Cuban leader Raúl Castro’s successor will face a perfect storm of challenges — starting with blustery winds coming from President Donald Trump’s White House.
As problems pile up — a deteriorating relationship with the Trump administration, Hurricane Irma, dwindling oil supplies from Venezuela and an economic malaise — the big question less than three months out from the expected transition is whether the threat of a return to the Cold War will keep Castro in power longer.
The communist island also will face an unprecedented political transition — the first non-Castro president of Cuba in more than 40 years — making it a potentially dangerous situation. Raúl Castro took over for his ailing older brother Fidel — at first provisionally on July 31, 2006, and then officially in 2008.
Castro, 86, has said he plans to retire from the presidency of both the Council of State and the Council of Ministers on Feb. 24, 2018, although he is expected to remain as head of Cuba’s Communist Party.
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There are some analysts who think the challenges could delay the transition, but most are betting Castro will pass the torch as expected to Miguel Díaz-Canel, first vice president of the Council of State.
“They’ve been hit by a number of shocks, but I think the Cubans are sufficiently institutionalized, so they can manage their mounting difficulties and move forward with the transition as scheduled,” said Richard Feinberg, a University of California-San Diego political science professor. “They’ve not only been public about the transition, but they’ve been working on it for a long time.”
He said Cuba’s Communist Party has “lots of experience managing austerity. They held it together in the 1990s [after the collapse of Cuba’s chief benefactor, the Soviet Union] and technically they seem capable of weathering these storms.”
Domingo Amuchastegui, a former Cuban intelligence analyst who now lives in Miami, thinks Castro might be reluctant to step down given the circumstances.
“The fatherland is in danger; it is facing very difficult economic circumstances plus the threat of aggression from a historical enemy. Facing difficult circumstances, revolutionary leaders don’t back down,” said Amuchastegui. “These are not times to enjoy life in Varadero and spend time with the grandchildren.”
Amuchastegui, who recently returned from a trip to Cuba, says 80 to 85 percent of those he spoke with there don’t agree with his assessment. But, he added: “I know very well how they think and react. To me, it’s inconceivable facing the current circumstances that they would retire. And it’s not just him [Castro], but it’s the whole team — the historic generation — that would be expected to go forward for a time.”
Carlos Alzugaray, Cuba’s former ambassador to the European Union, called that scenario “unlikely, if not impossible. Raúl Castro has given clear signals that he wants to withdraw and begin the process of institutionalizing Cuba after the historic leadership. In the United States, they would say post-Castro Cuba.”
Manuel Cuesta Morúa, a dissident who headed up an unsuccessful effort to run independent candidates in local elections, says it’s possible Castro may not leave in February because of the “surprisingly critical situation,” which might be better served by a more experienced hand than someone new.
Still, he said: “I am one of those who believe Díaz-Canel will assume [power]. I do not think he [Díaz-Canel] has much drive, much ability to do it.” But somehow, Cuesta Morúa said, he will have to find a way to “normalize relations with the United States in order to have a covered flank so he will be able to concentrate on internal challenges” in Cuba.
Castro’s plans go all the way back to 2013, when he first mentioned his intention to retire from Cuba’s Council of State in five years. During the 2016 party congress, he also brought up the idea of imposing age limits for government and party posts.
“This has important political, institutional and personal implications and cannot be delayed, for biological reasons. Remember that he is 86 years old, six years older than Fidel when he got sick and had to leave the presidency and give it to Raúl,” Alzugaray said.
Castro has always been one who favors the established order. He has proposed a maximum of two terms for Cuban officials, and “it will not be he who makes the first exception,” said Alzugaray. “He will not take a step back now.”
“Ever since he assumed the presidency, Castro has tried to strengthen institutions as the best guarantee of the regime’s continuity,” said William LeoGrande, a government professor at American University in Washington, D.C.
He believes there will be a transition of power in February. “A key element of that has been to assure regular circulation of leadership members by term limits. The damage to the institutional order from reversing course would be too serious,” he said.
“Besides, Castro has said nothing about stepping down as first secretary of the Communist Party of Cuba; he will continue to have tremendous influence over important policy decisions and directions,” LeoGrande said.
But whoever carries the title of Cuban president in late February will face a complicated array of challenges that could impact the ability to govern. Among them:
The Trump effect
Since President Donald Trump took office, the U.S. relationship with Cuba has grown progressively worse.
The United States has issued new regulations that prevent most business dealings with the Cuban military and put more restrictions on American travel; instead of abstaining on a nonbinding U.N. vote condemning the embargo as the Obama administration did, the U.S. returned to the old policy of casting a “no” vote, and it has stepped up hostile rhetoric.
But what has strained the tattered relationship more than anything are the mysterious acoustic incidents or sonic attacks between November 2016 and August that the United States says have caused hearing loss and other health problems among 24 U.S. diplomats stationed in Havana. While Washington has not accused the Cubans of causing the incidents, it says the Cuban government had the responsibility to protect U.S. Embassy personnel while they were on Cuban soil.
After the attacks, the United States withdrew 60 percent of embassy personnel from Havana and ordered the expulsion of 15 Cuban diplomats, including the entire commercial section and most of its consular section. The moves have further complicated travel and business relations.
The investigation is ongoing, but the United States remains suspicious of Cuba. “To anyone who knows anything about the Cuban government and the past of the Cuban government, it’s hard to imagine that certain things wouldn’t be known that were taking place on that island right there,” said Heather Nauert, a State Department spokeswoman.
“Honestly, I think we’re back in the Cold War era,” said Andy Gomez, the interim director of the University of Miami Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies. “The normalization process between the two nations is frozen until Cuba comes up with something [about who is responsible].”
There was extensive damage to coastal homes and hotels after Hurricane Irma churned ashore in early September as a Category 5 storm. The power grid and 90 oil wells took hits, and Cuba’s poultry industry, especially egg production, along with corn, plantain and fruit trees, suffered severe damage.
Resorts in the north-central Cuban keys took a beating but many were back in service by Nov. 1, and Cuba has been offering discounts for the coming winter season. Officials say they are still hopeful that Cuba will welcome a record 4.7 million international visitors this year, but it’s clear the hurricane put a major dent in an already ailing economy.
A shrinking economy
Amid economic chaos at home, staunch ally Venezuela has curbed oil shipments to Cuba, leading to cutbacks in fuel available for state industries. A Russian oil deal has picked up some of the slack, but this has been a tough year for the Cuban economy with limp commodity prices, a drought and the hit from Hurricane Irma.
Despite record tourism numbers in 2016, the economy contracted by .9 percent. The Cuban government set an economic growth target of 2 percent this year, and reported 1 percent growth in the first half of the year.
But economist Carmelo Mesa-Lago said that was before two hurricanes — Irma and Trump — hit Cuba. Now, he expects the Cuban economy will shrink again this year, perhaps by more than -.3 percent. Cuba, he says, is suffering through its worst economic crisis since the 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Moody’s Investors Service is forecasting that the Cuban economy will contract by .5 percent, mainly as a result of Irma.
It also says the new Trump regulations will negatively affect Cuba’s credit quality by reducing U.S. visitors to Cuba and diminishing “the impetus for investment primarily into tourism projects, as well as other sectors that had expected further opening of the Cuban economy.”
“They should be opening all doors to improving the economy,” Mesa-Lago said. But the door has been at least partially closed by the Trump administration with its ban on business with military enterprises and a prohibition on any new deals with Cuba’s Mariel Special Economic Development Zone, which Cuba hopes will attract massive foreign investment.
Cuba recently cracked down on what it called abuses in its self-employed or cuentapropista sector, which now employs 561,000 Cubans. “I think Cuba is terrified of what will happen if they lose control of self-employment,” said Mesa-Lago.
Cuba recently suspended granting new licenses for private bed and breakfasts called casas particulares.
Economists had speculated that Castro might push through some of the hard economic reforms that are still pending, such as unifying Cuba’s unwieldy dual currency system, because he has more political capital than a successor would have. That hasn’t happened.
Mesa-Lago said that he sees no sign that economic reform will accelerate before Castro leaves office, and that his successor will inherit an economy in very bad shape.
Meanwhile, some analysts suggest that the chill in relations between Cuba and the United States is influencing Cuba’s internal political debate, strengthening the hand of hard-liners and setting back any chance of a further political and economic opening inside Cuba.
The Cuba Study Group, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit that favors engagement, said in a statement that the worsening relationship with the United States has provided Cuba with an excuse “to revive a siege mentality. The Trump administration’s policies ultimately favor those in Cuba in a position to benefit most from the status quo where essential economic and political reforms continue to be neglected.”
“I do believe Donald Trump’s new sanctions play into the hands of conservatives in Cuba’s leadership who question whether better relations with Washington are really in Cuba’s interest,” said LeoGrande, the American University professor. “I can just hear them saying, ‘We told you so!’ ”
Arturo Lopez Levy, a lecturer at U.S. universities and a former intelligence analyst for Cuba, said all the challenges have shifted the political debate on the island.
“The debate used to be whether Díaz-Canel would be up to the challenge of dealing with a more open world and a more plural society. Now all debate on political reform [inside Cuba] has been postponed or closed,” he said. The government blocked 175 independent candidates from the ballot for Cuba’s Nov. 26 municipal council elections.
Instead of discussions about putting forth more progressive candidates or other political reforms, the current debate, Lopez Levy said, is “whether Díaz-Canel and his team will be up to designing a proper strategy for resistance against Trump, and whether he will have the stamina to stand up to Washington.”
But the elections also seemed to lend credence to Díaz-Canel as Castro’s successor. He was widely photographed, included by state media, as he cast his ballot. Díaz-Canel, usually reticent around the media, also answered reporters’ questions, saying the elections delivered a message that “our people don’t bow down, not to a hurricane and even less to external pressure and some people’s desire to see our system change.”
Follow Mimi Whitefield on Twitter: @HeraldMimi