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Cuba Looks Ahead But Not Forward

Miguel Diaz-Canel
Miguel Diaz-Canel, center, on a 2015 visit to El Salvador. Photo courtesy Presidencia El Salvador on Flickr.

As Raul Castro prepares to retire, Cuba faces the prospect of its first president in nearly six decades with a different last name. But it will take more than a president named something other than Castro to bring real change.

Cuba’s National Assembly has named Miguel Diaz-Canel as the only official candidate to replace Castro, so although the Assembly’s vote will not be announced until later today, the outcome will surprise no one. Diaz-Canel has risen steadily through the Communist Party, though at 57 years old, he still represents a significant generational shift in the country’s leadership.

Yet President Castro, like his late brother Fidel Castro, will continue to loom large in Cuba even after his departure. Some observers suggest that Diaz-Canel will remain in Castro’s shadow until the former president’s death. Frank Mora, director of the Kimberly Green Latin American and Caribbean Center at Florida International University, told USA Today that Castro is “still going to be there in the background, still wearing his four-star military uniform.” It is expected that he will remain the head of his party, even after he steps down from the presidency.

Or perhaps Castro really is ready to retire. At the age of 86, Castro may truly want to spend more time out of the public spotlight, enjoying private life. Either way, his policies will linger, especially in Cuba’s economic prospects. Despite a brief spike in Cuban enterprise following the re-establishment of diplomatic relations with the United States, Cuba’s Communist Party is committed to maintaining control, whether a Castro leads the way or not.

In the 59 years under the Castros, Cuba’s economy has stagnated. The country’s per capita gross domestic product is just over $7,600 today, compared to $1,445 in 1976, when Fidel Castro took the title of president. Cuba’s neighbor The Bahamas started that period only slightly ahead but today has a per capita GDP nearly four times larger than Cuba’s.

That comparison is not entirely fair; The Bahamas has a very small population and its tourism industry benefits tremendously from its proximity to the United States, an option closed to Cuba for decades. But compare Cuba to Central American economies such as Costa Rica or Panama, and the relative stagnation remains clear. Even Chile, a comparably populous and large country with a per capita GDP lower than Cuba’s in 1976, saw major growth after enacting free market reforms in the early 2000s. Despite a sharp reversal more recently, Chile remains well ahead of Cuba by this measure.

Diaz-Canel has argued that anybody getting ahead in Cuba is necessarily suspect. He has blasted native entrepreneurs in his speeches and called the U.S. decision to re-establish diplomatic ties and loosen sanctions just another way to “destroy the Cuban revolution,” The Wall Street Journal recently reported. Given the current administration’s moves toward reversing the diplomatic opening, Diaz-Canel likely finds the United States and entrepreneurs who were beginning to benefit from access to the American economy more generally convenient rhetorical punching bags.

His remarks echo some of Castro’s own. In a speech to the National Assembly last year, he said of the new entrepreneurial class he helped create: “There are reports of cases where the same person has two, three, four and as many as five restaurants. Someone who has traveled abroad as many as 30 times. Where did he get the money?” All Cubans should suffer equally, the theory goes – though of course, that is not the reality. People in power eat and live much better than anyone else.

In contrast to its per capita GDP, Cuba’s life expectancy is quite good by global standards. But the quality of a life matters, not only its length. You hardly ever hear about Cuban expatriates returning home, much less immigrants resettling there. Waves of Venezuelan refugees, desperate as they are, are generally not heading to Cuba’s shores; they have had enough exposure to socialist economics at home to know better.

In the end, Cuban authorities under Castro feared that any improvement in their countrymen’s lives was a threat to their own positions and a rebuke to the permanent poverty they had created. Under Diaz-Canel, that seems unlikely to change anytime soon. The Castro brothers are all but gone, yet hope for real change has not yet arrived.

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