Cuba’s New Leaders Promise Continuity to a Population Seeking Change

The Editors |

In late April, Cuba experienced a watershed moment when Miguel Diaz-Canel became the leader of the Cuban Communist Party, completing a political transition that began three years earlier when Diaz-Canel was inaugurated as president. Now, for the first time since the 1959 revolution, a Castro leads neither the country nor the party, making way for a new generation of leaders to chart the island nation’s path forward.

After taking office in 2018, Diaz-Canel slowly moved to put his stamp on the nation, beginning with the adoption of a new constitution in April 2019 that included some institutional reforms, including the creation of a prime ministerial position, and some attempts to embed market economics within Cuba’s socialist state. But the watchword for the new leadership continues to be “continuity,” disappointing those in Cuba who had hoped for greater systemic reforms to unleash a younger generation of entrepreneurs. And the deterioration of U.S.-Cuba relations under former President Donald Trump jeopardized even Havana’s limited efforts at opening up parts of the economy to the private sector.

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Cuba had enjoyed a surge in tourism when Trump’s predecessor, former U.S. President Barack Obama, normalized relations between the two countries. But after his election in 2016, Trump reversed many of the steps Obama had taken to relax U.S. policy on Cuba, tightening restrictions on commerce with military-owned businesses and on remittances and travel to Cuba by U.S. citizens.

Trump’s policies delighted Cuba’s critics, who point to the regime’s ongoing human rights violations as justifying a harder line. But combined with Venezuela’s ongoing collapse as well as U.S. sanctions against Venezuela’s oil industry—Cuba had long benefitted from Venezuelan financial support in the form of subsidized oil—they helped create the worst economic crisis on the island since the so-called Special Period following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Exacerbated by the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic, particularly in Cuba’s already hard-hit tourism sector, the current crisis has created more urgency in Havana to pursue necessary market reforms. But even at a faster pace, reforms will likely prove inadequate absent a change in U.S. policy.

President Joe Biden was expected to return to the Obama-era normalization process with Cuba that he contributed to as vice president. But since taking office, he has left in place the Trump-era restrictions, and his administration has made it clear that engagement with Havana is not an urgent priority. Putting U.S.-Cuba relations on a sustainable footing will also depend on how much Havana delivers on protecting human rights and opening up space for political dissent. Absent progress on those fronts, U.S. policy will continue to be vulnerable to pressure from hard-line voices among Cuban American voters in Florida, who play an outsized role in American presidential politics.

WPR has covered Cuba in detail and continues to examine key questions about what will happen next. Can Cuba’s new leadership meet popular expectations for reform while maintaining the regime’s grip on power? Will Cuba’s economic reforms be enough to rebuild after the coronavirus pandemic? What will it take to get Biden to revisit U.S. policy toward Cuba? Below are some of the highlights of WPR’s coverage.

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Cubans Are Still Waiting for Something New From Biden

Though a new generation of leaders has now taken the helm in Cuba, they were careful to telegraph that they do not plan to change Cuba’s political system or alter the government’s heavy-handed approach to dissent. Meanwhile, U.S. President Joe Biden is signaling that he is in no rush to engage with Cuba, despite his campaign pledges to reverse Trump’s policies toward the island nation. In this Trend Lines podcast interview, Michael Bustamante, an assistant professor of Latin American history at Florida International University and an expert on Cuba and U.S.-Cuba relations, discusses the outlook for bilateral ties and the implications of Biden’s cautious approach.

Economy and Reforms

The Cuban economy continues to struggle, despite the regime’s efforts to open the island to investment. Though there is evidence of a small, private economy developing, the broader macroeconomic situation has caused Cubans, particularly young, educated Cubans, to flee in search of opportunities elsewhere. A serious energy crisis resulting from the loss of subsidized Venezuelan oil exacerbated the problem. Now the coronavirus pandemic’s impact on tourism has pushed Cuba’s economy into its deepest recession since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

U.S.-Cuba Relations

The détente between the U.S. and Cuba during Obama’s presidency disappeared under Trump, whose administration introduced new limits on remittances and non-family travel to the island from the United States. So far Biden has backed off from his campaign promise to reverse Trump’s policies. Whether he eventually engages with the new leadership in Havana remains to be seen.

Politics and Human Rights

Though the arrest and detention of political opponents, activists and journalists has decreased lately, the number of incidents remains high, according to human rights groups. As that would indicate, there is very little room for political activity outside of the ruling Communist Party. Within the party, though, some reformers have pushed for a more liberal agenda, including advances on rights for women and the LGBT community.

Regional Relations

Cuba’s relations with its regional neighbors had been warming over the past decade, so it came as no surprise that the region rallied behind Obama’s decision to normalize ties with Havana. But after the return to power of center-right governments across much of Latin America, Cuba’s communist government finds itself increasingly isolated. And the crisis in Venezuela is only solidifying the region’s new fault lines, with Cuba being one of few countries still supporting President Nicolas Maduro’s administration.

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in June 2019 and is regularly updated.

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