The country’s first non-Castro president in over 50 years has only one path to legitimacy.
It has been nearly 60 years since Cuba was ruled by anyone but a Castro. As an expected historic leadership transition to Miguel Díaz-Canel, the country is reckoning with the costs of decades of delayed development — and wondering whether a new leader will be able to offer new economic hope.
In his decade as president, Raúl Castro rolled out modest adjustments to the economy, with momentum culminating during the country’s re-engagement with the United States and the wave of American tourists that followed.
By the time U.S. President Barack Obama visited in 2016, every young Cuban I met during my own visit that year had a side hustle or was hatching plans for one.
In those dizzying days, they acted like kids let loose after being grounded, and this moment was freedom, and this time — unlike all the other times over the years when the government had relaxed the economy only to retrench — it would be different.
But it wasn’t. Cubans today feel the pain of economic potential deferred once again, a result of the Trump administration’s policy reversals and the Castro government’s hesitations.
Díaz-Canel will not have the luxury of being so cautious. Without the revolutionary credentials of the Castros, his only chance of maintaining the goodwill of both Communist Party elites and ordinary Cubans is to improve the stagnant economy.
There’s a tendency in the United States to view Cuba through the lens of high politics, emphasizing issues like the opening of the embassy and debates over democratization.
But for most ordinary Cubans, bread-and-butter issues have been their daily struggle, and the main vehicle for understanding their northern neighbor — especially the effects of the decades-long embargo.
Economic migration has long displaced political migration, driving Cubans in recent years to flee by boat but also by foot via the deadly Mexican border. It’s why baseball players defect.
And it’s why people welcomed Obama’s visit — far less for his political message, but for the economic opening it signaled.
“Cubans have a reputation for fantastic singing and dancing. But do you know why we sing and dance so much here?” a University of Havana student I befriended posited one afternoon during my first visit in 2001. “Because there’s nothing else to do!”
For him, the punchline was a bitter joke, alluding to his generation’s lack of prospects. Graduating into a state-controlled economy, many young Cubans made the equivalent of about $20 U.S. dollars a month in dead-end government jobs.
Those with any ambition had no outlet. They could only clock in and out — and in the evenings after work, perhaps indeed sing and dance. It was Raúl Castro who eventually tried to stir Cuba from years of inactivity.
Taking over the leadership as his brother’s health declined, he was less ideological than Fidel. Critically, he allowed people to exit the state system and set up their own businesses.
Hundreds of thousands of Cubans jumped at the chance. As many as four out of 10 Cubans in the labor market today work in the private economy.
But the payoff didn’t arrive. The country has slipped in and out of recession, barely recovering last year with a feeble 1.6% growth in GDP.
The government wants to see 5 percent growth, but the economy can’t grow without vibrant industries, and there are none. A special economic zone modeled after successful Chinese ones was established for manufacturing but has attracted little attention.
Longtime ally Venezuela, whose catastrophe now exceeds Cuba’s, has reduced much-needed and subsidized oil shipments. Cuba’s agricultural sector is a mess. Once a powerhouse exporter of sugar, tobacco, and citrus, these days the island imports as much as 80% of its food.
In part, Cuba’s failures have had to do with Raúl Castro not being revolutionary enough. He has had to account for a bureaucracy determined to maintain the status quo.
Cuban elites view reform as a dangerous endeavor in their survival calculus. They have not seen it as a chance for personal enrichment the way Chinese or Vietnamese elites did.
Instead, the lesson learned came from the collapse of the Soviet Union, when the island lost a third of its GDP. As a result, they have opted to manage political risk over creating economic gains.
This is evidenced in the way the country’s leaders flip-flop on private enterprise. After an explosion of growth — one that widened the income gap — a nervous government put applications to become entrepreneurs on hold last summer, even as economists called for less regulation.
Raúl Castro was scarred by the Soviet transition and the subsequent rise of the Russian oligarchs, according to James Williams of Engage Cuba, a lobbying group that supports trade with the island.
“He was determined not to let that happen in Cuba,” he says. “But it’s sort of like they overlearned their lesson, and they are too anxious, conservative, and cautious.”
The country remains deeply centralized. Local officials have little agency, and as Richard Feinberg of the Brookings Institution has written, “They are neither accustomed to taking initiative nor sufficiently rewarded for doing so.”
Article first Published in Foreign Policy Magazine