In the run-up to President Obama’s decision to reverse U.S. policy toward Cuba in December 2014, the American public was fed a steady diet of assurances by Cuba experts. Raúl Castro, who succeeded his brother Fidel in 2008, was “a pragmatic reformer,” they maintained — he recognized the country’s desperate need for change. Despite the lack of evidence that Raúl was ever anything but a hardline, murderous Communist, the experts insisted that he would boldly usher in a liberalizing transition to a Chinese- or Vietnamese-style “mixed economy” and that the U.S. needed to get in the game to “help” the process along.
No such reforms ever materialized. Instead, Raúl presided over an unprecedented expansion of the Cuban military’s control over the nation’s economy, especially in the tourist sector. In short, he cut his military cronies into government revenues to ensure their enduring loyalty. (U.S. tourists may as well write their checks out directly to the Cuban Revolutionary Armed Forces and the repressive Ministry of the Interior.)
The experts blamed Fidel Castro. It seemed his presence even in retirement induced an “executive paralysis.” His vocal opposition to change resulted in a “psychological pressure on the system to keep it as it is,” as Alvaro Vargas Llosa of the Independent Institute told the Christian Science Monitor.
Fidel’s death, then, would serve as a liberating event for Raúl, removing the younger brother from his older brother’s shadow. “Now that Fidel is gone, there may be a boldening, a quickening of the economic reforms,” an analyst told CNN after the elder Castro died last November. “There may be a louder voice within the Politburo . . . from the side of the reformers, the modernizers to allow more economic progress.”
Suffice it say, no such boldening has occurred, and the bloom is now off the Raúl rose. Indeed, he is now merely a “transitional president” between the old guard and the future. He has said he would retire as president next year. As one proponent of Obama’s policy lamented to the Miami Herald, “Raúl Castro and his aging colleagues seem to lack the vision and energy to drive comprehensive reform, so the Cuban people will have to wait until 2018 when new leadership — a new generation — comes forward.”
That would be the 56-year-old Vice President Miguel Díaz-Canel, Raúl’s designated successor. But the reality is that Diaz-Canel is a colorless civilian apparatchik with no power base who — if he survives — will be no more than a figurehead atop a military-dominated regime. That’s because what is being planned in Cuba is a transfer of power not to a new generation of Cubans but to a new generation of Castros — specifically, Raúl Castro’s son and his son-in-law.