Since 1975, Cuba’s ruling Communist Party has periodically convened a congress at which, in keeping with the arcane rituals of socialist states during the Soviet era, the Party makes public official policy guidelines. This year, the eighth congress ended after a four-day session that was arguably its most momentous: it coincided not only with the sixtieth anniversary of the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, which led to the breakdown in relations with the United States and helped to precipitate the Cuban Missile Crisis a year later, but also with a historic curtain call for the Castro era.
At the opening session, on April 16th, Raúl Castro, the younger brother of the late Cuban jefe máximo, Fidel Castro, confirmed his plans, as he had promised he would, to step down as the First Secretary of the Communist Party. This was the last senior post he held, since he vacated the Presidency, in 2018, to make way for his handpicked Party loyalist, Miguel Díaz-Canel, who now also succeeds him as First Secretary. Raúl, who will turn ninety in June, has held the position for ten years, just as he held the Presidency for two five-year terms, after succeeding his ailing brother, in 2008. (Raúl had, in fact, served as Cuba’s de-facto leader for the previous two years, after Fidel nearly died from a bout of diverticulitis.)
Fidel had been Cuba’s undisputed strongman since January, 1959, when the Castros, their Argentine friend Ernesto (Che) Guevara, and several hundred guerrilla comrades overthrew the regime of a gangsterish dictator, Fulgencio Batista, and seized power. For most of the subsequent decades, Raúl served as his brother’s defense minister, and remained in the shadows. Now, he returns to them. It is believed that Raúl intends to retire to Santiago, Cuba’s second city, which is at the opposite end of the seven-hundred-and-forty-mile-long island from Havana, and near where he and Fidel grew up. He has already prepared his final resting place, a mausoleum alongside his former guerrilla comrades in the Sierra Maestra, at the site of their old base camp. (Fidel’s ashes are interred in a Santiago cemetery, next to the mausoleum of the nineteenth-century independence hero José Martí.)
Ushered in by Fidel’s defiant proclamation of “the socialist nature of the Cuban Revolution” exactly sixty years ago, just as the C.I.A.-backed Bay of Pigs invasion got underway, Cuba’s radical transformation made the country a dynamic player in the Cold War. Cuba sponsored covert guerrilla missions to dozens of countries in Latin America and Africa, and dispatched troops to fight in wars in Angola, Mozambique, Ethiopia, and elsewhere. For the past thirty years, however, since the implosion of the Soviet Union and the disappearance of most of the world’s other Communist states, the narrative has changed, and Cuba’s story has been mostly one of pluck and survival, while the rest of the world has changed around it, not necessarily for the better.
That, at least officially, is how the Communist Party wants Cuba to be seen today. The slogan of the congress at which Raúl bade farewell was Somos continuidad—We are continuity. And indeed, there is much that is unchanging in Cuba. It remains a single-party socialist state that exists in eternal counter-position to the United States, the capitalist superpower—or “the Empire,” as it is known to Cuba’s Communists—just ninety miles away, across the mouth of the Gulf of Mexico. In his speech, while lambasting the United States for its long-standing trade embargo, which Donald Trump extended with more than two hundred measures, Raúl called for “a respectful dialogue to build a new relationship with the United States, but without renouncing the principles of the Revolution, or of socialism.”
The formal end of the Castro era has elicited polarized reactions among Cubans, with Party loyalists expressing unquestioning faith in the system, and disbelievers signalling cynicism about the future. Requesting anonymity for fear of official retaliation, a Cuban friend told me that the revolutionary government is “just a big theatre piece that made its début sixty years ago and continues today. They’re not going to change anything and will do whatever they want as long as they can maintain control of things. There’s a lot of need on the street, and discontent too, but people won’t be able to do anything about it, because, if they try, they’ll just send in more police to keep a lid on things.”
The “discontent” he referred to is the San Isidro Movement, a loose alliance of dissident rappers, artists, journalists, and academics who, assisted in recent years by access to the Internet, have become increasingly active, staging protests in public and on social media. Last November, after one of them was arrested, the movement organized a sit-in and hunger strike in Havana, which was broken up by the police after ten days, and was followed by an unprecedented street protest of hundreds of people outside the ministry of culture. Both actions garnered widespread media attention, and the government has responded with police harassment of activists, occasional arrests, and a vituperous trolling campaign by commentators on state media.
When I asked Carla Gloria Colomé, a thirty-year-old independent journalist, whether she felt that the San Isidro Movement was the seed of a new restlessness, she said, “When its activists carried out their hunger strike, many of us observers thought that their headquarters had been turned into a free and democratic experiment—democratic space. I believe it has given back to us something we Cubans had lost: our civicism. We had forgotten that we had the right to protest and had the right to demand freedoms. If Díaz-Canel’s slogan is Somos continuidad, the movement’s is Estamos conectados: We are connected. It has also allowed us to imagine another thing we had forgotten—that we have a country and that it is possible to recover it.”
Another friend, the novelist Wendy Guerra, expressed blunt skepticism about the significance of Castro’s departure from power. In a Whatsapp message, she wrote, “I don’t think Raúl has really packed his bags. After living in Cuba for forty-nine years, this narrative seems familiar to me, one in which there is always an attic, a second floor, or a basement, where the government decisions are concealed. Raúl is like the abusive husband who has nowhere else to go, nor wants to go. He has separated but hasn’t left home.”
Indeed, at the end of the Party congress, Díaz-Canel promised to “consult with Raúl Castro on strategic decisions about the future of the nation.” The lack of clear signposts to Cuba’s future intrigues Ada Ferrer, a Cuban-American scholar at New York University who is the author of a forthcoming book, “Cuba: An American History,” and a Personal History, “My Brother’s Keeper,” which recently appeared in The New Yorker. “There’s no script for a post-Castro Cuba. Maybe it will end up being anticlimactic, as was Fidel Castro’s departure from power—his death. That seems to be the point of the Somos continuidad, right? But it feels less like a motto than a prayer sometimes. I think the leaders realize that, whatever continuity they seek, in terms of retaining power, everyone is seeking, needing some change.”
What other changes are in the offing? Not many, at least on the surface. At the Party congress, it was announced that, in addition to Raúl Castro, three other members of the seventeen-person Politburo, the governing council of the Communist Party, were leaving—including two other veterans of the Revolution who had fought in the Sierra, José Ramón Machado Ventura, who is ninety, and Ramiro Valdés, who is eighty-eight—and five new members were sworn in. Among them is Luís Alberto Rodríguez López-Calleja, a sixty-year-old general who was once married to Raúl’s daughter, Deborah, and who in recent years has been the influential boss of the anodynely named Grupo de Administración Empresarial S.A., or gaesa, a conglomerate that oversees the island’s many military-owned businesses, which include tourist resorts, hotels, supermarket chains and retail stores, financial-services institutions, gas stations, shipping and construction companies, and ports. Lopez-Calleja’s addition to the Politburo sends an important message that the Communist Party and the military will remain the ultimate stewards of economic affairs, even if, as Díaz-Canel recently promised, there is to be an increase in private-sector opportunities.
The moment is an important crossroads for Cuba, languishing as it is in an economic downturn precipitated by a chronic lack of productivity; fuel shortages caused by the economic collapse of Venezuela, the island’s main benefactor and oil supplier; the Trump Administration decrees, which reduced cash remittances from the United States, banned U.S. cruise ships from Cuban waters, and further restricted travel to Cuba. In both substance and tone, the past four years have seen a sharp souring of the brief honeymoon that accompanied the Obama Administration’s historic overture, announced in December, 2014, after nearly two years of secret negotiations, which restored diplomatic relations between the two countries, and was followed by a surge in American tourism and a sharp increase in foreign investment. That rapprochement came to a halt after Trump’s election, in November, 2016, and Fidel Castro’s death later that month. Within a few weeks, a series of bewildering “sonic attacks” began affecting C.I.A. and State Department personnel stationed at the U.S. Embassy in Havana. The atmosphere of fledgling good will that had characterized the Obama era was replaced under Trump by one of open hostility.
The evidence available suggests that Cuba has weathered the coronavirus pandemic quite well, with an official count of five hundred and ninety-one deaths, in a population of eleven million, but the lockdown measures hit the economy hard. With virtually no outsiders allowed in for most of the past year, the economy shrank a staggering eleven per cent in 2020, while imports dropped by around forty per cent, because the state did not have the money to pay for them. As a result, Cubans are facing scarcities of basic food items, medicines, and household essentials—as they did in the early-to-mid nineties, during the so-called special period that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union—and many people are forced to spend several hours each day seeking the means of daily survival. Earlier this month, in a sign of the times, the government announced key agricultural reforms, overturning decades-old laws that prohibited people from slaughtering their own cattle or selling beef and milk without state permission.
Part of the problem has been the government’s cumbersome two-tier currency system, which was formally ended in January, although the phase out is not yet complete. Under that system, Cubans who are fortunate enough to have access to U.S. dollars, through remittances, for instance, have been able to buy most of what they need—though they, too, have been standing in line for hours, owing to the import shortages—while those who only have Cuban pesos are finding it difficult to purchase adequate food for their families in the mostly empty government-owned stores and undersupplied fixed-price produce markets.
Yet, amid the shortages and general belt-tightening, the biopharmaceutical industry has entered final-phase trials at home and in Iran and Venezuela, with several of its own covid-19 vaccines. (The vaccines have been given patriotic names, such as Mambisa, for the guerrilla group that fought for independence from Spain in the nineteenth century.) The government has announced hopes to vaccinate more than half the population by August, and to begin exporting vaccines by the end of the year. If the program is successful, and there is every likelihood that it will be, given the government’s continued and significant investment in its health-care system and biotech industry, Cuba will be far ahead of its Latin American neighbors, most of which have negotiated deals with vaccine manufacturers in China and Russia, or have received donations from them and a few other countries. Cuba could become a regional savior and earn some badly needed money from the commercial vaccine market.
Despite widespread pessimism, there are hints that Díaz-Canel will move forward to free up the economy for private-sector entrepreneurs and investors. His government recently legalized a tranche of previously restricted professions for so-called cuentapropistas, people working for themselves, outside of the state sector. One prospective investor, the Cuban-American entrepreneur Hugo Cancio, told me that he believed that long-standing restrictions on investments by Cuban-Americans would soon be lifted. When I asked him why Raúl Castro hadn’t instituted such changes before he left power, he said, “Raúl has been an iconic figure during all these years and, even if he knows the changes need to be done, it’s not for him to execute them. So he is leaving as he came in, as a revolutionary, handing off to a new leadership that is more in tune with the new Cuba reality and a changing world. He’s like the father who says to his son, ‘Kid, you take it from here.’ ”
Beyond the pandemic and the economy, Cuba faces other existential questions, which, as ever, revolve around its relationship with the United States. Despite expectations that a Biden Presidency would reverse many of the Trump-era strictures and return to the détente of the Obama era, the messaging from the White House has been lukewarm. At a press conference on April 16th, the White House press secretary, Jen Psaki, told reporters, “A Cuba policy shift or additional steps is currently not among the President’s top foreign-policy priorities.”
In January, shortly after Biden’s Inauguration, his adviser on the Western Hemisphere for the National Security Council, Juan S. González, forecast the new Administration’s approach. “It’s no longer 2015,” he told me. He indicated that the U.S. would free up remittance levels and reduce travel restrictions for Americans, but that the new Administration was not going to rush into an energy-sucking round of talks aimed at restoring trade and other blandishments for Cuba. “Two things I’m conscious of with this President is time and political capital,” González said. “With the historic burden he and the Vice-President are carrying on their shoulders, the first priority has to be the pandemic, migration, and rebuilding frayed relationships with regional partners.” González also, as other U.S. officials have done, alluded to electoral considerations in Florida, where the Cuban-American voter turnout went hard for Trump, and which remains a source of worry for Democrats.
As something like a new Cold War approaches, this time with China, but accompanied by increasingly hostile chessboard maneuvering from Russia, the U.S. is assessing its options. Countries such as Cuba—and, for that matter, Venezuela and Nicaragua—have entered the realm of the known perturbables: places of concern that need keeping an eye on, but which, amid all the other crises in the world, feel containable. González told me that in the Western Hemisphere the top priorities are Mexico, along with Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala (the Northern Triangle countries of Central America that are the sources of most of the migrants arriving at the southern border), and Brazil, because of the Amazon Basin and the climate crisis, which is a foremost item on Biden’s to-do list.
González noted that the Administration would be taking a diplomatic approach to these issues, including overtures to President Jair Bolsonaro, of Brazil—an extreme anti-environmentalist who has actively incited Amazonian forest destruction by loggers, miners, and ranchers. At last week’s virtual Earth Day summit, Bolsonaro pledged to protect the Amazon, in return for large financial commitments from the U.S. and other wealthy countries. John Kerry, Biden’s climate czar, applauded Bolsonaro’s apparent change of heart, but environmental watchdog groups and indigenous leaders questioned his sincerity and warned the Biden Administration against entering into any deal that would legitimize him.
Recent inroads made by China to the region are also a preoccupation. Earlier this month, González, on his first trip to South America for President Biden, travelled to Argentina, where he discussed China’s covid diplomacy and, he told me this week, “reports of talks with the Chinese government regarding potential refurbishment of a military base in Ushuaia,” a port city in Patagonia. President Alberto Fernández, González said, told the U.S. envoy “that he would not allow a Chinese military base on Argentine soil.”
Six decades after the missile crisis, then, there are new sources of geostrategic tensions in the hemisphere, and they no longer necessarily involve Cuba. The Castro brothers are gone from the main stage, and the Caribbean island they dominated for so long is a threadbare place, still paying a price for its temerity in standing up to “the Empire.” In the Empire itself, meanwhile, Cuba is mostly forgotten, no longer relevant except in helping determine U.S. elections in Florida. As Joe Garcia, a former Democratic congressman from Florida and a Cuban-American, explained it to me, “In the same way that the assault on the Capitol on January 6th ended the myth of American exceptionalism, what Cuba is slowly coming to terms with is the reality that they are not the center of the universe anymore, as Fidel always told them they were. . . . They’re no longer a country engaged in revolutions and fighting anticolonial wars in Africa. They’re a country that has national challenges that are more pressing than its former aspirations.”
Garcia, like his fellow Cuban-American Hugo Cancio, maintains relationships with some Cuban officials, and occasionally serves as a behind-the-scenes messenger between Havana and Washington. He told me he believes that a dramatic transformation from a stagnant state-run economy to one led increasingly by the private sector—albeit one ultimately under Communist Party control, as in China—is essential. “There is going to be a restructuring,” Garcia said. “I could call it a retreat, and it is, really, from everything they’ve tried to do for sixty years, but the fact is that this is a way forward. The alternative is chaos.” Garcia added, “Raúl is going, and he’s saying: ‘After me this is what we’re doing.’ He’s not saying: ‘After me the flood.’ He’s got to do this. But what he can’t say is, ‘We’ve failed.’ ”