Cuba’s Road Ahead

Havana Faces a Challenge, Not a Crisis

A man stands near former Cuban President Fidel Castro's birthplace in Biran, Cuba, December 2016. Ivan Alvarado / Reuters

On November 25, Fidel Castro, the former president of Cuba and communist revolutionary, died at the age of 90. Castro ruled the island, under various titles, for nearly five decades, and his death has prompted speculation on what lies ahead for the country that he did so much to shape. Especially on economic questions, most experts accept the view that Castro’s legacy—that of attempting to build and maintain a centrally planned, socialist economy—is one of failure. Cuba’s only hope for the future, in this view, is to dismantle the existing system and replace it with one oriented toward private businesses and free markets, as did the ex-communist countries of Eastern Europe in the 1990s. This consensus, however, overlooks not only the constraints faced by Cuban policymakers today, but also the country’s history of weathering difficult storms. Cuba faces serious economic challenges, but its system has proved resilient, and the island’s future is likely to be one of reform rather than revolution.


Although the Cuban government’s economic management has a bad reputation, it is difficult to conduct an objective assessment of the country’s long-term performance, particularly in the years between 1959 and 1991. At issue is the difficulty of measuring the relative costs of U.S. sanctions versus the benefits derived from Soviet aid, as well as weighing the value of Cuba’s strong social security system against estimates of the growth it might have seen if it had switched to a more market-oriented economy. The dominant narrative in the English-speaking world, which is disproportionately influenced by the views of free-market economists and U.S.-based Cuban exiles, tends to skew negative on both factors. But others have produced more positive assessments. In 1984, for example, the economist Claes Brundenius argued that despite some weaknesses, the Cuban economy presented a unique example of what he called “growth with equity,” posting sustained growth from 1970 on, while also achieving a relatively equal wealth distribution.

But although Cuba may have performed better

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