A picture of former Cuban leader Fidel Castro hangs from the Cuban National Library in Havana, Cuba, November 2016.
A picture of former Cuban leader Fidel Castro hangs from the Cuban National Library in Havana, Cuba, November 2016.
Enrique de la Osa / REUTERS

Fidel Castro’s death over the weekend produced cries of lamentation in Havana and jubilation in Miami. He had been declining for years; long gone was the legendary stamina that carried him through four-hour public speeches, all-night bull sessions, and endless provocations. On the few occasions he was wheeled out for public appearances in recent years, he seemed crotchety and frail. 

For example, last March, as millions of Cubans met U.S. President Barack Obama’s historic visit to Cuba with curiosity, Fidel took to the state newspaper, Granma, to complain. Rather than considering Obama’s overtures as a new opportunity, he replayed an ancient litany of Cuban grievances, from Spain’s practice of slavery and the Americans’ Bay of Pigs invasion to vague accusations of Obama being racist. “We do not need the empire to give us anything,” he concluded.

But Castro was wrong: Cuba has relied on empires throughout its history, and today it is needier than ever. For more than four centuries, the island was a colony of Spain, the birthplace of Ángel Castro, Fidel’s father. In the years of U.S. domination, Ángel profited from the American empire by growing sugar for the U.S. market. And even Fidel made Cuba a client state of the Soviet Union, but with the Soviet collapse in 1989, Cuba lost its economic patron and 50 percent of its economy. Since then, the island has existed in survival mode, subjecting its people to chronic shortages of food, medicine, and basic goods. The U.S. embargo has exacerbated conditions—but not as much as the broken state-run economy. Cuba has rich agricultural terrain but must import 80 percent of its food. Markets and stores are showcases of inefficiency, requiring shoppers to stand in line for hours in hopes of acquiring low-quality basic foodstuffs. Consumer goods are largely distributed as charity from relatives living abroad. 

Cuba has had great success in developing its human capital, as shown by its prowess in the visual and performing arts, public health, and education. But a major brain drain threatens to undermine all those achievements.

Pope Francis and Fidel Castro in Havana, September 2015.
Pope Francis and Fidel Castro in Havana, September 2015.
Alex Castro-Castro Family / Handout via Reuters

For decades, Castro has sustained his population on a diet of myth and ideology, even though he was an erratic ideologue himself. He came of age under the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista, a corrupt military man who relied on the support of Americans ranging from the U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles to the mobster Lucky Luciano. Batista’s brutality sparked widespread opposition. He repressed and co-opted Cuba’s traditional political parties, but student groups were harder to quell. Castro cast himself as the líder máximo throughout, shortchanging the roles of Frank País, a preacher’s son from Santiago, and José Antonio Echeverría, a student at the University of Havana.

País and Echeverría were killed before they could dislodge the dictator, but they paved Castro’s path to power and helped create his position as the sole author of the revolution. A 1959 interview on Face the Nation shows the young revolutionary struggling to express his unformed ideas in broken English. Soon his Argentine Marxist partner, Ernesto Guevara, pointed him toward the Soviet alliance that would change the course of history. 

During his time in power, Castro ran the country as a family business, with the support of his younger brother, Raúl, and a coterie of loyal comandantes from the guerrilla days in the hills. Raúl took over the government in 2006, recognizing that the bankrupt economy would require Cuba to change to survive. But the comandantes have maintained a tight grip on the machinery of government, much of it under the control of the army, the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias. The FAR, like China’s People’s Liberation Army, is as much a corporate conglomerate as a military force; its tourism group, Gaviota, even runs the new “first American” Sheraton Hotel in Havana.

And Gaviota is sure to profit further from Cuba’s opening. Havana has opened its doors to foreign investors, who have arrived from Brazil, Canada, France, and Spain, but their interest has been dampened by the requirement of 51 percent Cuban state ownership. In the meantime, China has poured millions into Cuba’s disintegrating infrastructure, especially in telecommunications. Yet Cuba requires not more investment but an economic transformation that addresses the many sectors that the Castros left to decay and neglect. Cuba's agricultural economy is trapped by the legacy of the sugar monoculture, which destroyed food security and depleted the soil. Its educated populace will need digital skills and broadband access to participate in the global labor market. Basic functions such as advertising, distribution, and transportation of goods will need to be established from the bottom up.  

People celebrate Fidel Castro's death in Miami, November 2016.
People celebrate Fidel Castro's death in Miami, November 2016.
Gaston De Cardenas / REUTERS

Castro’s death raises the stakes in the debate over such changes. Raúl Castro, now 84, has said that he intends to step down in 2018. The heir apparent is currently First Vice President Miguel Díaz-Canel. The genial 56-year-old official, trained as an electrical engineer and by necessity a Communist Party stalwart, belongs to a new generation of technocrats. They represent both a generational and a cultural shift from the old revolutionary guard, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the realm of information technology. Cuba’s internal war against “ideological diversionism” has required total state control of all print and broadcast media. The aging military officers of the FAR have taken a dim view of the global digital revolution, regarding it as an American Trojan horse meant to destroy the revolution. As a result, Cuba lags far behind in Internet access, e-commerce, and other foundational technologies of the modern global economy. Díaz-Canel, by contrast, has described information technology as economically “essential.” Over the past three years, Cuba has taken major steps to create WiFi hot spots, legalize private computers and cell phones, and bring down the prohibitive pricing imposed by ETECSA, the state telecommunications agency. 

Fidel Castro leaves behind an island shaped by his vision, his energy, and his hubris. For many Cubans, it is the only reality they have ever experienced. Many of them greeted 2016 as a promise of normalization, economic progress, and an opening to the outside world, a future that is less certain after the U.S. election. Castro’s death thus marks the end of one era before the possible birth of another.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • ANNE NELSON is a Fellow at the Arnold A. Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs and the author of Cuba’s Parallel Worlds: Digital Media Crosses the Divide
  • More By Anne Nelson