Fidel Castro is gone, but the regime that he managed to put in place with summary executions, torture, arbitrary imprisonment, and suppression of civil liberties remains intact. The ordeal of the Ladies in White, who are beaten every Sunday for taking to the streets to call for the liberation of political prisoners, speaks volumes about the implacable dictatorial nature of Castroism.
Intact though it may be, the Cuban regime is showing signs of fragility. Incapable of managing efficiently the country’s economy, the reign of the Castro brothers has owed its survival to the aid received first from the Soviet Union, and later from Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela, the country with the world’s largest oil reserves.
It so happens, however, that Cuba may soon find itself without a foreign purveyor. After 18 years of so-called 21st Century Socialism, the Venezuelan economy is in shambles and will hardly be able to keep transferring oil and petrodollars to Cuba in the measures needed to keep the Castro regime alive.
Cuban President Raul Castro is well aware of the risks posed by Venezuela’s economic rout and has been searching for new sources of economic survival. Hence what he calls his “updating of Cuba’s economic and social model" -- the instillation of doses of market economy that look innocuous compared to the economic reforms China and Vietnam have put in place. Hence, too, the thaw in diplomatic and economic relations with the “Empire” (i.e. the United States) negotiated with U.S. President Barack Obama through the mediation of the Vatican.
The two components of Raul Castro’s survival program -- homeopathic doses of market economy and diplomatic and economic overtures to the United States -- are now showing signs of strain. Ideological and bureaucratic hurdles, as well as the vested interests of the ruling elite, make meaningful and effective economic reform a distant prospect. No less important, the White House will soon be occupied by a tenant whose stance on Cuba stirs unease in Havana’s circles of power.
Predicting what Donald Trump will actually do after assuming the presidency of the United States is proving to be a hazardous exercise. He has already toned down or recanted more than one of his campaign stances and might also soften the hardline attitude on Cuba that he adopted during the election campaign.
And yet, post-election statements made by members of the transition team and by Trump himself tend to confirm that the U.S. president-elect is intent on a Cuba policy tougher than President Obama’s. On the occasion of Fidel Castro’s demise, Trump referred to the late Cuban leader as a “brutal dictator” and promised that his administration will “do all it can” to help the Cuban people attain freedom and prosperity.
Surely no one expects Trump’s foreign policy to give high priority to human rights on the global stage. But Cuba may offer Trump a chance to flex his muscles and show, at minimal political cost, how tough he can be -- if only because it is in his own interest to take a firmer position than his predecessor on the Castro regime.
Indeed, Trump won in the crucial state of Florida, where the votes of Cuban-Americans carry a heavy weight. Therefore if he aims to secure a second term, he will be well-advised not to deceive the Cuban-American community.
The incorporation into Trump’s transition team of Mauricio Claver-Carone -- a firm opponent to the U.S.-Cuba rapprochement in its present form -- can be interpreted as a sign that the U.S. president-elect plans to take a hard stance on Cuba.
Sensing the change of wind in the Oval Office, the Castro regime has begun to react. It carried out military drills immediately after Donald Trump’s electoral victory. The problem for the Cuban authorities is that an eventual confrontation with the Trump administration will likely be of an economic rather than military nature, something with which Havana is ill-equipped to cope.
Conventional wisdom has it that the U.S. embargo, imposed 54 years ago, has not delivered the expected results; why then, it is added, will a hardline Cuba policy be efficient under Trump? Well, for one key reason: circumstances have changed. Considering the loss of its traditional patron and with no new sponsor in sight, Cuba’s regime is counting on the development of financial and commercial links with the United States and could hardly refuse a trade-off involving a democratic opening on the island in exchange for the continuation and eventual expansion of such links.
Therein lies the usefulness of Obama’s overture toward Cuba. For Trump’s negotiating leverage over the Castros would not have been as strong as it actually is had the Obama administration not eased travel and commercial restrictions. The Castro regime has already had a taste of the benefits that economic ties with the United States may bring about. (Suffice to mention the dramatic surge of U.S. tourists visiting Cuba). As a result, Cuba’s ruling elite will think twice before putting those benefits at risk by assuming an unyielding attitude in negotiations with the Trump administration.
Cuba’s ruling class and its supporters around the world will cry foul, denouncing what they will call a “violation of the principle of self-determination” by Washington, and blaming the Trump administration for a further deterioration of the living conditions of the Cuban population.
All the same, with the old-guard reign coming to an end by the laws of biology, the disabused Cubans and the lucid members of the ruling class will ignore that worn-out cantilena. They may, instead, look upon a firmer U.S. Cuba policy, not as an obnoxious intromission, but as an additional reason to carry out the necessary economic and political transformation of their beleaguered country.