The death of former Cuban leader and revolutionary Fidel Castro on Nov. 25 marked the end of an era for Cuba. Throughout his half-century in power, Castro staunchly opposed American influence and governed as an uncompromising authoritarian. He left behind a polarizing legacy, particularly in the context of Cuba’s rapprochement with the United States that began in 2014. While many billed the normalization of ties as Cuba’s ticket to a new era of openness, Castro’s passing has drawn attention to the enduring challenges the country faces. That, coupled with the election of Donald Trump as president in the United States, spells an uncertain future for Havana’s relations with Washington and Cuba’s prosperity moving forward.
World Politics Review has compiled 10 articles that trace the evolution of Cuba’s opening and prospects for reform and relations with the United States.
U.S. and Cuba Face a Long Road Ahead to Normalization
In January 2015, immediately following U.S. President Barack Obama’s decision to ease a 53-year-old embargo on Cuba, Christopher Sabatini assessed the many challenges that would emerge along the road to normalization. From managing pro-embargo Cuban-Americans to dealing with hard-liners in Havana, breaking Cuba’s isolation through greater contact with U.S. citizens and the private sector would be the real challenge.
The re-establishment of diplomatic relations in July 2015 concluded the first stage of the dialogue to normalize U.S.-Cuba ties. But myriad issues still divide the two governments, William M. LeoGrande wrote last August. While some of those were already under discussion at the time, others were not, and some could only be resolved by the U.S. Congress. A half-century of mutual distrust under Fidel Castro’s reign had cast a long shadow on the process of engagement.
Historically, Mexico and Cuba maintained friendly relations. In 2000, however, with Vicente Fox and George W. Bush leading Mexico and the U.S., respectively, those ties became severely strained. But on the heels of Washington’s opening to Havana, Cuban President Raul Castro visited Mexico in November 2015, taking a major step toward rebuilding Cuba’s relations with its Latin American neighbor. For William M. LeoGrande, that outreach was also a building block in Castro’s policy of reintegrating Cuba into the hemispheric community.
Obama’s trip to Cuba in March marked a pivotal moment in the normalization process. Prior to his visit, William M. LeoGrande stressed the trip’s potential to energize both government bureaucracies to accelerate the pace of change, especially on the economic front, where progress had been agonizingly slow. The timing of Obama’s trip was critical: It gave him the remainder of his term to work through the details of implementing agreements that he and Castro reached in principle. The fate of that common ground under a Trump presidency, however, is in question.
In May, Ted A. Henken and Armando Chaguaceda provided an in-depth look at the forces of change that have emerged in Cuba since 2014. The normalization process offers new opportunities for a population long stifled by isolation, from blogging to tech startups. But despite hope for change, decades of authoritarianism have permeated Cuban institutions, making possibilities for rapid reform or a transformative opening slim. Persistent—and even deepening—human rights violations undercut the potential for new actors in media, business and politics. To what extent can rapprochement will Washington succeed in uprooting Castro’s repressive legacy?
The impact of Venezuela’s descent into chaos has not been contained by its borders. By August, fallout from its economic crisis had reached Cuba, forcing drastic cuts in energy consumption, slashing growth and complicating the fate of reform. “The worsening economic downturn puts Cuban leaders squarely on the horns of a dilemma,” William M. LeoGrande wrote in August. “Go too fast, and the resulting social disruption may aggravate discontent; go too slow, and the public may lose hope that the reform process will ever produce Castro’s promise of a prosperous and sustainable socialism.”
One of the most pressing issues for Cuba’s old guard has been how to reconcile its communist ideology with the new reality of open markets. Fidel Castro had established legitimacy at home by remaining committed to socialism and opposing U.S. imperialism. Moving forward, William M. LeoGrande argued in April, Cuba’s leadership will face inherent tensions between economic imperatives and political necessity.
Reconciliation with the United States won’t give Cuba a blank slate for doing business with American and foreign companies, William M. LeoGrande explained in May. Before Obama’s trip to Cuba in March, Washington announced a new package of regulatory reforms that enable U.S. financial institutions to process international transactions between Cuba and non-U.S. parties. But because of past legal hang-ups, many U.S. banks have refused to participate. As one U.S. official put it, “It turns out it’s easier to impose sanctions than it is to dismantle them.”
Wary of becoming over-reliant on any one country, Cuba has begun to reach out to potential partners across Europe and Asia to balance its engagement with the United States. As William M. LeoGrande noted in October, “Cuba learned this lesson the hard way.” In many ways, the country’s political history has been shaped around reliance on foreign powers: prerevolutionary dependence on the United States followed by postrevolutionary dependence on the Soviet Union. When those ties were severed, Cuba was plunged into economic crisis. With a more hostile leader in Washington, Havana will be eager to insulate itself from future dependencies.
With Donald Trump as U.S. president, Cuba faces its biggest challenge yet since the normalization process began. During his campaign, the president-elect threatened to roll back every executive decision Obama had taken to improve relations with Havana. Will Trump abrogate the dozen bilateral agreements already signed with Cuba, or will he continue the talks underway on half a dozen other issues? Fidel Castro’s legacy, and the future prosperity of Cuba, may depend on it.