Revolutionary Cuba and the Legacy of Fidel Castro
Cuba is facing a new set of challenges as a post-Castro leadership confronts the pandemic and its economic fallout. But Cuban socialism has repeatedly shown its capacity for survival and adaptation since the revolution of 1959.
- Interview by
- Daniel Finn
The Cuban political system has now outlasted the Soviet Union by thirty years, defying predictions of collapse in the 1990s. But the long-anticipated retirement of Raúl Castro means that the revolutionary generation no longer holds sway in Havana. Recent protests have once again raised questions about the political future of Cuba in a world that remains largely inhospitable. To grasp where Cuba might be going next, we need to look at the country’s history since the revolution of 1959 and consider how the Cuban system and its leaders responded to previous challenges that might have proven fatal.
Antoni Kapcia is the author of several books on Cuban history, including A Short History of Revolutionary Cuba and Leadership in the Cuban Revolution.
This is an edited transcript from an episode of Jacobin’s Long Reads podcast. You can listen to the episode here.
What was the political character of the 26th of July Movement during the struggle against Fulgencio Batista? What particular roles did Fidel and Raúl Castro play in its leadership?
The movement changed quite significantly over the three years of its formal existence. It became more radical. If you compare it in the period from 1953 to 1955, when it was set up, to what emerged in late 1958, it changed a lot. But the aim was always to remove Batista, then — and this was its crucial distinction from other groups — to achieve the long-overdue process of nation-building, which most Cubans recognized had been promised in 1902, when Cuba got independence, but which had never arrived — mostly because of the close relationship with the United States.
There was a degree of consensus within the movement that the long-awaited overhaul of the system meant a radical overhaul via some form of socialism. The programs always emphasized the vast inequality of Cuba before 1958 and its dependence on the United States. Corruption was another issue that was quite dominant in politics, as well as general underdevelopment. These were to be dealt with by some form of socialism — although not all agreed with that. This was the distinction that eventually emerged within the movement.
It was a very mixed, amorphous movement, but by late 1958, it had greater consensus than at its start. It was much more radical than had originally been intended by many of the people that joined the movement. Fidel’s role was crucial. You cannot deny that he was crucial to this particular development — not least because he articulated the ideas and the plans of the movement better than anybody.
He was also skilled at publicity from the start. He was politically astute, much more so than any other leader. He commanded loyalty. That was a crucial element for the remarkable loyalty of the original group throughout the decades that followed. He did so partly through his character, but also through the fact that he survived all the defeats and setbacks. That gave him a mythical status, even within the group.
He was crucial as a leader, and he also outlined the original program, which was the famous “History will absolve me” defense speech. It then became a text somewhat different from the speech itself, but which nonetheless made the same arguments.
The program outlined there was remarkably similar to the reforms that were actually passed in 1959 and 1960. There was a blueprint, and it was that text. Most of the early reforms followed that document quite closely. In that sense, Fidel was significant.
Raúl was less significant. He was simply one of the captains — not comandantes — when the Granma landing took place. But by late 1958, when he was given charge of the second front in another sierra in the east of Cuba, the Sierra del Cristal, he came into his own and became much more significant in that particular area. He staked his claim to be part of the revolutionary leadership.
The other person with great influence, along with Fidel, was Che Guevara. He was crucial in those three to five years, because he shared the ideology that Fidel and Raúl were beginning to develop quite clearly, but his sense of ideology and his political awareness were much stronger. Already he was moving toward more unusual and unorthodox versions of Marxism.
He also realized the importance of political education of the guerrillas. He led that effort and was therefore a significant element of the radicalization process. The difference between Raúl and Che, on the one hand, and Fidel on the other was that they were more enthusiastic, or at least pragmatic, about the need to collaborate with the Communist Party, the Popular Socialist Party (PSP). Fidel was less sure about it until the very end, when the PSP changed its approach.
What relationship did the 26th of July Movement have with the pro-Soviet Communist Party in Cuba, the PSP?
The PSP changed their tune, having opposed and criticized the rebellion early on. They were highly critical of it until mid-1958, when, under pressure from their youth wing, they shifted their policy and came on board. By January 1959, they were the only party beyond the movement to provide unconditional support.
All the other parties were imposing conditions, but the PSP made a clever move. They said: “We will support you unconditionally and our several thousand members and sympathizers are ready to be your foot soldiers if you need them.”
These foot soldiers were highly disciplined and politically aware. That was a significant resource for the revolution. The PSP also gave them links to the Soviet Union, which would be useful.
What were the key events after the revolution that led to Cuba’s alignment with the Soviet Union by the early 1960s?
This was less a result of events than of processes and pressures. One example of that is that the existing political current in Cuba accepted some kind of socialism. That’s why I define the movement as having a consensus on something called socialism.
The 1940 Cuban constitution remained symbolically important because it was never fully enacted. The text of that constitution fused radical nationalism with socialist approaches. The currents of socialism were already present, and not just in the PSP.
The question was: What kind of socialism would develop? In the end, the socialism that they developed was shaped by a number of things. The most obvious was the experience in the Sierra. That refers, to some extent, to the influence of Che Guevara and Raúl Castro. But it was also the process of shared struggle.
There are any number of examples in history of revolutionary struggle changing the thinking of those who take part in it, particularly those who are actually doing the fighting. This is one clear case of that. The Ejército Rebelde, the rebel army up in the Sierra, became much more radicalized than the urban movement did, because the latter had not gone through precisely the same shared struggle. That was the first factor that shifted them.
The second was US hostility from very early on. Initially, it was confusion, uncertainty, and fear, but by May 1959, the United States openly opposed the land reform. That fed into the nationalism that was inherent in the rebel movement.
In some respects, Cuba was not that different from many other parts of Latin America: in the twentieth century, radical nationalist movements developed in Argentina, Bolivia, and lots of other places. They tended to focus on the United States as an imperialist power.
Nationalism became radical and left-wing, focusing on the evils of capitalism, the need to abolish capitalism and imperialism. Cuban nationalism was further fueled by US opposition. This wasn’t the sole factor that pushed them toward the Soviet Union and toward communism, but it was a significant one.
Another element that has often been overlooked in studies of the revolution is the role of sugar. Cuba was locked into the export of sugar, principally for the US market, by the mid-nineteenth century. Cuba was a key producer of a product that was much needed in Europe and in the United States.
By the 1950s, that had changed. Sugar producers struggled to get into an oversupplied market, which meant that the consuming countries, principally the rich North, determined the terms of the relationship. Every sugar-producing, sugar-dependent country had to find a close, costly relationship with one single market. Typically, that was Britain, France, or the United States.
The problem was that for producers looking to sell sugar outside of the United States, there was only one market large enough to accommodate that need. That was the Soviet market, which could not produce enough sugar for its consumption. For Cuba and the Soviet Union, it was a marriage of very great convenience to both sides, quite apart from the ideological affinity.
During the 1960s, relations between Havana and Moscow became increasingly fraught. Many observers thought that there might be a break toward the end of that decade. What were the factors behind that tension? And why did the break not materialize in the end?
The relationship was never easy. There was a degree of enthusiasm at times, but only later was there any substantial enthusiasm for the relationship. Early on, the rebels — partly because of the PSP’s history — treated the PSP with some degree of suspicion and antagonism. Some within the movement were anti-communist; for example, the allied guerrilla group, the Directorio Estudiantil Revolucionario, were quite clearly anti-communist.
There was also suspicion of the PSP because, in the late 1930s, the Communist Party had renamed itself the PSP as part of an electoral alliance with Batista. Admittedly, it was a different Batista, in a sense; it was Batista the populist. In their search for a popular front following the Moscow line, the Communist Party went into an alliance with him.
That was something that they had to live down later. It made political sense at the time, but nonetheless, given what happened with Batista’s later incarnation, it was a problem. The rebels were always suspicious of the perceived Stalinism of the party, and suspicious of that link with Batista.
There was also a generational suspicion, because the Communist Party had been created in the 1920s, and many of those original leaders were still there. It made them a much older and more staid movement than most of the rebels perceived themselves to be. The basis of the relationship was not good. However, when the PSP came on board and offered them unconditional support, that won many of the rebels over.
Still, the behavior of the PSP in the first two or three years didn’t do a great deal to help the relationship. These tensions emerged fully in 1962. One of the leaders of the PSP, Anibal Escalante, had come on board pragmatically, but he was among those members of the PSP who believed that the revolution in Cuba could not be socialist because Cuba wasn’t ready for socialism.
Escalante was given charge of putting together the three revolutionary groups into one alliance, and he made a clear move to influence the direction and the decision-making within the new united movement. That became a public scandal.
Interestingly, not only was he removed and packed off to Eastern Europe to a diplomatic post, but the PSP members within the alliance were relegated in their access to decision-making. They were not in charge. It was quite clear that the rebel group, and particularly the rebel army, the Sierra group, were in charge.
Those same tensions played out in the relationship with the Soviet Union. In the same way that the PSP argued that Cuba wasn’t ready for socialism, so too did the Soviet Union. It was highly suspicious of the Cuban leadership’s unorthodox approach to what was needed.
In particular, neither Moscow nor the PSP liked Che Guevara’s economic ideas. They thought that these ideas were chaotic and inappropriate. They believed that the economic pattern Cuba should follow was that of a mixed economy, along the lines of Lenin’s New Economic Policy way back in the 1920s. Their opposition was known.
They also completely disagreed with Guevara’s ideas of the subjective conditions for socialism. His view was that if the conditions for socialism did not exist in Cuba, they could be overcome by subjective conditions, meaning the action of revolutionaries like those of the 26th of July Movement, and also by consciousness.
By 1962, he was a disciple of Antonio Gramsci, bringing a new perspective into his interpretation of Cuba’s path toward socialism, as well as its rapid path toward communism. All of that was rejected by both Moscow and the PSP, as was the insurrectionary policy in Latin America. By 1959, the rebels were already attempting to help revolutionaries in neighboring countries. This became a much more conscious policy in 1961 and 1962.
From 1962 to 1968, relations between Moscow and Havana were strained. This was not helped by the fact that Moscow refused to let Cuba into the Comecon trading bloc — the socialist bloc. The leadership in Havana resented this because they saw Comecon as a path to development. The reason they were kept out was because Moscow believed the whole running of the Cuban economy was chaotic, therefore making it likely to destabilize Comecon and create a very vulnerable economy within that organization.
In spite of the fact that Cuba was constantly challenging Moscow’s argument about peaceful coexistence with the US-led bloc throughout the 1960s, the relationship between Cuba and the USSR didn’t collapse because, at that stage, the USSR needed Cuba as much as Cuba needed the USSR. As Cuba moved toward a socialist and then communist model, the Moscow leadership saw Cuba as a possible ally in their arguments with China. The USSR worried about China’s influence in the Third World lessening their own influence.
In 1966, this produced the Tricontinental Conference, which was designed to win over anti-colonial movements throughout the developing world, bringing them over to the Moscow line. It failed miserably because the line that won that argument at the Tricontinental was the Cuban line of anti-imperialist activity and revolution.
This line completely challenged Moscow’s line of peaceful coexistence with the United States. The USSR had no choice but to keep on supporting Cuba economically, albeit in a very minimalist way, because they needed Cuba to survive for their own credibility.
In the 1970s and 1980s, Cuba was perceived as having become a fairly orthodox member of the Soviet-led bloc, following its political and economic model. Was that perception justified?
It was partially justified. It’s true that for about ten years — dating from 1975 to 1985 —institutionalization was certainly based somewhat on Soviet and socialist bloc patterns. The electoral structure that was created in 1976, People’s Power, followed the principles and the structures of the Soviet system.
In 1975, after that first Congress, the Communist Party began to grow, and to look a little bit more like an Eastern European model. The constitution of 1976 closely followed the patterns of the Soviet constitution from the 1950s. The Cuban leadership stopped criticizing Soviet policies in the Third World and, at a conference in Algiers, described the Soviet Union as the natural ally of the Third World.
That was something of a shock to many people who had seen Cuba’s policies in the years before as being much more revolutionary. There was also a shift in the economy, abandoning Guevara’s ideas, or at least an interpretation of Guevara’s ideas, and moving toward a slightly more decentralized economy, reflecting some of the principles of market socialism in the socialist bloc. This also created the impression that Cuba was following Soviet patterns.
Another factor that contributed to the idea of a Sovietized Cuba was that around that time, young Cubans were sent to the socialist bloc and to the Soviet Union to study in universities. Many of their PhDs were earned in the socialist bloc and Soviet universities, and many of those students came back with Soviet thinking, Soviet textbooks, and Soviet ideas of what socialism should be. These ideas clashed a little bit with the older generation of the former rebels. But nonetheless, the influence was there.
Having said that, there’s always a caveat with Cuba. The first caveat is that many of the structures that grew up and reflected the nature of the 1960s simply did not disappear. The most obvious one is the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDRs), the most characteristic of all the mass organizations that were created. The CDRs did not disappear. They coexisted with the new electoral system uncomfortably, but nonetheless they coexisted.
One of the patterns of Cuban development over the last six decades has been that when a new system emerges, it doesn’t necessarily replace what was there before. It has either grown on the old system or lived alongside it. One example is the mass organizations. They often get overlooked in explanations of the revolution’s development and survival, but they were vital.
Most of them were created in 1960 or 1961, predating any of the versions of the single party that grew up. The CDRs were one, and the Women’s Federation was another. In a sense, the 1960s remained present through those organizations. Looking at the Communist Party that was created in 1965 and reshaped in the first Congress in 1975, you can see that it was still dominated by the former rebels, the people of the 26th of July Movement.
One of the constant patterns of the whole revolutionary trajectory since 1959 has been continual internal debate over the definition of socialism — not just about the path of revolution and the path of the economy, but about the definition of revolution that was used in 1959.
Those debates did not disappear. That’s one reason why I date the institutionalization of Cuba from 1975. The crisis of the failed 10 million ton sugar harvest in the late 1960s is often seen as the catalyst for the shift toward institutionalization. But that harvest and the economic crisis that it showed were followed by a five-year period of intense debate about what went wrong. How do we go about this? How do we change things? What is the right strategy but the wrong scale?
That debate took five years. We know this because it took five years to set up the first Congress. When that first Congress came, there was consensus. That’s one of the big clues in Cuba as to whether a debate was going on. Look at the scheduling of the Congress, because you don’t hold a Congress until there is consensus, and there was none at that time. The debate carried on, below the surface, through those ten years of institutionalization.
I would make one other point to show that this wasn’t just a period of Sovietization. That relates to Cuban involvement in Angola in 1975, right at the start of the institutionalization phase. The decision to get involved in Angola was fully a Cuban decision. It went against Soviet interests.
The Soviet Union’s policies toward Angola were not the same as Cuba’s. It was the Cubans who forced the Soviets’ hand, forcing them to provide the material and transport for the involvement. And that clearly does argue against the thesis of Sovietization.
What positions did Fidel and Raúl Castro take on the question of relations with the Soviet Union and the version of socialism that Cuba should adopt? Was there a difference in outlook between them?
There was a difference, but this difference was largely a question of means, not ends. Raúl was instinctively closer to the Soviet model. He had joined the Young Communists, Juventud Comunista, very briefly in 1953. When he joined the rebellion, he immediately left the movement because they were taking a different line, but, instinctively, he was closer to Marxism much earlier than Fidel was.
He saw the Soviet Union as a model for efficiency and effectiveness. Despite being highly critical of what he saw in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, in terms of corruption and privilege, he nonetheless believed that a communist party, properly run and properly meeting on schedule with proper accountability, could be a guarantee of a much more accountable system. He believed this much more than Fidel did.
His belief in systems and structures was what led him to an admiration of the Soviet Union. He was particularly close to the Soviet military and appreciated the organization and the sufficiency which they brought to events. So, instinctively, he was more in favor of that link, and was a conduit in the early ’60s for the discussions with Moscow.
Having said that, he wasn’t totally opposed to Fidel’s approach. Fidel always preferred passionate mobilization — namely, ideological commitment, and mobilizing as much as possible the characteristic approach of the ’60s. Raúl always preferred formal structural accountability because that delivered the goods. I describe it as one feeding the soul and the other feeding the body.
Raúl was a pragmatist, and he recognized the importance of ideological commitment and mobilization at a certain stage, not least in the ’60s, when you could not actually deliver material goods properly because of the embargo. The 1970s institutionalization came at the right time, and the reforms of the 1970s were to some extent approved by Raúl. They weren’t his ideas, necessarily, but he certainly gave them the stamp of approval. He was associated from then on with the idea of economic reform.
There was a difference between Raúl and Fidel, but it wasn’t a substantial difference: it was a question of means rather than ends. They both shared the same goals of nation-building through some form of socialism.
Several years before the demise of the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc, the Cuban leadership had already announced a policy shift in the mid-1980s. What was the nature of that shift?
This shift was referred to as the “Rectification of Past Errors and Negative Tendencies.” “Past errors” were the errors made during institutionalization, and the “negative tendencies” were the very orthodox views that drove some of those policy decisions, creating a communist party that was beginning by 1985 to look like Eastern European communist parties — namely, it was bureaucratic and served as a vehicle for individual privilege and acquisition.
This shift arose from an awareness of three things. The first was that the Cuban leadership was aware that Comecon was in crisis and could easily collapse. That turned out to be very true. Raúl was aware that Cuba needed to prepare for a world without Comecon in case it did collapse. That meant some form of economic streamlining.
The second awareness was of the threat posed by Mikhail Gorbachev. By 1987, Gorbachev had made it clear that Cuba was expendable, and that in order to achieve agreement with Ronald Reagan in the United States, he could willingly drop Cuba, and eventually would do so if it didn’t change its policy. They had to prepare for that.
The main cause of it, however, was the negative effects of the reforms and institutionalization, which changed the nature of the party. People joined the party, as in Eastern Europe, sometimes because of what it would bring them, rather than out of ideological commitment. That went completely against what both Fidel and Raúl agreed with.
This period saw something of a revival of Che Guevara’s ideas. His writings started to become more publicly available as a result of this shift, leading people to think that the party had gone back to the ’60s. It did in one sense, in spirit, but not in terms of policy. Its leaders were preparing for the crisis that they felt was coming.
How did the Cuban leadership respond to the collapse of the eastern bloc in the early 1990s? Why was Cuba able to defy the predictions at the time that its system would soon experience the same fate?
The immediate response was shock and horror, and the realization that this was far worse than any crisis they had expected. I would describe it as the Armageddon scenario, because that’s what it felt like. In 1991, the Party Congress met on time, and there was a rapid consensus on a whole program of unprecedented economic reforms.
That was driven very largely by Raúl. Raúl wanted to pick up on the reforms of the 1970s, but this time in a different context. Those reforms were vital. They decriminalized the holding of the dollar, allowing the dollar to come in. This allowed remittances; it allowed people to earn dollars one way or another.
Self-employment was the other reform that came in. The government had abolished self-employment outside agriculture in 1968; it was nearly the most characteristic policy element of the 1960s. It proved to be a disaster, and they restored self-employment, but that was all they restored, in terms of breaking up the state system.
It wasn’t a shift toward private enterprise, as one might have expected. The shift was small-scale, toward supporting self-employment. Even when they broke up the state farms, they broke them up into cooperatives, not by distributing land to individuals.
The reforms were very limited but enough to generate recovery. The economy started to grow again, having collapsed by 35 percent in the previous four to five years. That also meant a recovery from the crisis that became evident in 1994.
In light of the recent protests, it is interesting to remember that the 1994 protests were even greater and far more worrying for the system. It looked as though the system was about to collapse, but the protests ultimately came to nothing other than mass emigration, and the economy and the political system started to recover.
Interestingly, though, what followed that was a debate. The first debate, from 1989 to 1991, was around the question “How do we save the revolution?” They had saved it when the economy recovered, but the next question was “We’ve saved the revolution, but what have we saved?” What is the revolution? What do we mean by it?
This was a very open debate; you could see it play out in magazines and in newspaper criticisms. What emerged by the early 2000s was an updated version of the period from 1959 to 1961. It was the model that Cuba had started to put into effect by 1961 — before the Cold War came into the picture.
The big response was to reemphasize patria: fatherland, homeland, and nation. Those principles had never been forgotten, but they were overshadowed by the Soviet and socialist bloc models. They now came back with a force, returning to the original model of nation-building via socialism. In other words, one response from the leadership was to say, we’re going back to what we had started doing, but — and this is Raúl speaking — updating how to do it.
Beyond that, there are any number of factors that can explain why Cuba defied all the predictions of collapse. The mass organizations were a crucial element. The Soviet system worked in so many ways, but collapsed so quickly, that it told a story of institutional weakness, particularly when it came to involving people. That wasn’t the case in Cuba. One of the most characteristic elements of the Cuban system was the level and scale of participation through mass organizations.
Those mass organizations were then called upon during the early 1990s, even before the recovery, to rebuild the state. The state was in a state of collapse. The government was often saying: “We cannot afford to do this. You have to find a way of doing it yourselves.” It was the mass organizations that rallied locally.
These organizations started to restructure the state from the grassroots, and that guaranteed the supply systems. It was not a story of individual survival, which is the way it’s often described. That did happen to some extent, as dollars flowed in from families abroad, but it was a matter of collective survival at the local barrio level.
Another factor was the decision to protect the logros sociales, the social achievements, which focused particularly on health and education. But there were two other factors as well. One was that the government decided to pay unemployment benefits of 60 percent of their salary to the people who were laid off because of the shortages and shutdown of factories. The other was the use of the ration card. Rationing came back on a scale that had not been seen for some time. This was one of the weapons to save public support that was largely unseen outside Cuba.
Beyond that, there was a residual loyalty. There were enough older Cubans and middle-aged Cubans, including those who had gone to the Soviet Union to study, who had a degree of loyalty to the values of the system. Those values of solidarity, commitment, and working together were increasingly shared by most of Cuba’s churches, including the Catholic Church.
For a while, the Catholic Church thought it would play a role like the one it had played in Poland during the 1980s, as the leading opposition to a system that was about to collapse. However, in Cuba, the Catholic Church was frightened by the threat of disunity and social disintegration. It came to an understanding with the Communist Party and the Cuban leadership, agreeing that the important thing was to prevent social disintegration. The Communist system called for solidarity and working together, and the churches were saying the same thing.
Finally, US policies played a significant role. Remember the US response to the collapse was not to build bridges, as it had done in Vietnam. It did precisely the opposite. In 1992, the embargo was tightened, and in 1996, with the Helms-Burton Act, it was tightened even further.
That played into the hands of the inherent nationalism in Cuba. The more that they emphasized the nation as part of the new approach, the deeper that this nationalism became, and the more counterproductive the US policies were. Most Cubans now feared disunity and disintegration, rather than demanding the end of the system.
I’ve always argued that if an American president really wanted to destabilize the Cuban system, they would get rid of the embargo, or promise to get rid of the embargo. To some extent, this is what Barack Obama did, at least in the sense of saying the established policy had failed and slightly easing some restrictions, although he certainly didn’t lift the embargo altogether. But most of the US presidents have done precisely the opposite, and tightened it, or at least continued the involvement. That gives the system and the leadership an alibi in Cuba. But it also plays into nationalism.
When Raúl Castro took over from his brother as president, was there more continuity than change in his approach, or vice versa?
It’s a bit of both. There was continuity between the approaches, but by different means. In 2008, when Raúl was elected, already promising reform, he was annoyed by the accusations that he was going to be Cuba’s Gorbachev, and he said, quite clearly, “I haven’t been elected in order to destroy the revolution. I’m going to save it, but by the correct means, which is to update socialism.”
It was no good to talk about socialism as it was in the 1960s, because that socialism was no longer possible. It had to be updated for the 2000s, and its leaders had to find a feasible, achievable version. Raúl now began to stress not communism but socialism. He even talked about Cuba being in transition to socialism, rather than being socialist already. This was a significant shift.
What he did was nothing drastically new. He extended the reforms that he had very largely driven in the 1990s. Very little of it was new; he simply increased the scale of self-employment, as well as the decentralization of the economy. He moved in a cooperative direction, rather than a private direction, with the exception of foreign capital. Foreign capital was still limited to 49 percent of enterprises.
He did that, and he did it quite slowly. The slow pace annoyed the younger generations, but it helped the older generation of Cubans, who were all increasingly worried that while reform might be necessary, it could end up throwing out the baby with the bath water.
Raúl recognized that and decided to negotiate his way through the process. Reforms could have happened earlier if he had insisted, but that would have caused great destabilization. By moving slowly but steadily, he managed to achieve quite a lot of the reforms that he promised.
He did have opposition from the party. The party was not under his control until he was elected as First Secretary. Elements in the party opposed the reforms, with some popular support. That annoyed him, and it led him to reform the party quite considerably, returning it to what he called a “guiding role,” rather than an “interfering role.” He did that very slowly and steadily, by restructuring the provincial parties and bringing in younger leaders who were more reliable, efficient, and effective than those who were simply political appointments.
He also started the process of clearing out the older generation, who he saw as no longer speaking the same language as the majority of Cubans. He did keep a lot of them going — because he had to and because he wanted to, partly through trust and loyalty — and also because he recognized that they had a voice in the system. But he did create a younger party and a younger government as a result.
However, he continued to share the same project that he and Fidel had back in the 1960s. The only change was his willingness to do reform. He was helped, of course, by events in the United States. The election of Obama made an enormous difference; it enabled him to deliver some goods. Of course, the embargo was still there, and nothing was going to change that, but it nonetheless created a different mood in Cuba as a result of recognition and a little bit more contact with the United States.
Raúl Castro’s retirement meant that the revolutionary generation had finally passed on the baton to a younger leadership team. What was the significance of this? And what do you think the future hold for Cuba?
It’s a symbolically significant moment because Miguel Díaz-Canel is the first Cuban president who did not participate in the revolution. Whatever historical legitimacy both Fidel and Raúl enjoyed — and they did enjoy considerable legitimacy — he hasn’t got it. He has to earn his legitimacy from other sources: delivering goods, delivering change, and keeping the system going in some form or other.
His reforms were focused on two things. First, he took up Raúl’s promise to end the dual currency — the situation of having a convertible peso based on the dollar and a Cuban peso as the national currency. This was first introduced as an emergency measure in the early 1990s, but it had become the system.
It was highly divisive. The inequalities that emerged in Cuba in the 1990s and 2000s were partly a result of the fact that not everybody had access to hard currency, not least remittances. Most of those remittances went to the white population, because most of the emigrant population was white.
The policy was clearly corrosive, and it led to local corruption. Everybody wanted to end the dual-currency system, but no one quite knew when and how. The pandemic provided the opportunity. In January 2021, to everybody’s surprise, Díaz-Canel did precisely that. He warned them very briefly in advance, because you couldn’t warn them too early — there would be money flight. He did so very quickly and effectively, but at a cost, because any fusion of the currency, depending on the rate at which it was fused, was going to have losers as well as winners.
Those who had hard currency were much more likely to suffer, because the convertible peso was overvalued and the Cuban peso was undervalued. You could get more for your Cuban peso before the change than you could for the convertible peso. This has contributed to the current protests, because many people who had hoarded the savings and remittances now see that they have less value than they once did.
The other reform Díaz-Canel wanted to commit himself to was writing a new constitution, which Raúl had promised but not delivered. It’s interesting that Díaz-Canel gave Raúl the role of leading the discussions on the constitution, which looked very similar to the old constitution of 1976 when it came out in 2019.
But the discourse was different, showing a shift back to patria. One or two elements in the document also indicate a future shift toward a different constitutional structure. We can’t yet predict what that’s going to be because that depends on internal debates. Díaz-Canel was saying to most Cubans: “I’ve got your interests at heart. I’m willing to take this very bold step at a cost, and the constitution is not over. And we will go on discussing the future.”
His great misfortune is that he came to power coinciding with Donald Trump, who tightened the embargo more than any US president had done since the 1960s — 240 measures is the count that’s normally given. That actually amounts to a measure and a half every month, or something like that, to tighten the embargo. That has had a real effect on suppliers, on the ability to buy abroad, and even to operate financially.
The other misfortune is COVID-19. The pandemic closed the borders, which immediately destroyed, at least for the moment, the basis of Cuba’s economy, which is tourism. That is not the best context for a new president, one who is not from the historic generation, to come into power. So far he’s coping, but you can see that the future depends largely on the success of the currency fusion.
Joe Biden could reverse any of the measures that Trump put into effect, but he doesn’t show any signs of doing so at the moment. His language is not unlike Trump’s language sometimes. As ever, the United States holds the key to what happens in Cuba, and to a recovery of tourism. That recovery might happen after COVID, but that is out of Cuba’s hands.
Interestingly, there were violent protests in Cuba in 1980 and in 1994, immediately followed by mass emigration to the US that was tolerated and even encouraged. That’s not possible now. The reason it’s not possible is not because the Cubans have stopped people from leaving. They don’t; the need for an exit visa was abolished under Raúl. But the United States has effectively closed the door to the Cubans. Once it was an open door to Cuba, more than anybody else. That is now closed.
Now you cannot get a visa to enter the United States from the US Embassy in Havana, because it is effectively closed. You have to go outside Cuba, if you can afford it, to get an entry visa elsewhere, and even then it’s not automatic. The safety valve from 1980 and 1994 doesn’t now exist. The scale of protest is perhaps partly fueled by the frustration of those who don’t see a way out.
That doesn’t answer your question: What happens next? But it clearly is going to be the younger generation. Very few of the older generation are left in positions of power. What happens next depends on what happens in the United States and what happens with COVID.
Some recovery might well happen soon, and they are coping at the moment. They’re certainly coping with COVID, however much they fear they’re not. If you compare their statistics to the British statistics of death rates and infection rates, we would love to have the Cuban version of that. Cuba, however, doesn’t have the wherewithal to cope with it, and that’s the problem.