The Magazine

Cuba After Fidel

Can the society he ruined get back on its feet?

Mar 3, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 24 • By DUNCAN CURRIE
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Peter Orr, a retired Foreign Service officer who served as Cuba coordinator at the U.S. Agency for International Development under President Clinton, disagrees. "There is nothing in Helms-Burton that impedes an incremental strategy," Orr told me via email. "Yes, the bar to formal diplomatic recognition and direct assistance to the Cuban government has been codified at a fairly high level that is not going to be met in the near term following Fidel Castro's demise. But the same Helms-Burton legislation authorized the president to take steps to promote democratic change in Cuba, including but not limited to providing assistance to the Cuban people and promoting information flows and people-to-people engagements that would further democratic change."

Even under Helms-Burton, "the president has a wide degree of discretion to make the determination of what constitutes a step that will promote democratic change"--and nothing bars U.S and Cuban officials from talking or negotiating.

Venezuela. In recent years, Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez has lavished Cuba with petroleum largesse. In 2006, according to Jorge Piñón and his colleagues at the University of Miami's Cuba Transition Project, "the market value of Venezuela's crude oil and refined products exports to Cuba amounted to over $3.3 billion." In 2007, they reckon, Venezuelan oil subsidies to Cuba might well have eclipsed $4 billion.

Chávez and Fidel get on famously, but Raúl has remained more distant from the Venezuelan leader. "The bulk of evidence suggests that the two men have little in common and are more rivals than allies," notes Latell. Many Cuban military officers are said to be dismissive of the buffoonish Chávez and resentful of their dependence on Venezuelan oil. For that matter, Chávez has been weakened at home: He lost a December referendum on constitutional reform and has alienated many onetime supporters. If the future of Venezuelan aid to Cuba is uncertain, the consequences of its withdrawal are clearer. If Caracas withdrew those subsidies, says the former Bush administration official, "there would be a crisis [in Cuba] as big as the one that attended the fall of the Soviet Union."

Migration. Once Fidel dies, "I don't think Raúl can keep it together," a senior Bush administration official told me late last year, noting that things could get "very bloody." Raúl has dodgy health, no charisma, and a reputation for brutality--not exactly the makings of a transformative figure. If the regime loses control and violence engulfs the island, it could spur a massive migration to Florida.

The 1980 Mariel boatlift brought around 125,000 Cubans to American shores; the 1994 balsero frenzy saw nearly 40,000 Cubans intercepted by the U.S. Coast Guard. Any major post-Fidel instability could trigger another huge exodus. "It could be bigger than Mariel," Latell told me.

"I would like to think that a U.S. president would put promoting democratic change in Cuba above concerns about uncontrolled immigration, but I don't believe any administration in recent times has and I'm skeptical that even Fidel's death will change that," says Orr. "Even in the absence of gradual political change, economic progress in Cuba becomes imperative if an immigration crisis is to be avoided, if and when sudden political change occurs. This logic suggests that a successful implementation of the Chinese model in Cuba would serve U.S. interests of minimizing the risk of an illegal immigration crisis."

Fidel Castro's 49-year tyranny hasn't just ruined the Cuban economy; it has also ruined Cuban society, producing generations of Cubans who have learned to "succeed" in life by lying, spying, cheating, and stealing. Trying to fashion a market-oriented, democratic culture out of the wreckage of five decades of bloodstained totalitarianism will not be easy, no matter who is in charge.

If post-Fidel Cuba adopts the Chinese economic model, as expected, the lot of ordinary Cubans will improve. But the road to full-blown democracy will likely be slow, fitful, and deeply frustrating to Cubans on both sides of the Florida Strait, who have waited half a century for their homeland's long national nightmare to end.

Duncan Currie is managing editor of the American.