Can A New Leader Salvage U.S.-Cuba Relations?

A poster of Fidel Castro and Raul Castro in Havana, Cuba, April 18, 2018 (AP photo by Ramon Espinosa).
A poster of Fidel Castro and Raul Castro in Havana, Cuba, April 18, 2018 (AP photo by Ramon Espinosa).
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After a return of tension to U.S.-Cuba relations, will a new Cuban leader be able to revive the brief thaw? Find out more when you subscribe to World Politics Review (WPR).

Just three months after Miguel Diaz-Canel took over the presidency of Cuba from Raul Castro, his government unveiled the draft of a new constitution and sweeping new regulations on the island’s emergent private sector. While the changes announced represent continuity with the basic reform program Raul Castro laid out during his tenure, they are nevertheless significant milestones along the road to a more market-oriented socialist system.

For the economy, the most important constitutional changes are the legalization of private enterprise and employment. Having a firm legal foundation in the constitution is a major step forward for the private sector. Meanwhile, the new regulations have two broad purposes: to enable the state to capture a greater share of the revenue that private businesses generate; and to limit the growth of individual businesses in order to prevent the accumulation of wealth and property.

The constitutional reforms recognizing private property and the new regulations constraining it represent a political compromise between Cuban leaders who understand that a robust private sector is necessary for economic development and those who worry it will aggravate inequality and threaten the socialist character of the system. Yet the balance struck between acceptance and control seems inherently unstable.

Learn more about the prospects for Cuba’s economic reforms under the country’s new constitution, in Is Cuba’s Vision of Market Socialism Sustainable? for FREE with your subscription to World Politics Review.

The First Leader of Cuba After Castro Faces Unsettling Obstacles

The changing of the guard in Cuba comes at a delicate political moment. Raul Castro’s ambitious economic reform program is still a work in progress and has yet to significantly raise the standard of living of most Cubans. Moreover, it is encountering resistance from state and party bureaucrats who are loath to lose control over the levers of economic power and the perks those provide. The economy has also been struggling because of declining oil shipments from Venezuela, which sells oil to Cuba at subsidized prices, helping to ease Cuba’s chronic shortage of hard currency. The political and economic chaos engulfing Venezuela has caused oil production to decline, and the resulting energy shortage has forced Cuba to impose drastic conservation measures. As a result, popular discontent over the economy and impatience with the slow pace of improvement are both running high.

Can new leadership bring needed change to Cuba? Learn more, in Cuba After Castro: The Coming Elections and a Historic Changing of the Guard for FREE with your subscription to World Politics Review.

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How Cuba’s Civil Society Might Determine The Future of U.S.-Cuba Relations

New leaders will also have to manage expectations for change in the domestic and foreign policy of Cuba, which grew following the historic thaw in U.S.-Cuba relations that began in December 2014, and gained momentum with U.S. President Barack Obama’s equally historic visit to the island in March 2016. A variety of actors in Cuban society—including political dissidents, independent digital journalists and the island’s innovative entrepreneurs—have staked increasingly bold claims to the public spaces that have emerged in recent years as a result of Havana’s limited economic reforms. The thaw with the U.S. has chilled over again since the Trump administration took office. But those concerned with U.S.-Cuba relations at the formal, state-to-state level would do well to watch these emergent actors, activists and entrepreneurs as well. How they push for, respond to and take advantage of changes from above will have a major impact on the pace and direction of future change on the island.

Improved U.S.-Cuba relations may be spearheaded not by the government, but by independent actors. Learn more, in Between Reforms and Repression, Can Cuba’s New Forces of Change Succeed? for FREE with your subscription to World Politics Review.

The Regional Outlook Complicates the Political Transition

As if all these challenges weren’t enough, Cuba faces a much tougher international environment today than it did just a few years ago. Relations with Latin America have cooled as relations with Washington have regressed to a level of animosity reminiscent of the Cold War. In response, Havana is looking to old ideological comrades in Moscow and Beijing to compensate for the deterioration of ties in its own backyard. A decade ago, progressive governments dominated Latin America. Cuba had friendly presidents in every major Latin American country except Mexico and Colombia, and even those two were not actively hostile. But in recent years, the progressive “pink tide” of leftist governments has given way to a riptide of conservatism. But if the reversal of Havana’s fortunes in Latin America has been serious, the reversal of relations with Washington has been disastrous.

In managing the domestic political transition, Cuba’s new leaders must navigate a tougher international environment. Learn more, in Cuba Must Contend With a New Cold War in the Western Hemisphere for FREE with your subscription to World Politics Review.

Learn more about U.S.-Cuba relations, what life is like in Cuba after Castro, changes in the foreign policy of Cuba, and so much more in the searchable library of World Politics Review (WPR):

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Editor’s Note: This article was first published in November 2018 and is regularly updated.

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