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Can Cuba survive the loss of Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez?

Can Cuba survive the loss of Venezuela's Hugo Chávez?

Many in and out of Cuba wonder if the loss of Chávez is the death knell

of the Castros' Revolution, or if it could inject urgent momentum into

's reform agenda, just in the nick of time.

By Anya Landau French, Guest blogger / March 7, 2013

As Venezuelans and foreign observers examine the legacy – both the

accomplishments and failures – of the charismatic and bombastic Hugo

Chávez, discussion inevitably turns to the implications for allies on

which he lavished generous aid and trade benefits. Perhaps none is quite

so vulnerable in the wake of Chávez's death as Cuba, an island nation of

some 12 million people whose Socialist Revolution, with Chávez's mentor

at the helm for more than 45 years, managed to hang on and

hang on in spite of US disapproval and interference. Indeed, Socialist

Cuba hung on in spite of itself, achieving inspirational heights in

public health and , and enjoying international influence far

beyond its means, but never achieving the most crucial change of all:

economic sustainability. In the past twenty years, Cuba has experienced

one crisis after another.

After one such crisis is where Hugo Chávez came in, following the worst,

broadest felt economic crisis Cubans have known, when Cuba's ally and

patron, the Soviet Union, collapsed, and the island's shrank by

more than one-third, and imports dropped by 85 percent. In those dark

years, the Cuban people suffered crippling shortages (and many were

malnourished), extended blackouts, and all the other indignities that

come from a sudden withdrawal of creature comforts and basic necessities

they'd become so accustomed to. Reluctantly, Fidel Castro adopted a few

limited measures – most importantly, embracing – to stop the

free fall, but it was his mentee, Hugo Chávez, whose increasingly

generous trade and aid, who helped re-stabilize the Cuban economy at the

turn of the 21st century. Cubans were no longer starving, but the vast

majority would never recover the living standards they'd enjoyed before.

As the cracks in the Cuban economy widened (and the gains of the Cuban

Revolution slowly degenerated) Hugo Chávez filled them in with cut rate

Venezuelan oil.

At the same time, it became clear to any honest observer inside or

outside Cuba that the nation was headed for serious trouble; relying so

singularly on the largesse of Hugo Chávez could have perilous

consequences. When Raul Castro took the reins from his ailing older

brother provisionally in 2006 and then formally in 2008, he focused, for

the first time publicly, on the need for deep changes. The economic

downturn of 2008, coming as it did with soaring world food prices and a

punishing hurricane season (in which Cuba was walloped by four major

storms that wiped out food stores and hundreds of thousands of homes),

brought the reality starkly home.

The younger Castro's rhetoric has been consistent and tough on economic

mismanagement and corruption, but his apparent desire for consensus

building (and avoiding destabilizing shocks that could jeopardize power)

coupled with his inability to rein in a reluctant bureaucracy meant that

Cuba's economic restructuring has been slow and largely ineffectual – so

far. Key reforms in real estate and migration, which offer many Cubans

unprecedented potential economic empowerment and mobility, and also

leverage an increasingly reconnected diaspora, offer hope of more and

deeper reform, but other reforms, such as in expanding the non-state

sector and reforming the tax code, have been too piecemeal or

conservative so far.

Not unsurprisingly, many in and out of Cuba now wonder if the loss of

Chávez is the death knell of the Castros' Revolution, or, perhaps could

it inject urgent momentum into Raul Castro's reform agenda, just in the

nick of time? In some ways, the loss of Hugo Chávez, on its face so

devastating for Cuba, might actually be a good thing for the island.

With Nicolas Maduro a favorite to win the special presidential election

a month from now, Cuba will likely retain significant influence. But

Maduro is no Chávez. He'll have to focus on building up his own

political capital, without the benefit of Chávez's charisma. While he

surely won't cut Cuba off, to maintain power he will almost certainly

need to respond to increasing economic pressures at home with more

pragmatic and domestically focused economic policies. And that

likelihood, as well as the possibility that the Venezuelan opposition

could win back power either now or in the medium term, should drive

Cuban leaders to speed up and bravely deepen their tenuous economic

reforms on the island. And if there was any hesitancy among Cuba's

leaders to open more space between the island and Chávez, they now have

the opportunity to do so. Under Raul Castro, Cuba has mended and

expanded foreign relations the world over. Particularly if it shows

greater pragmatism in its economic policies, countries such as

will no doubt increase economic engagement of the island.

Raul Castro, who has at most five years – this second and final term as

– to save the fruits of the Cuban Revolution and chart a more

sustainable course for the island, now has more incentive than ever to

take the bull by the horns. Time will tell, perhaps sooner rather than

later, whether he can.

– Anya Landau French is the editor of and a frequent contributor to the

The Havana Note.

http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Americas/Latin-America-Monitor/2013/0307/Can-Cuba-survive-the-loss-of-Venezuela-s-Hugo-Chavez

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