For many, Fidel Castro's death is like the lifting of a heavy fog, a defining moment that will carve out a new path and allow Cuba to move forward. But some analysts say the revolutionary government remains firmly in place and they see no immediate changes coming to the island.
Although Castro still loomed large as a symbol at the time of his death, announced late Friday, the reality is that he has been out of power since 2006 when he became critically ill and ceded power to his brother Raúl Castro — first temporarily and then officially two years later.
And beyond that, Raúl Castro, 85, is already taking steps toward his own succession.
The younger Castro has said that he will step down as the president of Cuba’s Council of State on Feb. 24, 2018, and Miguel Díaz-Canel, the first vice president, is the heir apparent. With most historic revolutionary leaders now in their eighties, the 56-year-old Díaz-Canel represents a generational shift. He wasn’t even born at the time of the 1959 revolution.
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But even as he has pledged to cede his presidential seat, Raúl Castro has said nothing of resigning as head of the Cuban armed forces or as the powerful head of Cuba’s Communist Party.
“I don’t think Fidel Castro’s death will make a tremendous amount of difference in the short-term on the island. Fidel Castro has been retired for a decade now,” said William LeoGrande, a government professor at American University who has long followed negotiations between Havana and Washington. “In some ways, the greater shift is here in the United States.”
I don’t think Fidel Castro’s death will make a tremendous amount of difference in the short-term on the island.
William LeoGrande, American University
There does seem to be more acknowledgment that Cubans should be the protagonists of their own future, but Cuban-American politicians are still calling for stepped-up action against the current regime by the U.S. and other governments.
South Florida Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who favors keeping the embargo against Cuba in place “until the gulags are closed, elections are held, political prisoners are freed, and liberty is restored,” still sees this as a pivotal time for Cuba.
“Now a new beginning can dawn,” Ros-Lehtinen said of Castro’s death. “We must seize the moment and write a new chapter in the history of Cuba.” In her view, Cuba’s current leaders have now been put on notice that they cannot “continue to misrule Cuba through oppression and fear.”
Not all Cuba watchers agree.
“The government of Cuba will retrench to demonstrate that the revolution survives its founder — and continues to defy the United States,” said John Kavulich, president of the U.S.-Cuba and Economic Council. “The passing of former President Fidel Castro will neither have immediate or consequential impact upon the lives of the 11.3 million citizens of Cuba.”
Other analysts point out that the rule of Raúl Castro is far from synonymous with the decades that his brother spent in power.
The younger Castro has undertaken reforms ranging from freer travel for Cubans to more market-oriented economic changes, including expanding self-employment and allowing private cooperatives. Under his watch, diplomatic relations with the United States were renewed after a gap of more than half a century and Cuba is actively courting foreign investment.
“I do see important differences between Fidel and Raúl,” said Ted Piccone, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Brookings Institution. “Raúl seems more interested in institution-building and passing the torch to the next generation. Now there is an opportunity for Raúl to consolidate his approach.”
Raúl seems more interested in institution-building and passing the torch to the next generation.
Ted Piccone, Brookings Institution
Nevertheless, he thinks change will still come slowly in Cuba with one-party rule continuing, technocratic rule by committee and continuing marginal economic changes. “The big question is what will happen in 2018 with Díaz-Canel or someone else,” he said.
Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio sees little difference between the Castro brothers: “The dictator has died, but the dictatorship has not.”
Without being specific about what course U.S.-Cuba relations should take, he said: “The future of Cuba ultimately remains in the hands of the Cuban people, and now more than ever Congress and the new administration must stand with them against their brutal rulers and support their struggle for freedom and basic human rights.”
During an appearance on “Face the Nation” Sunday, Rubio said he is not opposed to U.S. policy changes toward Cuba, but said they must be “reciprocal” and “that was not part of what President Obama did” in his rapprochement with Cuba.
President-elect Donald Trump has said variously that engagement with Cuba is OK as long as the U.S. gets a better deal but more recently that he would roll back President Barack Obama’s executive orders allowing an opening toward Cuba.
“It is unclear whether the Trump administration will take a pragmatic approach to U.S-Cuba relations, but the death of Fidel Castro will make it more difficult to justify policies that are rooted in past ideologies rather than future opportunities,” said Geoff Thale, director of programs at the Washington Office on Latin America.
...the death of Fidel Castro will make it more difficult to justify policies that are rooted in past ideologies rather than future opportunities.
Geoff Thale, Washington Office on Latin America
What tack Trump will take on Cuba policy isn’t the only unknown in the whither-Cuba equation. There’s also the impact on the island of the rapidly declining economy of Venezuela — Cuba’s ally and benefactor, and the pace of economic reform in Cuba.
In Miami, many Cuban Americans do view Fidel Castro’s death as a prelude to a free Cuba and it has served as a catharsis of sorts, triggering memories of loss, separation and suffering but also discussions about the future of Cuba.
“Among Cuban Americans, a lot of passion was focused on hatred of Fidel Castro as a symbol of a revolution that took away their country and everything they had,” said LeoGrande. “I wonder now that he is gone whether some of this will be dissipated. If this really is a catharsis, it could eliminate an important barrier to improving U.S.-Cuba relations.”
The Cuban American National Foundation, long one of the most strident voices against the Castro government, sounded a more conciliatory note on his passing and called for Cubans on both sides of the Florida Straits to work together for a better future for the Cuban people.
As Cubans, this historical moment forces us to consider our own future...
Cuban American National Foundation
“As Cubans, this historical moment forces us to consider our own future; and encourages us to put aside our anguish, our differences, and our fear in order to pave the way for a brighter future,” the Foundation said in a statement. “Today must be a day of hope, willingness, and solidarity in favor of peace, freedom, and the well-being of our brothers and sisters on the island.”
Richard Blanco, a Cuban-American poet who not only recited his work at President Obama’s second inauguration but also at the ceremony marking the reopening of the U.S. embassy in Havana last year, said that “Fidel Castro’s death is certainly a symbolic ‘victory’ that will bring much-needed closure to many who’ve been in his psychological grip. But I worry it will essentially change nothing unless efforts toward change continue.”