CubaBrief: What should U.S. policy makers expect from Cuba

In the ongoing debate over U.S. Cuba policy and changes between the Obama and Trump Administrations it is useful to look at the facts and the analysis of a Cuba expert with a track record of predicting the behavior of the Castro regime. Below is an important analysis by Professor Jaime Suchlicki of the Cuban Studies Institute published this month in Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture. In this article Professor Suchlicki debunks some of the Washington DC establishment’s long held beliefs.

“Among many in the United States, there is still a belief that the embargo is the cause of Cuba’s economic ills. This notion has been propagated continuously by the Castro regime to force the United States to unilaterally lift U.S. sanctions. In reality, the cause of Cuba’s economic problems is not the embargo, but a failed economic system. Like the Soviet and Eastern European Marxist economies, Cuba’s system is antiquated, inefficient and corrupt. It does not encourage productivity or individual initiative. If Cuba were to export and produce more, it could buy any products it needs from other countries. For Cuba, the United States is the closest but not the cheapest market. What the Castro regime welcomes is American tourist and credits to help scrape by without making major economic or political changes.”

Below is the complete article.

Screen Shot 2019-06-24 at 4.46.11 PM.png

Published by Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture, June 2019

A publication of the Cuban Studies Institute

Cuba: What To Expect

By: Jaime Suchlicki*

The Domestic Scene

The limited economic changes introduced by Gen. Raúl Castro in Cuba encouraged some observers to proclaim the end of communism and the dismantling of the totalitarian system in the island.

Notwithstanding Raúl Castro’s own statements that he was not elected to restore capitalism, these observers insisted on their belief that economic reforms will be deepened and Cuba will march merrily into capitalism or at least a Chinese-style capitalism.

If the objectives of the Castro government were truly to move toward a market economy, it would not limit economic enterprises to some 200 individual activities, i.e. barbershops, shoe shinning, pizza parlors; to lease vacant lands to individual farmers to produce mostly subsistence agriculture; or to liberalize the real estate and auto markets. In addition, the onerous taxes, regulations, and license fees imposed on these activities are not conducive toward the development of prosperous and free enterprises.

It is very difficult for Gen. Raúl Castro to reject his brother’s legacy of political and economic centralization. Raúl’s legitimacy is based on being Fidel’s heir. Any major move to reject Fidel’s “teachings” would create uncertainty among Cuba’s ruling elites – party and military. It could also increase instability as some would advocate rapid change, while others cling to more orthodox policies. Cubans could see this as an opportunity for mobilization, demanding faster reforms.

For Raúl, the uncertainties of uncorking the “genie’s reform bottle” in Cuba are greater than keeping the lid on and moving cautiously. For the past five decades, political considerations have always dictated the economic decisions of the communist leadership in the island.

At 86 years of age, General Castro wants to muddle through these difficult times introducing limited changes and maintaining tight political control and continuous repression. His aim is to calm down a growing unhappy population and to prevent a social explosion, not to transform Cuba into a capitalist society. By his actions and statements, Raúl Castro is signaling that Cuba will remain a failed totalitarian experiment for the foreseeable future.

His relinquishing the Presidency to a minor communist Party bureaucrat in early 2018, while remaining as Secretary General of the Party and de facto leader of the military, is a clear indication of a limited succession and not a transition process. The new President, Miguel Diaz-Canel, has no military or popular support and will be beholding to the wishes of Raul and his close military allies in the Party’s Politburo. The recent creation of a military “troika” to rule over the three regions of Cuba is a further example of a militarized succession in the island.

Foreign Relations

President Barack Obama’s normalization of relations with Cuba had little impact on General Castro’s alliance with Iran, Russia and Venezuela. The closer relations that these countries have developed with Cuba were not affected. Their aid is not conditioned on changes in Cuba. They share with Castro a virulent anti-Americanism. They all share a belief that the world convergence of forces is moving against the U.S. Despite economic difficulties, Cuba is unwilling to renounce these alliances and accept a role as a small Caribbean country, friendly to the U.S.

Since assuming formal power in Cuba in 2006, following Fidel Castro’s illness, General Raul Castro has continued his close alliance with Venezuela, Iran and China and has expanded military cooperation and purchases from Russia. Venezuela’s vast purchases of Russian military equipment, the close Venezuela-Iran relationship and the Cuban-Venezuela alliance are troublesome. Although it is not known if Venezuela is transferring some of these weapons to Cuba, Caracas remains an open back door for Cuba’s acquisition of sophisticated Russian weapons as well as Cuba’s principal financial backer. The objectives of this alliance are to weaken “U.S. imperialism” and to foster a world with several centers of power.

Cuba has also renewed military cooperation with Russia. Russia economic and diplomatic support are important to Cuba, especially if they force the U.S. to offer unilateral concessions to Cuba, particularly ending its embargo and allowing American tourists to visit the island. In 2015, Cuba and Russia signed agreements providing the Kremlin with naval and aerial facilities on the island for the Russian military. A Russia’s growing presence in the Caribbean, while not directly challenging the U.S. militarily, allows for Russian power projection, forces the U.S. to increase its defenses and monitoring capabilities on its southern flank and increases the perception in Latin America and elsewhere that the United States is being challenged in its own sphere of influence by outside powers. This, in turn, weakens American influence in the region and encourages anti-American leaders to take position inimical to U.S. interests.

Raul does not seem ready to provide meaningful and irreversible concessions for a long-term U.S.-Cuba normalization. Avenues for serious negotiations have never been closed as evidenced by the recent diplomatic normalization under President Obama and migrations and anti-hijacking agreements between the United States and Cuba.

Raul is unwilling to renounce the support and close collaboration of countries like Venezuela, China, Iran, North Korea and Russia in exchange for an uncertain relationship with the United States. At a time that anti-Americanism is strong in the Middle East and elsewhere, Raul’s policies are more likely to remain

closer to regimes that are not particularly friendly to the United States and that demand little from Cuba in return for generous aid.

Yet there is the strong belief in the United States that economic considerations could influence Cuban policy decisions, and that an economically deteriorating situation could force the Castro regime to move Cuba toward a market economy and eventually toward political reforms. This has not happened and is not likely to happen.

Among many in the United States, there is still a belief that the embargo is the cause of Cuba’s economic ills. This notion has been propagated continuously by the Castro regime to force the United States to unilaterally lift U.S. sanctions.

In reality, the cause of Cuba’s economic problems is not the embargo, but a failed economic system. Like the Soviet and Eastern European Marxist economies, Cuba’s system is antiquated, inefficient and corrupt. It does not encourage productivity or individual initiative. If Cuba were to export and produce more, it could buy any products it needs from other countries. For Cuba, the United States is the closest but not the cheapest market. What the Castro regime welcomes is American tourist and credits to help scrape by without making major economic or political changes.

Raul Castro has a long-term commitment to remain in power. Compromise is seen as a short-term, sometimes forced, tactical moves to achieve long-term strategic objectives. Negotiations with these leaders are usually of little value, and agreements of short duration.

America’s long-held belief that, through negotiations and incentives, we can influence Raul’s behavior has been weakened by his unwillingness to provide major concessions to the United States. He prefers to sacrifice the economic well-being of the Cubans, rather than cave in to demands for a different Cuba, politically and economically. Neither economic incentives nor punishment have worked with Cuba in the past. They’ are not likely to work in the future.

Cuba’s smuggling of weapons in a North Korean freighter in 2013, during Cuba-U.S. conversations for normalization of relations, indicate Raul Castro’s continuous commitment to internationalism and his willingness to violate international laws to support an ally. Like in the 1970’s and 1980’s when the Castro brothers played a major role in Africa and the Middle East with Soviet support, this incident shows that, even without the backing of a major power, Cuba remains a player in foreign affairs.

In this hemisphere the Castro regime seems to be taking a back-stage role. Cuba’s involvement in regional groups is limited, with Raul Castro preferring to deal in bilateral relations. Raul prefers to take a behind the scene role, especially in his espousal of anti-Americanism, to not jeopardize his chances of getting further unilateral concessions from the United States. Raul will leave Maduro and others to carry on the more vocal anti-American struggle.

The Trump Era

Speaking in Miami in 2017 after his inauguration, President Donald Trump announced changes to President Obama’s policy of rapprochement with Cuba. Aware that the Obama policy of engagement with the Castro dictatorship produced very limited changes in Cuba’s internal developments or on its foreign policy, President Trump issued regulations that prohibit transactions with businesses controlled by the Cuban government or its military. The new policy also requires that Americans will now have to travel to Cuba as part of an organized tour group. It allows 12 categories of travel including for religious, cultural or educational purposes.

The new policy reiterates the importance of extraditing fugitives, isolating the Castro regime, weakening its relationship with Venezuela and preventing the use of the island for drug trafficking. The new policy retains in place some of the Obama policies such as the establishment of diplomatic relations, or the termination of the “wet foot, dry foot” immigration policy. It also retains the status of the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo.

The administration argued that restricting transactions with Cuba’s regime-controlled businesses, including hotels that Americans would frequent – will force money to go directly to the Cubans and not the regime. The aim is to squeeze the Castro government into providing internal changes including more freedom.

Reacting violently, General Castro’s government insisted that “the U.S. government resorted to coercive method of the past, adopting measures to intensify the blockade which not only causes damage and deprivation to the Cuban people and constitutes an undeniable obstacle to the development of the economy, but also affects the sovereignty and interests of other countries, inciting international rejection.” The statement continues, “The Cuban Government denounces the new measures to tighten the blockade, which are destined to fail as has been shown repeatedly in the past, and which will not achieve its purpose to weaken the revolution or to defeat the Cuban people, whose resistance to the aggressions of any type and origin has been proven over almost six decades.”

The U.S. policy toward Cuba has recently became enmeshed in the crisis in Venezuela. The urgency to support the opposition in Venezuela, the humanitarian crisis in the country and the rise of John Bolton as U.S. National Security Advisor has produced a lumping together of Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua. In a November 2018 speech, Bolton referred to the three countries as “a troika of tyranny” and emphasized that “the troika will crumble.”

The Cuba policy and the anti-troika strategy carries significant dangers. The measures against Cuba are not likely to force the Cubans into reforms or weaken the alliance with Russia, Venezuela and Iran. Unless U.S. sanctions are broader and sustained over a long period, they are not likely to work. Cuba will wait out the Trump years in the hope of a future, more friendly U.S. administration.

The strategy of change in Venezuela carries major risks. If opposition leader Juan Guaidó is unable to unseat Maduro, conditions in Venezuela will worsen, with greater involvement of Cuba and Russia and an increase in the outmigration of Venezuelans. An estimated three million Venezuelans have already fled their country. If the policy of diplomatic and economic pressure fails in Caracas, the U.S. is left with arming the opposition or considering unilateral or multilateral intervention, costly and complicated options. The most embarrassing alternative would be to accept an anti-America, pro-Russian/Cuba and pro Iran regime in Venezuela.

In the meantime, the Cuba policy remains, if not in the backburner, at least in the middle one. The hope that if Venezuela falls Cuba will be the next domino is at best hope. Cuba survived in the decade of the 1990’s the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of subsidies including oil. Cuba muddle thru in those difficult years and emerged successfully in part due to the rise of Chavez and Venezuelan oil. Today Cuba seems to be in better shape. Tourism; remittances from friends and family in the U.S.; the rental of doctors and military personnel at an estimated payment to Cuba of 8-10 U.S. billion yearly, and aid from Russia, Iran, China and others, places Cuba in a better position than in the 1990s to deal with the shock of a pro-American Venezuela. Even without Venezuela’s support, the Cuban regime is likely to survive. The impact would be broad and the pain extensive. Yet the Cubans have accepted to live with little.

After Raúl

If Raúl Castro were to die or become incapacitated, it will be the Politburo of Cuba’s Communist Party who will decide on a replacement. While Raúl designated Miguel Díaz Canel as Cuba’s new President, his permanency will depend on circumstances at the time. If the disappearance of the last Castro occurs under increased social pressure or violence, it is likely that the Politburo will select a hard liner, probably from the military. Given that most of the members of the Politburo are military, this group will make the ultimate decision. Although Díaz Canel also has military rank, it is not likely that the Generals in the Politburo will turn to him at a time of crisis.

If the succession is peaceful Díaz Canel will continue as President and will have to contend with the power of the older generals, and Raúl’s son Alejandro Castro Espín, a colonel/coordinator of the military and security services and an emerging force. Without support within the military or in the party, Díaz Canel remains a puppet figure with limited power and leverage.

The key question about post-Castro Cuba is not who its new rulers will be or what they would like to accomplish. The key question is whether the institutionalization of the revolution under the control of the military, the party and the security apparatus will survive the end of Raúl Castro’s rule. And equally important, what can any emerging leadership hope to accomplish within the existing socio-political and economic context.

There are also other key and more troubling questions: Will the new rulers be able to exercise any major options at all? Will they fear upsetting the multilevel balance of interests upon which a new government will certainly depend?

The impediments to major change are significant:

  • A terrorized, disorganized and fearful population hoping for change from above. There is a strong belief among the Cuban people about the efficacy of the security services and an overwhelming fear of their repressive capabilities. The political elite see the development of a civil society as a major challenge to its absolute authority and a threat to its long-term control. The limited gains made by a civil society independent of the Castro brothers in the past few years, are the result of a deteriorating economy; disillusionment with the revolution and growing unhappiness with the Castro regime; influence of outside forces; and a limited relaxation of the system’s control. Yet civil society remains weak, not very effective and watched carefully and constantly by the security forces.

  • The military, the most important institution in contemporary Cuba, has significant legitimacy and respect and is a disciplined and loyal force. It controls more than 60 % of the economy. Will they be willing to relinquish this economic control and their prominent role? One of Cuba’s major post-Castro challenge will be how to extricate the military from the economy and put them back in the barracks.

The possibility of regime continuity, therefore, seems stronger for Cuba than it was for other communist states. Although their end came suddenly, it took decades of decay to weaken critically the Eastern European regimes and successive leadership changes, as well as Soviet disengagement and acceptance, before the collapse.

The end of the Castro era may not usher in a period of rapid political or economic transformation or in a collapse of the system. The stability of the Cuban regime is based primarily on the strength of the Armed Forces, the security apparatus, and the Party structure. The organization and strength of the bureaucracy that has grown around these institutions seem to assure short term continuity. Barring the imponderable or unpredictable, rapid change is not likely.

Perhaps the critical challenge for a post-Raúl regime will be to improve the economy and satisfy the needs and expectations of the population, while maintaining continuous political control. Too rapid economic reforms may lead to a loosening of political control, a fact feared by the military, and other allies bent on remaining in power and continuing to profit from their privileged position.

*Jaime Suchlicki is Director and founder of the Cuban Studies Institute, CSI, a non-profit research group in Coral Gables, FL. He is the author of Cuba: From Columbus to Castro & Beyond, now in its 5th edition; Mexico: From Montezuma to the Rise of the PAN, 2nd edition, and Breve Historia de Cuba. He is a highly regarded consultant to the public and private sectors.

(Published by Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture, June 2019)

This is a publication of the Cuban Studies Institute.

Cuban Studies Institute

1500 South Dixie Highway, Bank of America Bldg., 2nd Floor

Coral Gables, FL 33146

Tel: 786-803-8007