The year 2018 is a seminal one for Latin America: two-thirds of the region’s people will choose new national governments, and the citizens of Communist Cuba will be among them. Last Sunday, the island held parliamentary elections to elect a new roster of deputies for the National Assembly of the People’s Power, Cuba’s parliament. It was the penultimate step in a series of complex voting exercises that make up Cuba’s version of political democracy. Twelve thousand ward delegates had already been chosen in a public ballot in November. Next, in a historic final step, scheduled to take place on April 19th, the six-hundred-and-nine-person National Assembly will vote for a leader to replace Raúl Castro, who is now eighty-six and intends to vacate the Presidency. (He has served two five-year terms, which he has declared to be the limit for the office.) Once he does, someone other than a Castro will rule the island for the first time since 1959; In 2006, Raúl succeeded his ailing brother, Fidel, in office, and officially assumed his duties in 2008. Castro’s likely successor is the Vice-President, Miguel Díaz-Canel, a fifty-seven-year-old, second-generation Party stalwart. It’s always possible that someone else will emerge; a number of Castro heirs presumptive have fallen in the past. But it seems improbable now. Díaz-Canel has been in his job for five years, following stints as a provincial Party chief, so his selection would telegraph a message of steadiness to Cuba’s citizens and to the outside world.
In any event, Castro will remain the secretary-general of the Communist Party, meaning that he will continue to be the maximum arbiter of political life in Cuba. Given his age, however, he may not stay in the post for long. He is said to be planning to move to the city of Santiago, on the eastern end of the island, not far from the farmlands where he and his brother were born. Fidel’s ashes are encased in a boulder in a cemetery in Santiago, and Raúl’s final resting place will be in a mausoleum in the nearby Sierra Maestra mountains, where the Castros fought the guerrilla war that brought them to power.
Cuba will also remain a single-party state for the foreseeable future. Indeed, several independent reformist candidates who sought to run in November’s ward elections were prevented from doing so; the idea of an elected political opposition is not yet countenanced in Cuba. One could say that Cuba’s system is like the Vatican’s—or, for that matter, the Kremlin’s—in that change is possible within it, but very little is possible from outside it.
What’s taking place in Cuba is more accurately described as a succession than as a transition. That won’t win it any praise from Donald Trump, who throughout the 2016 Presidential campaign denounced it as an unacceptable dictatorship, and who, since taking office, has largely handed off Cuba policy to Senator Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida, who regularly fulminates against “Castro tyranny.” That policy has centered on reversing the advances made during the two years of détente that President Barack Obama initiated, with the restoration of diplomatic relations, in 2014. An economic and cultural transition has been under way in Cuba for nearly a decade: the government had relaxed rules preventing foreign travel by most of its citizens and lifted long-standing restrictions on the purchase and sale of private property, as well as on most forms of private enterprise. But the breakthrough with Washington led to a surge in tourism, with hundreds of thousands of Americans visiting the island for the first time, and Cubans also travelled more freely to the United States. An unprecedented series of bilateral summits also saw agreements on everything from marine conservation to immigration and counter-narcotics operations.
The new Trump Administration restrictions have made it illegal for Americans to invest directly on the island in any way that might benefit Cuba’s armed forces. They also prevent American tourists from travelling to the island unless they are part of an officially recognized tour group. Remittances have not been affected, nor have the operations of cruise ships and airliners, but fewer Americans are visiting, the investment climate has stalled, and, in general, an atmosphere of mistrust has replaced the optimism that had begun under Obama.
In a surreal twist that has made the situation worse, there is still no answer to why a number of American diplomatic personnel in Havana, mostly C.I.A. employees, suffered what the State Department calls “acoustic attacks”—strange, unidentified sounds that reportedly caused aural damage and, in some cases, memory loss and other ailments. They began in November, 2016, the same month as Trump’s election and Fidel’s death. Many theories abound regarding the source of the sound—including faulty Cuban eavesdropping, or meddling by a foreign power, such as Russia, or even “rogue” Cuban intelligence agents opposed to Castro’s entente cordiale with the United States—but there is no proof for any of them. The Cubans insist that they are not responsible, and offered to help investigate. They also invited the F.B.I. to conduct an inquiry, but the findings were inconclusive.
By now, Cuban officials have become impatient, suggesting that the ailments are likely the result of group hysteria, or that the Trump Administration concocted the incident as an excuse to vilify Cuba. Whatever the truth, most of the Embassy employees were called back to the United States, for safety reasons, on Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s orders; a few weeks ago, that reduction was made permanent, sharply curtailing diplomatic activity. American diplomats in the region whom I have spoken to doubt that Castro would authorize such an operation, but they also say that there is no question that something happened. If faulty spying equipment is to blame, Cuba is not likely to acknowledge it. One suspects that the United States wouldn’t, either, if it were caught in a similar predicament, deniability being the essence of spycraft.
Yet Trump’s use of the bully pulpit to upbraid the island for its failings seems as hypocritical as it is counterproductive. Cuba still lacks some of the basic civil liberties that Americans take for granted, such as a free press and free elections. However, compared with many countries in the Western Hemisphere, most of which espouse some variant of democracy and a free-market economy, Cuba is a secure society with some enviable social indicators. Its murder rates are among the region’s lowest; its infant-mortality rates are lower than those in the United States; and its citizens are guaranteed state-subsidized education and free health care. Yet, while the Trump Administration has tangled with some Latin American nations, Cuba is the only one under sweeping U.S. trade sanctions.
Last November, Presidential elections were held in Honduras, where drug gangs abound, journalists and environmental activists are frequently assassinated, and the murder rate is one of the world’s highest. Despite compelling evidence of vote fraud and the violent suppression of civilian protesters by police, the country’s electoral tribunal declared the right-of-center incumbent, President Juan Orlando Hernández, the victor. Ignoring an international consensus that the election was flawed, the Trump Administration recognized Hernández, whom it views as an ally it can count on. When Trump recently announced his plan to move the American Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, Honduras was one of only eight nations to side with the United States in a United Nations vote condemning the move.
Last week, municipal and legislative elections were held in El Salvador. Voter cynicism was widespread: turnout was less than fifty per cent, and one in ten of those who did vote reportedly destroyed or defaced their ballots in protest. The probable reasons are the appalling official corruption (two previous Presidents face prosecutions for allegedly stealing funds while in office) and the lack of public safety (El Salvador has a serious gang problem and competes with Honduras for the world’s highest murder rates).
Parliamentary elections also took place last week in Colombia, and a Presidential election is scheduled for May. That contest pits several centrist and left-wing politicians against a couple of rivals on the far right, and the rhetoric is superheated. Those on the left have accused the right-wing candidates of corruption or worse, while the right accuses the left of plotting to turn Colombia into a beachhead for castrochavismo, a reference to both Cuban socialism and the calamitous policies espoused by President Nicolás Maduro’s putatively socialist regime in Venezuela. The political damage from such accusations cannot be underestimated against the continued fallout from a controversial recent peace deal with Colombia’s former farc guerrilla group, and the meltdown gathering pace in neighboring Venezuela. Since last summer, some two hundred and fifty thousand Venezuelans have fled to Colombia, exacerbating social tensions and spurring talk of a humanitarian crisis on the border. Whatever the outcome of the May elections, Colombia’s political polarization seems likely to deepen.
Maduro, who has been in office since 2013, when he succeeded the dying Hugo Chávez, intends to run again in elections scheduled for May. Despite a collapsing economy and health services (and spiralling incidents of disease, due to a lack of vaccinations), and although Maduro replaced the Congress with a loyalist constituent assembly, his reëlection is all but assured, as his chief political rivals have either been jailed or banned from participating. If Venezuela’s crisis continues to worsen, the possibility that some of Venezuela’s neighbors, in tandem with the United States, might seek to foment a military coup d’état cannot be ruled out. Trump set the idea in motion last July, by saying that he would not rule out a “military option.” But for now, although U.S. sanctions have been applied against a number of government officials in the government, including Maduro, oil business continues between the two nations.
In Mexico and Brazil, where elections are scheduled for July and October, respectively, the atmosphere is also toxic, with bitterly opposed political rivals and allegations of corruption among the main fighting points. In both nations, deeply unpopular incumbent governments seek to perpetuate right-of-center political cliques in power, despite serious questions surrounding their honesty and their dedication to democratic ideals. But Trump’s biggest problem with Mexico is that it still won’t pay for his border wall. Last Tuesday, on a visit to San Diego, he inspected several prototypes and repeated that a wall is essential to protect the United States from “criminals and terrorists.” In Mexico, meanwhile, partly in response, an outspoken left-of-center independent, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, has emerged as the likely winner in July elections.
It is certainly true that Cuba is not yet a democratic state, and that not all the recent movement has been forward. During the period of Obama-Castro détente, Cuba opened up the Internet, albeit with some firewalls, but, despite a call by Raúl Castro for Cuba’s media to become more representative of the island’s reality, his government has shown reluctance to go much beyond this abstract expression of intent. A few weeks ago, the government blocked the Internet-only El Estornudo, a small independent media outlet founded and operated by a handful of Cuban millennials. This was a lamentable move, and there have been others, including the suspension of new licenses for the country’s growing private small-business sector, but Cuba’s fitful pace toward greater openness cannot be evaluated without taking into account Trump’s arrival on the scene. Cuba’s leadership has taken pains to demonstrate an outward calm, but the government is clearly wary about what the Trump Administration may do next. In a speech to the National Assembly last July, Castro blasted Trump’s posture, saying, “Cuba and the United States can coöperate and live side by side, respecting their differences. But no one should expect that for this one should have to make concessions inherent to one’s sovereignty and independence.” He also warned, “Any strategy that seeks to destroy the revolution either through coercion or pressure or through more subtle methods will fail.”
For much of the past two decades, many of nation’s economic needs were provided for by oil-rich Venezuela, but that supply has been dropping, and, particularly if Maduro loses power sometime soon, Cuba will need a new partner. Coinciding with Trump’s pullback, the Russians, for one, have exhibited a growing interest in revitalizing their own presence on the island. Moscow has resumed oil shipments to Cuba, for the first time this century, and other export and infrastructure deals are under way.
Trump’s bullying only makes it more likely that the Cubans, with or without a Castro, will do what they have done for the past fifty-nine years: exhibit stubborn pride and, if necessary, forge tactical alliances with any of America’s geostrategic foes who might be willing to watch their back.