With the Castros Gone, Is Change Afoot in Cuba?

View of the National Capitol Building in Havana, Cuba, June 8, 2011
View of the National Capitol Building in Havana, Cuba, June 8, 2011 (Wikimedia Commons/Héctor Valdés Domínguez)

The appointment of a new president in Cuba, Miguel Díaz-Canel, sixty years after the island’s socialist revolution, feels like a turning point.

Once anointed by the 605-strong National Assembly as Cuba’s first non-Castro president in decades, Díaz-Canel vowed to modernize the economy and make government more responsive to its people.

What does the change mean in practice?

Not having a Castro, neither Fidel (1976-08) nor Raúl (2008-18), as leader carries with it great symbolism for sure. For the first time in many years, the powerful roles of president and head of the Communist Party are no longer combined. (Raúl remains party leader for three years.) But the Castro years weren’t quite as monolithic as they are sometimes portrayed and the next few years are unlikely to see a turnaround. Read more

Trump Could Bring Enemies in South America Closer Together

Venezuela's Nicolás Maduro chairs the General Assembly of the Organization of American States in Cochabamba, Bolivia, June 4, 2012
Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro chairs the General Assembly of the Organization of American States in Cochabamba, Bolivia, June 4, 2012 (OAS/Juan Manuel Herrera)

The alliance between Cuba and Venezuela has lost prominence in recent years as the former normalized its diplomatic relations with the United States while the latter doubled down on a self-described anti-imperialist policy.

Now Donald Trump’s presidency threatens to bring the two countries closer together again. Read more

The Rational Person’s Guide to Fidel Castro

Cuban leader Fidel Castro smokes a cigar in his office in Havana, circa 1977
Cuban leader Fidel Castro smokes a cigar in his office in Havana, circa 1977 (Getty Images/David Hume Kennerly)

There are few leaders who inspire the kind of irrational passion that surrounds the recently-deceased Fidel Castro. He is a hero and a villain and to have an opinion on him so often forces you to choose between the two.

But there is another way to judge leadership. To understand Castro’s true historical legacy, we should think of him geopolitically. Read more

Obama Lands in Cuba for Historic Visit

American president Barack Obama boards Air Force One at Royal Air Force Fairford in Gloucestershire, England, September 5, 2014
American president Barack Obama boards Air Force One at Royal Air Force Fairford in Gloucestershire, England, September 5, 2014 (White House/Pete Souza

President Barack Obama landed in Cuba on Sunday for the start of an historic visit that encapsulates his efforts to lift the American isolation of the island.

Obama’s two-day visit is the first time in almost ninety years that an American president has visited the Caribbean island.

“Back in 1928, President Coolidge came on a battleship and it took him three days to get here,” Obama told diplomatic staff in Havana. “It only took me three hours.” Read more

Castro, Obama Announce Normalization of Ties

American president Barack Obama speaks with his Cuban counterpart, Raúl Castro, by phone from the Oval Office of the White House in Washington DC, December 16
American president Barack Obama speaks with his Cuban counterpart, Raúl Castro, by phone from the Oval Office of the White House in Washington DC, December 16 (White House/Pete Souza)

Presidents Raúl Castro of Cuba and Barack Obama of the United States announced an historic shift in the countries’ relationship on Wednesday that could end more than half a century of hostility.

In speeches that were broadcast simultaneously, the two leaders said they would reestablish diplomatic relations that were severed in 1961 when communists took over the island nation.

“We will end an outdated approach that for decades has failed to advance our interests,” Obama said in remarks from the White House.

Neither the American nor the Cuban people are well served by a rigid policy that is rooted in events that took place before most of us were born.

The changes will mean a relaxation of commerce and transportation between Cuba and the United States but the lifting of a longstanding trade embargo requires congressional approval.

Obama argued that the American policy of isolation had failed, saying he did not believe “we can continue to do the same thing for over five decades and expect a different result. It does not serve American interests or the Cuban people to try to push Cuba toward collapse.”

The trade embargo has hardly pushed Cuba toward collapse but it is a narrative that “suits the regime of Fidel and Raul Castro, writes Bobby Ghosh at Quartz, “because it gives the grim brothers a ready excuse for their inability to give their subjects decent economic opportunities.”

Raúl took over from his older president as president in 2008.

Cuba already trades with many countries, including American allies in Europe, and receives nearly three million tourists per year. Greater openness to the world is unlikely to be of huge economic benefit to a country that is primarily held back by socialist economic policies.

The American Interest‘s Walter Russell Mead agrees the standoff with Cuba “serves no real American interest” and that the embargo does more to protect the regime in Havana than it does the United States.

Fidel and Raúl have never wanted a total end to the embargo; they have understood for decades that the embargo acts to protect their socialist experiment.

If the embargo is lifted, they could either accept a likely influx of Cubans from Florida, “swamping its underdeveloped and scrawny local economy with gringo dollars and influence,” or it would have to enact tighter regulations to keep Cuban Americans and their money out — which would make it “crystal clear to every Cuban citizen that the Cuban government needs to keep the island isolated and poor in order to protect its grip on power.”

For now, neither option is likely because opposition Republicans in the United States, whose support would be needed to lift the embargo, are critical.

“It’s part of a long record of coddling dictators and tyrants that this administration has established,” Florida senator Marco Rubio, a potential presidential candidate, told Fox News on Wednesday.

He added, “This notion that somehow being able to travel more to Cuba, to sell more consumer products, the idea that’s going to lead to some democratic opening is absurd.”

Congressman Mario Díaz-Balart, a Cuban American Republican from Florida like Rubio, accused the president of allowing the Castro regime “to blackmail the United States.” In a statement, he said, “These changes to policy will further embolden the Cuban dictatorship to continue brutalizing and oppressing its own people as well as other anti-American dictatorship and terrorist organizations.”

Senator Lindsey Graham, a leading foreign-policy voice in the Republican Party, vowed, “I will do all in my power to block the use of funds to open an embassy in Cuba. Normalizing relations with Cuba is bad idea at a bad time.”

The rapprochement came after more than a year of private talks between American and Cuban officials who held a majority of their meetings in Canada.

The United States originally isolated Cuba after Fidel Castro led a revolution against the island’s American-allied dictator, Fulgencio Batista, in the late 1950s. He subsequently allied with the Soviet Union, America’s nemesis in the Cold War, leading to the 1962 Cuban missile crisis when the Soviets first deployed and then withdrew ballistic missiles from the island.

Cuba Admits Ship Bound for North Korea Carried Weapons

A container ship passes through the Panama Canal, February 23, 2009
A container ship passes through the Panama Canal, February 23, 2009 (Flickr/wirralwater)

Cuba admitted that the ship that was stopped last week as it headed into the Panama Canal carried what it described as obsolete weapons systems that were due to be repaired in North Korea.

Panamanian authorities held the vessel after they were tipped off there might be drugs on board. Instead, they found what looked like missiles hidden under a cargo of sugar, Panama’s president Ricardo Martinelli said on Tuesday. “That is not allowed. The Panama canal is a canal of peace, not war,” he told a local radio station.

North Korea is prohibited under international sanctions from importing weapons that it might use to advance its nuclear program. “Shipments of arms or related materiel to and from Korea would violate Security Council resolutions, three of them as a matter of fact,” said the United States’ ambassador to the United Nations, Rosemary DiCarlo, who chairs the Security Council this month.

Cuba’s claim that the weapons were due to be repaired in North Korea and then send back might circumvent the embargo although it seems doubtful Panama will allow the shipment to go through.

The island nation, which is ideologically aligned with communist Korea, said the cargo included anti-aircraft batteries, two fighter jets and fifteen fighter jet engines as well as nine disassembled rockets — all Soviet era weaponry built in the middle of the twentieth century. North Korea’s armed forces are equipped with material from the same period.

In a statement that was read out on state television, Cuba argued that the weapons were required to “maintain our defensive capacity.” It added, “Cuba maintains its commitment to peace including nuclear disarmament and international law.”

An American official cited by the Reuters news agency speculated that Cuba sent the missile parts to North Korea for an upgrade with the sugar to pay for the work. Sugar cane is one of Cuba’s primary export products.

The two communist states were driven into a closer relationship following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 which denied them both considerable economic aid and diplomatic cover. American sanctions might only strengthen what would otherwise seems an alliance of necessity. Whereas Cuba reacted to the Soviet Union’s demise by letting in tourists, North Korea remained isolated. Its economy lost more than half of its value and a million people are believed to have died in famines between 1994 and 1998. Cuba is cautiously experimenting with market reforms and altogether a far less oppressive place. Liberalization in North Korea still seems far off.

Venezuelan Vice President Announces Chávez’ Death

President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela arrives in Montevideo, Uruguay, December 20, 2011
President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela arrives in Montevideo, Uruguay, December 20, 2011 (Prensa Presidencial)

Venezuela’s socialist president Hugo Chávez died after a two year battle with cancer, his deputy Nicolás Maduro announced on Tuesday. The news could plunge the Latin American country into political turmoil after fourteen years of Chávez’ rule.

The Venezuelan leader, who was elected to a fourth term in October of last year, underwent several cancer treatments in recent years in both his home country and Cuba, its closest ally in the region.

Because Chávez could not be inaugurated on January 10 as scheduled, Diosdado Cabello, the speaker of the National Assembly, rather than the vice president assumes power. Maduro is the president’s chosen successor, however, and could probably count on stronger support from within the ruling party as well as Cuba. A snap election must be called within the month.

Divisions within the opposition could play into the ruling party’s hands. Moderates and radicals lined up behind the former governor of the northern state of Miranda Henrique Capriles Radonski, a liberal centrist, in the last presidential election but his inability to oust Chávez strained relations within the coalition.

Another defeat in December, when the opposition won just three out of 23 governorships, and Maduro’s de facto presidency of the country in Chávez’ absence prompted some on the fringes to call for a harder line. Capriles is nevertheless expected to be nominated for the presidency again by a coalition of opposition parties. Maduro has warned Venezuelans of chaos and disunity should his party be voted out of office.

Venezuela’s economy is in dire straits due to its stewardship, however. The nation suffers from regular power outages and rampant corruption and crime. The homicide rate nearly tripled in the last ten years. The public debt rose rapidly especially during Chávez’ last administration, from 26 percent of gross domestic product in 2008 to over 50 percent last year. Venezuela’s economic growth rate is the lowest in Latin America while inflation has averaged 23 percent since 2001.

The former president’s populist left-wing policies included the nationalization of previously foreign held industries, like food, oil and steel, as well as the expropriation of private lands. The distribution of oil revenues was placed directly under the executive’s supervision, enabling Chávez to fund lavish campaign promises — and keep Cuba’s similarly central planned economy afloat. Hence Havana’s interest in facilitating a smooth transition of power in Caracas now that Chávez is dead.