BY MILO KAHNEY
For the first time in six decades, Cuba will have a leader not named Castro. On April 19, Cuba’s National Assembly elected Miguel Díaz-Canel to succeed Raul Castro, younger brother of revolutionary Fidel Castro, as president. The vote was a whopping 603 to 1, demonstrating that this election is just a continuation of the Castro regime’s policies. 86-year old Raul Castro will still wield considerable power and the Castro dynasty is far from over. Díaz-Canel was handpicked by Castro himself, and members of the Castro family still hold powerful positions in the Cuban government. In fact, according to Juan Carlos Hidalgo of the CATO institute, Raul Castro’s son, Alejandro Castro Espin, is expected to take over in 2021.
Cuba has long been isolated from the United States. When Fidel Castro overthrew the U.S.-backed Batista regime on New Year’s day 1959, as depicted brilliantly in the Godfather Part II, there was some hope that the United States and the Castro-led Cuba could have a working relationship. Castro visited the U.S. and met with then-Vice President Richard Nixon. These hopes quickly evaporated, however, when Cuba came into the Soviet Union’s sphere of influence. The tension climaxed in 1962 with the Cuban Missile Crisis, when the world was on the brink of nuclear warfare. Severe sanctions by the NATO powers followed, and with the dissolution of the U.S.S.R in the 1980s, coupled with disastrous economic reforms, Cuba’s economy stagnated. Some of Fidel’s reforms, however, have been impressive. Cuba boasts of one of the highest literacy rates in the world thanks to their expansive education system, which continues to churn out doctors and engineers. They also have a universal health care system that is one of the best in the western Hemisphere, and an infant mortality rate lower than the U.S. The main problem however, is the lack of high paying jobs and the government’s overwhelming economic control.
Cuba, under Raul, has opened itself up to the private market which is minimal but growing because it provides an avenue for people to make decent wages. Two-thirds of Cubans employed by the government make a meager $30 a month. As of now cab drivers, who work for private entities, make more than government-employed doctors. The Communist Party of Cuba has repeatedly rejected change in a rapidly transformative world. Cuba also has had a myriad of human rights abuses, especially when it comes to their LBGTQ citizens. Castro was also known for his liberal use of libel laws when it came to silencing dissent, and the international community has taken notice. But this does not mean that the U.S. does not still trade with countries with limited freedom and human rights abuses, like Saudi Arabia and China. Cuba and the U.S. have had a tumultuous history, but the Cold War has been over for a long time.
Former President Barack Obama and President Raul Castro had made significant strides towards easing tensions. When Obama visited in 2016, he became the first sitting U.S. president to visit the Caribbean country since President Calvin Coolidge in 1928. For his part, Castro also lifted some limitations on the internet restrictions, though Cuba is still far from having an open internet. He also introduced some market reforms including allowing Cubans to buy and sell property and own cell phones.
Obama and Castro signed bilateral agreements that covered subjects ranging from immigration to drugs to marine conservation. But perhaps more significantly, he brought hope. This stage of détente was a big deal in the U.S., and massive in Cuba, where they are desperate for relief and see the embargo as a relic of the Cold War. Lots of people, both in Cuba and even the U.S., are tired of the sanctions. Cubans want relief from a stagnant economy, and Americans want to drink Cuba’s rum, smoke their cigars, visit their beaches, and for many Cuban-Americans, see their families for the first time. Forgiveness, for the first time ever, was looking hopeful.
Then came Donald Trump.
Trump’s limited, isolationist view of the world promised to backtrack on progress in U.S.-Cuban relations. Trump has pulled the United States out of international agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Paris Climate Agreement. Trump has restricted all travel to Cuba besides those affiliated with an official tour group. Any direct investment in Cuba that may be seen as aiding the Cuban military is also prohibited. This has stalled foreign investment and further created a culture of mistrust in Cuba.
Little is expected to change with the assent of Miguel Díaz-Canel to the presidency. Díaz-Canel should be viewed as a continuation, not as a transition. Cubans could expect some mild economic reforms, but, for the most part, the political system will remain closed off. The Castro political apparatus is still very much in place, and Trump is unlikely to change any of his policies towards Cuba. As long as the Castros hold political influence and Trump is in office, Cuban-American relations will always be strained.