The best chance of ensuring continuity is pushing through political, economic changes
The retirement of Raul Castro as the first secretary of Cuba’s ruling Communist Party brings to an end the six-decade-long rule of the “historic generation”, who, under the leadership of Fidel Castro, captured power in 1959 through an armed revolution. Fidel remained at the helm of affairs in the island, in the face of growing hostility from the U.S. until he fell sick in 2006. Two years later, he handed the party to his younger brother, who had fought alongside him in the guerrilla war against the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista in the 1950s. Under the younger Castro, Cuba started taking baby steps towards opening up the state-controlled economy. He had also overseen rapid improvement in relations with the U.S., when Barack Obama eased some restrictions on the Cuban economy, travelled to Havana and opened an American Embassy. In 2018, Mr. Raul stepped down as President, handing government responsibilities to his hand-picked next generation leader, Miguel Díaz-Canel. Now when the 89-year-old leader retires, leaving “a foot in a stirrup ready to defend socialism”, Mr. Díaz-Canel, 60, is expected to succeed him as the new party chief.
The Castros built a closed, socialist economy that worked for many for decades. Cuba’s achievements in the fields of education and health care are inimitable. But many critics of the Cuban model feel that the historic generation was slow to open up the economy, generate growth and create more opportunities — something that China, another communist party-ruled country, did. Mr. Raul took small steps and Mr. Díaz-Canel is continuing them, with a long-promised currency reform having been implemented in January. But the transition comes at a painful time. When Soviet assistance ceased in the early 1990s, Fidel asked Cubans to tighten their belts for a “special period”. Eventually, Cuba came out of those hardships, and the pink tide in Latin America that propelled leftist leaders to power, from Venezuela to Ecuador, helped Havana both politically and economically. But now, the pink tide is in reverse. Venezuela, which offered cheap oil to Cuba, is itself in an economic and political mess. The Obama-era concessions were unmade by Mr. Trump. The coronavirus pandemic practically shut down Cuba’s vital tourism sector, causing an 11% economic contraction last year. The crisis has triggered food shortages, bringing back memories of the early 1990s. There are also calls for more political freedoms. Unlike in the past when the flow of information was controlled, the expansion of the Internet and social networks is allowing critics of the government, including U.S.-based dissidents, to amplify their voices. Mr. Raul’s successor cannot stay away from addressing these challenges as the revolution ages. The party always bets on continuity. But the contradiction it faces is that continuity is intrinsically linked to reforms.