At first glance, Cuba’s basic political and economic structures appear as durable as the midcentury American cars still roaming its streets. The Communist Party remains in power, the state dominates the economy, and murals depicting the face of the long-dead revolutionary Che Guevara still appear on city walls. Predictions that the island would undergo a rapid transformation in the manner of China or Vietnam, let alone the former Soviet bloc, have routinely proved to be bunk. But Cuba does look much different today than it did ten or 20 years ago, or even as recently as 2006, when severe illness compelled Fidel Castro, the country’s longtime president, to step aside. Far from treading water, Cuba has entered a new era, the features of which defy easy classification or comparison to transitions elsewhere.
Three years ago, Castro caused a media firestorm by quipping to an American journalist that “the Cuban model doesn’t even work for us anymore.” Tacitly embracing this assessment, Fidel’s brother Raúl Castro, the current president, is leading a gradual but, for Cuba, ultimately radical overhaul of the relationship between the state, the individual, and society, all without cutting the socialist umbilical cord. So far, this unsettled state of affairs lacks complete definition or a convincing label. “Actualization of the Cuban social and economic model,” the Communist Party’s preferred euphemism, oversells the degree of ideological cohesion while smoothing over the implications for society and politics. For now, the emerging Cuba might best be characterized as a public-private hybrid in which multiple forms of production, property ownership, and investment, in addition to a slimmer welfare state and greater personal freedom, will coexist with military-run state companies in strategic sectors of the economy and continued one-party rule.
A new migration law, taking effect this year, provides a telling example of Cuba’s ongoing reforms. Until recently, the Cuban government required its citizens to request official permission before traveling abroad, and doctors, scientists, athletes, and other professionals faced additional
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