Future in Cuba Is Unclear after Death of Fidel Castro

GW lecturer and former ambassador Lino Gutierrez discusses what the communist leader’s death means for the island and its relationship with the United States.

Fidel Castro
Fidel Castro in Havana, 1978. (Photo credit: Marcelo Mortecino)
December 05, 2016
Two years after Washington and Havana announced that the United States and Cuba would restore diplomatic ties, relations between the two countries are more uncertain than ever. Fidel Castro’s death in late November and the election of Donald Trump has further clouded what was already an unclear future. 
George Washington University lecturer Lino Gutierrez, a native of Cuba, an expert on Latin America and the former U.S. ambassador to Argentina and Nicaragua, spoke to George Washington Today about what lies ahead for Cuba following the death of its longtime leader, and what American relations with the island might look like under the Trump administration. 
Q: What legacy is Fidel Castro leaving behind, and what does he represent to both his supporters and dissenters?
A: By any objective standards, a regime that is still in power after 57 years has overstayed its welcome. People point to Mr. Castro’s successes, which include bringing health care and education to Cuba’s countryside and other places where there had been very little. But there are two sides to each of these achievements: On the education front, this is a society that does not have a lot of choices about sources of information—there are about three legal newspapers in Cuba, and they are all government controlled. Internet penetration is less than 10 percent. In terms of health care, Cuba has a two-tiered system where some people get preference over others. Cuban hospitals have a shortage of medical supplies and basic necessities, such as bed sheets. 
It is an inescapable fact that Cuba has not had a free election in almost six decades, has no independent labor unions, has no independent media and had thousands of political prisoners and executions early in the revolution. This is not a government that promoted democracy or respect for human rights, and it did not trust its own people to choose their own leaders. After Mr. Castro led an armed rebel attack in Santiago de Cuba’s Moncada Barracks in 1953, he proclaimed during his trial, “History will absolve me." I think it will be very hard for history to absolve him.
People in places such as Africa might remember Mr. Castro sending troops to support Angola and calling for Nelson Mandela's revolution. But they did not have to live under Mr. Castro, and they did not have to see a third of their population leave the country. So I think it depends on where you sit when you think about him and his legacy.
Q: Before his death, Mr. Castro had shifted power to his younger brother, Raúl Castro, who has already overseen economic reforms and brokered a historical deal with the United States. What will his leadership look like moving forward?
A: The Obama initiative from December 2014 serves as a good measurement of how committed Cuba is to economic reforms. President Obama has done everything in his power to try and induce change—he sent six cabinet secretaries to Havana and encouraged U.S. companies and officials to engage in talks. But it takes two to tango, and I think what we’ve seen so far is one partner dancing and the other sitting it out. Cuba has not signed any significant deals with U.S. companies. They are very reluctant to open up the economy to investment like the Chinese did, for example. I think for them, control is the most important thing, and they do not want to do anything that might jeopardize the control they have. Mr. Castro’s death might prompt more Cubans to speak out in favor of change on the island, but we see no evidence that the leadership itself is committed to that.
Q: Raúl Castro is not much younger that his brother—he is 85. What will the government look like when he can no longer lead?
A:  Raúl Castro has announced that he will step down from the presidency in 2018. He has not said, however,  if he will also step down from the Communist Party leadership, and it is very difficult to predict what is going to happen. Every time international observers focus on possible successors who may be more moderate, Fidel and Raúl have been quick to get rid of them. I’m talking about people like former vice president Carlos Lage and former foreign ministers Roberto Robaina and Felipe Pérez Roque—charismatic, younger figures, who once they captured international interest were summarily dismissed. Even though the current vice president, Miguel Díaz-Canel, is only 56, it is uncertain he will be the heir. Raúl’s son, Alejandro Castro Espín, has been appearing more and more as a spokesman for the regime, so the question many Cubans have is whether the government is thinking about a dynasty in which Raúl's son will succeed him.
Q: President-elect Donald Trump spoke critically after Mr. Castro's death, releasing a statement that said, “Fidel Castro’s legacy is one of firing squads, theft, unimaginable suffering, poverty and the denial of fundamental human rights.” What can we expect from the Trump administration's relationship with Cuba?
A: I don’t know what is more difficult to predict: what is going to happen in Cuba or what is going to happen in the United States under the Trump administration. In the beginning, Mr. Trump praised the Obama initiative to move closer to Cuba but said he would have struck a better deal. In the last days of the election, he shifted gears and promised crowds in Florida that he would roll back some of the reforms. It is very unclear about which way he is going to go. At a minimum, he will stop the momentum of the deal, but I think he will continue to talk to the Cubans and see what he can get out of them. 
As far as Cuba goes, the country’s economy is in a precarious place, and its Venezuelan partners, who provide 100,000 barrels of oil a day that Cuba can sell in the private market, are also in a very difficult situation. I don’t know that Cuba can afford not to listen to what Mr. Trump has to say. It will be interesting to see how both sides react.
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