Cuba under Raúl Castro: 25 Reasons to be Hopeful
Cuba under Raúl Castro: 25 Reasons to be Hopeful
In February 2008, longtime Cuban president Fidel Castro transferred
power to his younger brother Raúl, sparking a worldwide dialogue among
political scientists, policy makers, journalists, scholars, and ordinary
citizens regarding the implications of the first transition of power
seen on the island in almost five decades. Most would agree that Havana,
in fact, has carried out several changes, but the ultimate significance
of these reforms and the prospect of a broadening and deepening of Cuban
democracy are still being widely debated. Some, like the Bush
administration, believe that the recent changes do not signal a
transition into a more representative, democratic government because of
continued instances of repression and state control over the economy and
the Cuban people. Others maintain that the overall combination of the
numerous structural changes occurring on the island should be seen as a
precursor to a democratic future. Still others believe that Raúl Castro
is merely a transitional figure who is solely preoccupied with
maintaining stability, due to concerns that Fidel Castro's death could
destabilize a system that has revolved around him since its inception.
The Cuban Revolution awarded power to a charismatic leader who permeated
every aspect of Cuban society during his 48-year rule. Fidel's
resignation has left Raúl with the difficult task of continuing a system
based on fidelismo without Fidel. It is undeniable that Raúl's primary
concern has been the establishment of an effective succession mechanism
to guarantee a peaceful and stable transition of power. After all, the
77-year old Raúl will not enjoy as long a presidency as his brother did.
However, to overlook the value and prospects of the reforms implemented
by Raúl would be a mistake of the highest order. If nothing else, the
appearance and public persona of the President of Cuba has changed
dramatically since Raúl Castro shed his guerrilla uniform in favor of a
more western, dark gray business suit. For a country defined by its
guerilla birth and military rule, it is especially significant that the
new president, the head of the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias, has
decided to change his appearance in this way. Before speculating whether
the new Cuban President will be a different Castro or a continuation of
the same old Fidel, it is beneficial to enumerate the many changes
witnessed by Cuba since Raúl's rise to power in July 2006.
Expectations at the Time of Succession: The Practical Castro
1. Openness to free-market: Raúl has demonstrated openness to
capitalist-style measures in the past. When Cuba lost the vital flow of
economic aid after the fall of the Soviet Union at the start of the
1990's, Raúl adopted a pragmatic approach. He convinced his brother to
carry out a partial opening of the economy, first in the private
agricultural market and then in the tourism industry, in order to
replace the existing sugar monoculture by opening the portal to private
capital. Raúl also spearheaded Cuba's dollarization, self-employment,
cooperative agriculture, and a banking reform.
2. New labor disciplinary measures: In April 2007, Raúl
implemented new measures to improve order, discipline, performance, and
education in the labor market.
3. Admirer of Chinese Communism: Raúl Castro has expressed his
respect and enthusiasm for countries that have adopted free-market
reforms without sacrificing Communist ideals. Some have speculated that
he might be inclined to implement the Chinese economic model, which
allows for greater private enterprise and fewer restrictions on foreign
Economic Reforms and Property Rights
4. Promise of structural change: In July 2007, Raúl asserted the
need to strengthen the economy by correcting the existing "absurd
inefficiencies" through "structural and conceptual changes." These would
include market-oriented reforms such as allowing more private
enterprise, gradually revaluing the Cuban peso, and providing greater
purchasing power to the average Cuban.
5. New property regulations: The first step towards private
property rights has been established through greater housing security.
Currently, Cubans do not own their housing, but merely possess a right
of use. The Cuban government controls where its citizens live,
determines if they can move, and forbids real estate transfers or sales.
However, in April 2008 the Cuban government announced that state workers
will be able to receive titles to their homes and enjoy the right to
keep it even if they leave their jobs as well as transfer it to family
members upon their death.
6. Salary and pension increases: As President, Raúl has
promulgated new laws that benefit the Cuban labor force. In April 2008,
he announced that about 2.1 million Cubans will receive a pension
increase of 20% per month so that the minimum monthly amount will be
about US $9.50. That same month, Raúl also announced that approximately
9,000 court workers and judges will receive a salary increase.
7. Return to market prices: The state has raised the price of
meat and dairy products produced in private farms by 250%. This reform
sharply varies from Fidel's policies, which had skewed the Cuban market
by allocating unparalleled subsidies to state-owned farms.
8. Introduction of market wages: In an immense blow to fidelismo,
the Cuban government announced on June 11, 2008 that by August it would
eliminate the egalitarian wage system that gave skilled and unskilled
workers equal salaries. The national newspaper, Granma, stated that this
newly revised system of "socialist distribution" ensures that workers
earn "in accordance with [their] contribution…in accordance with quality
and quantity" so as to improve efficiency, outputs, and services through
economic incentives. This act creates the possibility of wealth
accumulation and is a promising step towards the adoption of the Chinese
9. Decentralization of the state-dominated agricultural sector:
The Ministry of Agriculture has handed down extensive responsibility
over land-use planning, resource allocation, and sales to
municipal-level ministry offices, which are expected to solve local
issues without recurring to the Ministry.
10. Efficient land use: As a means of combating the ongoing food
crisis, Raúl Castro authorized farmers to rent unused land from the
government's collective farms just two months after officially taking
office. On the lands, the farmers can grow and sell crops, such as
coffee and tobacco, at market prices.
11. Better conditions for farmers: Private farmers believe that,
under Raúl, their concerns will be better addressed and their economic
situation will improve. In April, they received a salary increase and
were granted greater autonomy from government planners in determining
the appropriate use of their land. Farmers now enjoy fewer limitations
when acquiring machinery and supplies at government stores, process
previously regulated by the Ministry of Agriculture in Havana. Finally,
they are now overseen by the Ministry instead of by a subordinate
Human Rights Protection
12. Improved situation for political prisoners: Cuba is
experiencing a decrease in the number of poli
tical prisoners under
Raúl's rule. For example, Francisco Chaviano, the longest-serving
political prisoner in Latin America, was released from jail in August
2007. Furthermore, four prisoners of conscience were conditionally
released in 2007, thirty death sentences were commuted to prison terms
of thirty years to life, and Raúl has made it clear that death sentences
will only be used in extraordinary cases, such as terrorism charges.
13. Freedom of the press: Though Cuba continues to uphold the
most restrictive laws on free speech in the hemisphere, in October 2007
the government allowed Cuban televisions and newspapers to broadcast a
fragment of President Bush's speech before the State Department on the
subject of United States relations with Cuba. This was an unprecedented
event, especially considering Bush's seething criticism of the Cuban
government during his speech. Additionally, the press has recently
published several exposés condemning the critical situation in Cuba
regarding corruption and shortages of food, transportation, and housing.
Such reports equip society with an instrument to conduct an internal
review of the excesses associated with the current economic and
political system. On Raúl's 100th day in power, The Times of India
reported that "Intellectuals live less in fear of decrying censorship,
television has fewer taboos imposed, and even Granma, the venerable
mouthpiece of Cuba's Communist Party, has taken to publishing grievances
from residents." The World Press Freedom Review declared that harassment
by the authorities had declined on the island in 2007. Bloggers have
documented that the government is allowing satirical television programs
dedicated to social criticisms and greater access to American video clips.
14. Adherence to human rights treaties: Demonstrating a new
commitment to human rights, Cuba signed the United Nations'
International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights only days
after Raúl was officially chosen as president in February 2008. This
covenant binds the state to the protection of labor rights and rights to
health, education, and an adequate standard of living. Cuba also signed
the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, making the
government accountable for human rights violations before the United
Nations' Human Rights Committee.
15. Human Rights Dialogue: Building on these developments, in
April 2008 Cuba signed an agreement with the Spanish government that
created a Bilateral Consultation Mechanism to discuss the importance of
protecting human rights.
16. Reform of the health care system: In March 2008, Raúl lifted
a regulation that forced people to receive their medical prescriptions
from a pharmacy assigned by the government, reducing state control over
the Cuban people.
17. Right to own property: Also in March 2008, Rául Castro
announced that Cubans could own cell phones, computers, and other
electronic devices. This served to decrease the prices of these goods on
the black market and to reroute that revenue to the state while allowing
for freer communication.
18. Freedom of movement: Starting in March 2008, Cubans were
permitted to stay in major hotels, once exclusively reserved for tourists.
19. Rights for homosexuals: Raúl Castro has allowed a very active
gay community to emerge in a country where homosexuality was previously
considered a criminal offense. In May 2008, this newly empowered group
organized a government-supported campaign against homophobia. In
addition, the state television network transmitted the American feature
film about a homosexual affair titled "Brokeback Mountain" on its
prime-time schedule. It is the first time since the Revolution that
Cuban society has been allowed to gather and speak about this topic.
Even more significant, the Cuban parliament is discussing proposals to
legalize same-sex unions and give homosexual couples the same legal
benefits enjoyed by heterosexual couples. Just last month, authorities
stated that not only would restrictions on sex-change operations be
lifted but that the government would offer them free of charge to
20. Existence of public opposition: Opposition groups, though
banned officially, have been able to publicly voice their positions
regarding state policies since Raúl took office. For example, dissenting
blogger Yoani Sanchez has been able to continue disseminating
information from inside the country to her worldwide audience.
Harassment and detainment of such opposition has continued but its
severity has noticeably decreased.
Rule of Law and Greater Popular Participation
21. Eliminating fraud: In January 2007, the government
implemented new rules aimed at decreasing "undisciplined" state
activities and widespread financial fraud in state enterprises.
22. Encouraging greater participation: In September 2007, the
government began to organize meetings among Communist Party members
urging them to sincerely express their concerns and criticisms. Even
though Raúl Castro cautioned against expressing opinions in an
inappropriate manner, this opportunity for more active participation in
government processes by unorganized ordinary Cubans was unimaginable
under Fidel Castro.
23. Decentralizing power: After officially taking office, Raúl
Castro stated that Cubans should begin to think more locally and rely
less on the central government. He later proposed allocating more power
to provincial governments and restructuring the central government's
bureaucracy. Finally, he affirmed that Cuba would be ruled by a
collective leadership after Fidel's death.
United States-Cuba Relations
24. Advocate for amicable dealings: After the terrorist attacks
of 9/11, the United States began sending suspected al-Qaeda terrorists
to the Guantánamo Bay Detention Facility, but was concerned about
Fidel's reaction. Many believe that Raúl played a crucial role in
promoting tolerance towards the United States' decision and assuring
American authorities that, in the event of an escape, Cuban security
forces would be called upon to capture and return the prisoner.
25. Willingness to improve relations: On multiple occasions, Raúl
Castro has reiterated a willingness to negotiate and normalize relations
with the United States. In fact, perhaps as an act of good faith, in May
2008 Cuban authorities arrested and deported an American fugitive
charged with sexual abuse and possession of child pornography. Even
though Cuba has no extradition treaty with the United States, this is
the fourth American fugitive deported by the Raúl Castro government.
A Promising Future?
These reforms have indeed distinguished the governing styles of the
Castro brothers. Within a year of his rise to power, Raúl Castro has
implemented policies that Fidel had blocked for decades. Most of the
reforms respond to criticisms and concerns of the Cuban people,
especially of the younger generation. Thus, even if the Raúl Castro
government does not particularly desire radical socioeconomic and
political change, it is at least minimally concerned with rallying
popular support and keeping the population satisfied, which in turn has
given Cubans a little more say in broad government initiatives.
Moreover, even if Raúl is not interested in implementing further reforms in Cuba, by enacting the aforementioned changes, he has committed the
risky act of raising expectations on the island and abroad, which has
contributed to the mobilization of a citizenry intent on witnessing
change. He has also risked displeasing his ally and personal banker,
Venezuela's Hugo Chávez, whose economic aid has been crucial to Cuba's
survival in the last decade, and whose president is a passionate fellow
advocate for socialism in Latin America. Therefore, reversing the
process could potentially result in significant opposition that could
bring on a dangerous destabilization of the entire system.
Meanwhile, one must not forget the ubiquitous presence of Fidel Castro
in the lives of all Cubans. He recently commented on Cuban domestic and
international affairs, and sometimes seems fit to contradict statements
issued by Raúl regarding Cuba's future policy direction. In September
2007, he had vehemently rejected the possibility of economic reforms in
Cuba and, in February 2008, the National Assembly gave Fidel Castro
consultative authority over matters dealing with defense, foreign
policy, and socioeconomic developments. He also recently hosted a visit
by President Chávez to Cuba. Fidel's continuing presence and influence
in Cuban affairs could pose a significant impediment to the realization
of a new Cuban state. Furthermore, many of the officials beneath Raúl
Castro – his possible successors – are younger and more ideologically
pure than him, making them yet another possible limitation on the new
government's ability to easily put Fidel's legacy aside, create a new
image of the leadership, and construct a new path for the Cuban people.
Despite the many difficulties faced by the new Castro government, it is
undeniable that Fidel Castro's departure from office heralded a period
of unprecedented changes that are likely to counter many of fidelismo's
fundamental beliefs. Much remains to be done but, as an independent
journalist in Havana stated, "Under Fidel Castro, everything here in
Cuba was prohibited." Therefore, these changes have created great hope
for the Cuban people.
Spectators should not define progress in Cuba as the immediate
satisfaction of and compliance with western democratic standards. The
Cuban government has controlled most aspects of its citizens' lives for
almost fifty years. Fidel Castro was the overseer and micromanager of
every functioning facet of the island, and the government became
synonymous with his persona. Five decades of this kind of governance
cannot be drastically transformed overnight. Thus, now that he has
formally stepped down office, the government will need to create an
executive office autonomous of Fidel Castro in order to adapt to the new
style of governance that will likely ensue. Raúl has not been overly
aggressive in transforming the state created by his brother, but he has
definitely taken meaningful steps towards the possibility of a very
This analysis was prepared by COHA Research Associate Michelle Quiles
June 23rd, 2008