WASHINGTON, 26 November 2016 – The much anticipated but still surprising death of Cuban dictator Fidel Castro at 90 has sparked celebrations in Miami, condolences from Russia, and a new round of discussion about what is next for Cuba.
The not-so-simple simple answer about the impact of Castro’s death on Cuba is nothing and everything. Nothing immediately, but everything eventually.
In the immediate future, Fidel Castro’s death will change little inside Cuba. Unlike Venezuela, which has seen disarray and systemic failure following the death of leader Hugo Chavez, Cuba has established a clear succession plan that favors pro-Castro forces.
Fidel Castro’s Communist movement has evolved from a Fidel-centered movement in 1959 to a Communist system in 2016. The cult of personality that originally surrounded Fidel Castro spread to a hardened institution that rules the island. The “historicos” – those with ties to the revolution and Castro – are firmly ensconced in positions of power, including the military and the Politburo. Cuba’s elite have strong ties to the Castro family, and have benefited from the Castro-Communist system.
“Cuba today is more like China post-Mao than Venezuela post Chavez,” explains an active US intelligence officer who has worked on Cuba for several years.
Raul Castro, Fidel’s younger brother, remains in charge of Cuba, and while he has instituted slow and steady reforms, he has not backed away from the basic system set up by Fidel Castro.
Pundits often paint the 85-year-old Raul Castro as more pro-democracy and pro-capitalism than his brother, but Raul Castro also remains true to the basic roots of Cuba’s socialist system. Under Raul, Cuba has introduced some economic openings and positive gestures toward the United States. However, there has been no political changes, nor has Raul discussed introducing democratic changes. Human rights also remain questionable under Raul, with dissidents and the press firmly controlled.
Raul Castro carries the Castro name, but lacks the credentials or the charisma of Fidel. Unlike his brother, Raul’s position is not guaranteed, and his rule depends on support from the Cuban military and elites. Raul received the mantle from his brother, and any shift from Fidel’s system could cause his demise. His power depends largely on the approval of the same elites that maintain loyalty to Fidel Castro’s vision, and any effort to move away from those tenets could cost Raul his position. These powers could easily remove the octogenarian under the guise of ill health if he overstepped his boundaries.
Moreover, Cuba’s leadership will continue to clamp down on dissent out of fear that any small opening would blow the system apart. Havana has long worried that even small reforms would spark a counter revolution on the island, a chance they are not willing to take. The military – which controls the Politburo as well as the majority of the economy – abhors the idea of massive demonstrations and will take action to ensure it remains in control. This is even more important with the warming of relations with the United States, which means more tourist dollars for the military-controlled tourism industry.
The system established by Fidel Castro does not depend on Fidel or any Castro for success. It positions the Socialist system to remain even after Raul Castro leaves office. Raul has already stated he will step down in February 2018, and has essentially anointed Miguel Diaz-Canel as his successor. While Diaz-Canel is 30 years younger than Raul Castro, he is known on the island as a “Fidelista” who has been described as a “disciplined Marxist.” In other words, his nomination suggests a continuation of Socialist policies even after 2018.
There is also the possibility of carrying on the Castro dynasty through Alejandro Castro Espin, Raul’s son, who is now an officer in the Cuban intelligence service. He could easily replace Diaz-Canel as heir-apparent if Raul and the elites began to question the loyalty of Diaz-Canel.
However, the symbolism of Fidel Castro’s death is not insignificant. Without the shadow of Fidel over the island, there is the possibility of change that did not exist as long as he was alive. This could include more positive communications with the United States, essentially forbidden while Fidel Castro was alive, potentially including cooperation on important issues such as counter-terrorism and counter-narcotics.
The death of the iconic leader is likely to soften the stance of many anti-Cuba voices in the United States as well. As one US intelligence officer noted, “Fidel Castro gave Americans a tangible, real target. Without him, there just isn’t the same intensity. It’s now Cuba, not Castro.”
The death of Fidel Castro provides an opportunity for US President-elect Donald Trump to soften his anti-Cuba rhetoric, for example, and support closer ties.
Even ending the 54-year-old US embargo is possible, without Fidel Castro on the island.
Although the Socialist system on Cuba is poised to continue, without Fidel, the possibility of real change finally exists. As the intelligence source explains, “The biggest reason [Fidel] Castro’s death matters is that is demonstrates that the Castro’s are, in fact, mortal. Change can and will happen. The only question is when.”