despite pronouncements to the contrary, con- flicts between the old exiled elite and newer Cuban arrivals (generally darker skinned and less skilled) have demon- strated that a large wave of refugees would not be warmly welcomed.

The inner workings of government
Keep track of who’s doing what to get federal policy made. In The Functionary.
The Functionary
Our newsletter about the public service. Nominated for a Digital Publishing Award.

As long as he is compos mentis Fidel Castro will try to maintain power as he has for the past 47 years, even if it is from behind the scenes. Moreover, as long as he is alive, the rank and file of the Cuban govern- ment and the military will stay loyal to revolutionary ideals. Fidel Castro is, nevertheless, 80 years old and in less than perfect health. There is a high probability that he will die at some point in the not so distant future. History may or may not absolve Fidel, as his revolutionary manifesto claimed, but it will certainly dissolve him at some point.

Day one of the real transition in Cuba will be the day that Fidel Castro dies. Only then will major change be possible in Cuba. And at that time, change, whether wanted or not, will happen. Fidel Castro’s demise is, how- ever, only half of the change dynamic for Cuba. The Cuban-American exile community holds the other half ”” it is the key actor in the normalization of US-Cuba relations. Since the end of the Cold War, when Cuba actually mattered to the US for geo-political and security reasons, Cuban exiles have been the most important element in the development of US foreign pol- icy toward Cuba. Exiles deliver votes in key states such as Florida and New Jersey. Fundamentally, US policy toward Cuba reflects the convoluted ”œspy vs. spy” thinking of a bitter fami- ly feud between Cubans on the island and Cubans in exile.

The exile-inspired Helms-Burton Act of 1996, and the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity (Libertad) Act, which tightened the trade embargo first imposed in 1962, took the authority to radically alter US policy toward Cuba away from the US presi- dent and lodged it firmly in Congress. Under the stipulations of this regula- tion, a government led by Raul Castro cannot bring about a negotiated end to the US embargo. Therefore, normal- ization of relations will require either a leadership on the island that is acceptable to the exiles or the amend- ment or repeal of Helms-Burton. The US commercial lobby will continue pushing for measures aimed at increasing trade between the US and Cuba, especially in agricultural prod- ucts, even while the embargo is in full force. But taking a position that goes against that taken by the exile lobby would be a very expensive proposition for any legislator to undertake in terms of political capital.

Exiles generally hate Raul only sec- ond to Fidel. Rather than an eas- ing of the embargo, exile leaders may opt for lobbying the US government for a new round of embargo tighten- ing measures in yet another failed attempt to give Fidel’s and possibly Raul’s regime a coup de grace. There are moderate factions within the exile community who welcome a less inter- ventionist approach to change within Cuba and actively call for reconcilia- tion with their compatriots. Unfortunately, the Cuban-American leadership in office in the US govern- ment, and the powerful Cuban- American lobby led by the Cuban American National Foundation, have built careers as anti-Castro hard-liners, and are likely to continue their intran- sigent and belligerent stance toward anything that remotely smacks of Castro and of communist rule on the island. Normalization may also have to wait for the end of the political lives of the exiled hard-liners.

Internal power struggles are likely to occur within the new Cuban lead- ership once the initial period of sta- bility and continuity brought about through solidarity gets old. The suc- cession plan, though clear in its des- ignation of Raul as the supreme leader, is neither robust nor stable in that it does not incorporate the polit- ical ambitions of the rest of the Cuban leadership. Competition, con- flict, manoeuvering and intrigue are certain to happen as a new spectrum of positions are taken and new alliances are formed. There will be tension between conservative hard- liners and progressive reformists in both the political and economic spheres. Though this will be mostly an internal matter, outside actors will surely attempt to affect the outcomes. The United States and Venezuela will support opposing ideological camps, while Canada and the EU will advo- cate a middle way. Countries with commercial interests on the island, such as Venezuela, China, Canada and Spain, will take a great interest in influencing the creation of a new Cuban legal-economical framework in order to protect their existing investment, define their property claims and better position themselves for future competition.

Latin America’s relative swing to the left (among them Evo Morales in Bolivia, Lula in Brazil, Bachelet in Chile, and the contender for the presidency of Mexico, Lopez Obrador) and the fact that Cuba’s strongest supporters are Venezuela and China, suggests that a new Cuban leadership will establish a state-led social welfare, albeit more market oriented, form of political-economic organiza- tion. While Raul may be Castro’s suc- cessor in Cuba, the dream of a Latin American revolution will live on in the person of Hugo Chavez. If a non- negotiable condition for the normal- ization of relations continues to be multi-party democratic elections, we may have to wait a long time for nor- malization, given the left-leaning, state centred tendencies that are like- ly to survive Fidel Castro’s demise.

Once the embargo is actually lift- ed, Cuba will be eligible to rejoin the International Monetary Fund and will thus be able to negotiate relief from its crushing external debt. International financial institution (IFI) and US funds will pour into the island in an effort to reconstruct its physical, commercial and institution- al infrastructure and to provide employment and business opportuni- ties for Cubans. US national security interests will motivate this largesse to some extent. Cuba is 90 miles from US soil. A mass exodus of Cuban eco- nomic migrants as well as short-haul drug-smuggling points are to be pre- vented at all costs.

One event that could unleash chaos is the incapacitation or death of Raul Castro. He is 75 years old and reputedly a heavy drinker. How long he himself will last is anyone’s guess.

As long as the Cuban government maintains relative calm on the streets, Canadian tourists, more than 600,000 per year (out of a total of 2.3 million visitors), are likely to continue. For Canadian commercial interests and for the Canadian government, it is going to be a continuation of the ”œwait-and-see” attitude and cautious advances that have predominated for about the last half decade. Helms-Burton threatened foreigners with lawsuits if their business on the island involved property confiscat- ed from Americans, even if the American owners were Cuban citizens at the time of the confiscation. It also threatened to bar such foreigners from entry into the US. Canadian business- es have generally been lying low in Cuba because of the threat of sanc- tions and because there has been a change in the business climate of Cuba from a friendly partner in the mid- 1990s to a somewhat difficult and unpredictable ”œboss” in the early years of the new millennium.

Canadian commercial interests in Cuba are in trade and direct investment. Canada was Cuba’s fourth-largest trading partner in 2005, after Venezuela, China and Spain. As long as the economy keeps growing and Cubans can pay (not always assured given that Cuba has almost no credit), trade will continue. According to the Cuban government, there are 40 Cuban- Canadian joint companies, and Canada is the second largest investor in Cuba after Spain. Of these joint ven- tures, 54 percent are with the Ministry of Basic Industry. These large Canadian investments are in sectors relatively resilient to political risk such as mining, energy and oil exploration. Of the other 46 percent of joint ven- tures, 18 percent are with the Ministry of Tourism in areas such as construc- tion and services, 8 percent are in food products, and 20 percent are in a num- ber of sectors such as construction, financial services, automobile repair, etc. Today, Canadian companies face competition mostly from EU compa- nies. However, big challenges and opportunities will come for both with the end of the US embargo. As out- lined earlier though, this transition is not likely to take place in the short or medium terms.

Prime Minister Chrétien’s policy of ”œconstructive engagement” toward Cuba was not particularly successful in bringing about either democratization or a better record on human rights. Cuba’s rebuff of Chrétien’s efforts to bring about a release of political pris- oners put a chill over relations. Prime Minister Martin’s and Prime Minister Harper’s policies of relatively benign neglect, except for occasional repri- mands on human rights records, have not had much effect on Cuba either. Nor, for that matter, have the hard line of the US or the conditional approach of the EU. The Cuban government is resilient in crisis, resistant to outside influence, and picks its own friends. Canadian foreign policy toward Cuba, whether hot or cold, is not likely to bring about much change in the inter- nal dynamics of the island. It could, however, provide, as it has historically, a counter-point to US interventionism. The Canadian government should make a greater effort to understand the Cuban exile dynamic and it should start a process of coalition-building with the moderate faction of this com- munity, since this faction will be a key agent in the normalization of US-Cuba relations. Canadian companies should have their legal teams ready for prop- erty disputes, and the Canadian courts and the federal government should be ready to support them.

The transition toward a new leader of the Cuban state is certainly underway. If Raul Castro continues at the helm, his administration will fol- low the same general ideological and political principles that have been in effect for almost half a century, while allowing market forces to operate more freely in order to spur growth and deliver a better quality of life to Cuban citizens. In sum, the Cuba of the Castro brothers will live on in the short to medium terms. Long-term, change is inevitable. Fidel Castro’s role in Cuba has been similar to that of Tito in Yugoslavia. He has managed to hold in check contradictory ten- dencies by force of his personality, his perceived legitimacy, and an uncanny ability to survive against all odds. Cuban politics and economics, as well as US policy toward Cuba, have been in a sort of steady state for over half a decade. Fidel’s long-term illness or death would remove the kingpin that has held together the country’s inter- nal and external dynamics. Nature abhors a vacuum. The death or inca- pacitation of Fidel Castro will leave a very big one. 

You are welcome to republish this Policy Options article online or in print periodicals, under a Creative Commons/No Derivatives licence.

Creative Commons License