How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
For Cubans and Cuba watchers, it was nothing short of surreal to see the headlines announcing the death of Fidel Castro on Friday night. After so many false alarms, after ten years observing the retired, frail revolutionary play host to periodic visitors, the logical first reaction was healthy suspicion. It was only when Cuba’s ambassador in Washington retweeted the news that it began to sink in that this time was for real.
Back in 2006, when Cuban authorities first announced that Castro was stepping down from power due to illness, predictions of his—and the Cuban government’s—imminent demise were a dime a dozen. Like prior post-Soviet forecasts of Castro’s “final hour,” they proved uniformly untrue. Projections of what will come now should thus strive to be less conclusive, chastened by that earlier experience.
Of course, some things do seem preordained, namely the rollout of Castro’s death internationally—with stock obituaries and preselected photos planned years in advance. On the island, meanwhile, security procedures and funeral protocols have no doubt long been in place. Besides, for remaining loyalists, the man’s demise will never be real so long as his ideas survive, a sentiment that was captured in a poster seen in Havana in 2008. It showed a crowd of Fidels marching in unison above the caption “Post-Castro Cuba,” thus rebuking the transition plans that the George W. Bush administration had previously devised for the island. The founder’s principles, the cartoon suggested, would live on eternally in every home and on every Cuban street.
But if such confidence was debatable eight years ago, it seems even more fragile today. Since the 1990s, Cuba’s much-vaunted claim to national sovereignty has been cheapened by the island’s continued dependence on foreign economic support—whether oil from Venezuela, tourists from Europe, or remittances from the Cuban diaspora. Ideological labels such as socialism, meanwhile, have become increasingly loose signifiers, particularly since the Cuban state began coaxing thousands of laid-off workers into jobs in a cautiously opened, tightly regulated private sector. Add to this the political and social consequences of the two-year-old rapprochement with the United States and even the strongest pillar of Castro’s worldview—his anti-Americanism—has come into question. Cubans now jokingly refer to imported “Presidente” beers (from the Dominican Republic) as “Obamas,” and the American flag is a popular symbol on teenagers’ T-shirts and jeans.
Castro’s passing might mean that internal blockages to reform will slowly disappear.
Outsiders should always resist the temptation to see Cuban affairs as a strict function of the island’s relationship with the north. What is clear, however, is that tentative efforts at bilateral fence-mending considerably unsettled, rather than reinforced, the island’s status quo. Détente ushered in an unprecedented flood of visitors. It gave a boost to the small-business economy, with an attendant rise in inequality for those still working solely for the state. Most important, it undercut the perception of the United States as the island’s eternal enemy. Internal critics were essentially right to point out that Washington’s goal of promoting long-term political and economic change on the island had not really shifted. But as much as Obama’s Cuba policy gave new life to old tropes—Cuba as backward “time capsule,” Cuba as “virgin market” to be “opened” by America—it was hard to find Cubans on the ground who were not animated, unrealistically at times, by what might come as a result.
Bilateral ties are not so firm as to be unbreakable, however. Despite six rounds of regulatory modifications and a new presidential directive from the Obama administration, the bulk of the embargo remains in place. Commercial flights between Miami and Havana are set to launch this week, but in general business links remain weak. During his campaign, U.S. President-elect Donald Trump pledged to undo every one of Obama’s Cuba measures to “get a better deal.” Whether he follows through is yet to be seen. Regardless, some Cuban bureaucrats may now wish they had been less cautious in securing U.S. investment and trade under those embargo loopholes that the outgoing president did allow.
On the Cuban side, Castro’s passing might mean that internal blockages to reform will slowly disappear. Many surmised that the elder statesman’s lingering presence, if not his direct influence, slowed Cuban officialdom’s opening to the U.S. market. Likewise, some in the country will see this moment as an opportunity to move a stagnated domestic liberalization agenda forward. Worsening economic indicators—in the middle of an unprecedented tourist boom, no less—argue strongly against further retrenchment. But with the Cuban government already skittish about the incoming U.S. administration, in the short term the death of the revolution’s historic leader will likely serve first to rally a defense of the island’s anti-capitalist core. How long such a wait-and-see posture lasts is anybody’s guess.
The Cuban government has declared nine days of national mourning. What comes in the weeks and months after that will probably seem more like continuity than rapid change. But that doesn’t mean U.S. actions have no consequences. The worst thing an incoming Trump administration could do come January would be to goad Cuba’s political establishment into circling the nationalist wagons. To resume an aggressive posture toward the island would only favor Cuba’s hardliners. In the interim, Cubans will begin contemplating life out from under one man’s shadow. As they do so, debates over Castro’s legacy will continue, and they will be as polarizing in the wake of his death as they were during his long, historic life.