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

A waiter serves customers at a private restaurant in Havana, Jan. 31, 2018 (AP photo by Ramon Espinosa).
A waiter serves customers at a private restaurant in Havana, Jan. 31, 2018 (AP photo by Ramon Espinosa).
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In April 2021, 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.

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 after taking office, he left in place the Trump-era restrictions while his administration conducted a policy review that lasted 15 months, making it clear that engagement with Havana was not an urgent priority. The review recently resulted in the easing of the most draconian sanctions, whose impact has been felt by the Cuban people, including lifting the restrictions on cash remittances and restoring educational travel by U.S. citizens to the island.

The new measures will have an enormous impact, but they do not represent a return to normalization. Moreover, given the realities of U.S. domestic politics, any effort to put U.S.-Cuba relations on a sustainable footing will likely 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.

Last year’s mass protests in Cuba highlighted how all these factors are coming to a head: A desperate population demands change from a regime bent on maintaining power, even as the regime’s repression of the protests make any further relaxation of U.S. policy—which could relieve Cubans’ suffering but at the cost of throwing a lifeline to a repressive government—politically unfeasible for the Biden administration.

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 further revisit U.S. policy toward Cuba? Below are some of the highlights of WPR’s coverage.

Our Most Recent Coverage

Biden Finally Realized He Can’t Ignore Cuba Any Longer

President Joe Biden has finally learned the lesson his 11 predecessors had to grudgingly accept when it comes to Cuba: Some U.S. interests can only be advanced by engaging with Havana. After a lengthy policy review, the U.S. announced it will relax the Trump-era sanctions that had the greatest direct impact on the Cuban people.

Domestic Politics and Human Rights

Though the arrest and detention of political opponents, activists and journalists had decreased prior to last year’s protests, restrictions on dissent remained 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.

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. Biden has now followed through on his campaign promise to ease Trump’s most restrictive policies. Whether he eventually engages with the new leadership in Havana remains to be seen.

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 many, 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.

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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