When Raúl Castro steps down as Cuba’s president on Thursday, as he has promised, it will mark the end of an era. He will remain a power behind the scenes as head of the Cuban Communist Party and the army, but for the first time in nearly six decades, neither he nor his brother Fidel will be at the helm.
Already, there has been much attention to narrow questions, such as whether the expected successor, Miguel Díaz-Canel, will be different by any measure. But at this point, it is worth asking bigger questions, too: why does Cuba need Castroism any longer? More of the same — for what?
At one time, free education and healthcare were totems of the Castro revolution’s promise of equality and better lives. But today Cuba is a grim shadow of its former self. The economist Richard Feinberg, in a recent report for the Brookings Institution, writes that for many crops, such as sugar, coffee, tobacco, citrus and fish, “pre-revolutionary production levels far exceeded today’s harvests”. In other words, Cuba was producing more before 1959 than it is today. In Havana, food shortages have long been common; recently it was eggs that were hard to find. More of the same?
While authoritarianism is enjoying a comeback in Russia, totalitarianism in Cuba never left. Dissidents are regularly rounded up; there is no freedom of information, press or association; and a tired system of Communist Party loyalty and monopoly on power lumbers on.
The country is run by a clique — one that in recent years has been getting rich, too — and most Cubans have no say whatsoever in how their country is governed. Even a mention of democracy causes government officials to shiver.
As Feinberg put it: “Over six decades, the vanguard party has become the rearguard party, lagging badly behind popular opinions and aspirations.” More of the same?
Even Raúl Castro’s relatively timid early economic reforms seem to have frightened his own party bureaucrats. The private economy expanded during his decade-long watch; the number of authorised self-employed people grew from 150,000 in 2008 to 580,000 last year. The private sector now is about 29 per cent of workers, including farmers and private enterprises, while the state is 71 per cent.
Suddenly alarmed that people were making real money in private businesses, the Government last August stopped issuing new licences and threw on the brakes. This kind of tiptoeing to the future is not enough to break Cuba’s deep and disenchanting stagnation.
For too long, Fidel and Raúl Castro deflected blame by claiming it was all the fault of the US trade embargo. Now some are blaming President Donald Trump’s harder line in the wake of the mysterious attacks on US diplomats in Havana.
It is just too facile to blame the US for everything wrong in Cuba. The change Cuba needs must come from within. Cuba needs to free its own people: to speak, to vote, to own, to produce and to travel. After six decades of Castroism, the last thing it needs is more of the same.