“What do you think will happen when Fidel Castro dies?”
I had been asked this question many times – usually by friends, colleagues and even strangers with whom I did not share my Cuban heritage -- in college, graduate school and upon embarking on my career.
This one time, however, the question wasn’t part of an academic exercise or asked simply to satisfy someone’s personal curiosity. It was 1988 and I was working in the Reagan White House at the National Security Council, which at the time was headed by Colin Powell.
Rumors were swirling that summer, with increasing intrigue, that Fidel had not been seen in public for several weeks. My answer was as clinical as it was dispiriting to my inquirer, a senior intelligence analyst at the NSC: “The most likely scenario is that nothing will change. His brother, Raúl (who was the head of the armed forces and second in command of the government according to Cuba’s Constitution of 1976), will assume power. The revolution has been largely institutionalized, so don’t expect a collapse of the government or a counter-revolution any time soon.”
To be sure, many Cuba experts argued that Raul lacked his brother’s charisma, oratorical skills or ability to lead and govern, a theory that would be put to the test, and proven wrong, two decades later.
Within days, of course, Fidel would re-emerge, giving a speech here; attending a conference there, and the countdown within U.S. government circles and the Cuban American community toward proof of his mortality would continue unabated — until last week.
The focus on Fidel’s longevity was born of frustration and realization that nothing the U.S. had done or could do - short of launching an invasion with the full force of its military - had forced him from power or altered his core beliefs or way of governing.
The sticks had not worked, including:
- the rupture of U.S. diplomatic relations in 1961 and the establishment of the first wave of trade sanctions in the early 1960s, subsequently reinforced in 1992 (Cuban Democracy Act) and 1996 (Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act)
- countless regulatory prohibitions imposed by both Republican and Democratic Presidents
- an attempted invasion by a U.S.-Government sponsored battalion of Cuban exiles in 1961
- numerous documented attempts on his life
- the diplomatic isolation of his government at the OAS and attempts to characterize Cuba as a pariah state in other international forums, especially within the Western Hemisphere
- establishing Radio and Television Marti with the aim of providing Cuban citizens with uncensored news and the establishment of other pro-democracy programs
- confronting his military indirectly in the Horn of Africa and Southern Africa and directly in Grenada
- helping to overthrow several of his allies (Allende in Chile and Ortega in Nicaragua)
- tough-talking Presidents, cabinet members and ambassadors or heads of U.S. interest sections (of both parties) who tried to publicly shame him for his human rights record and his military and economic alliance with the Soviet Union
But neither did the carrots, including:
- an attempt by Vice President Nixon in the early days of the revolution to offer his government economic assistance
- preliminary attempts by the Ford and Clinton Administrations to explore the possibility of normalizing relations
- extensive attempts led by the Carter Administration to normalize relations, including the establishment of respective interest sections in each country’s capital and to promote family re-unification
- ongoing efforts after leaving office by President Carter to promote better ties between the U.S. and Cuba
- the partial opening up of the embargo in 2000 to facilitate the sale to Cuba of agricultural products.
Not surprisingly, for years, many lawmakers and others prognosticated that the only way forward on U.S.-Cuba relations was to wait for the so-called “biological solution” - in other words, his death.
This was not just an admission of the failure to shape events on the island, it was also a practical recognition that many Cuban Americans, who have been very influential in crafting U.S. policy toward Cuba since at least the 1980s, could not bring themselves to the idea of a U.S. President even negotiating with any Cuban government headed by Fidel himself.
While his brother Raúl had been at Fidel’s side from the start of the the insurrection (in 1953) against and the defeat (in 1959) of Fulgencio Batista, it was Fidel who embodied the revolution, and therefore, Cuban exiles' pain, suffering and longing to return to Cuba, although under very different circumstances.
That moment came, partially, in 2006 when Fidel fell seriously ill and was forced to hand over temporary control to Raúl and, more fully, if formally but not completely, in 2008 when the older brother gave up his various official leadership posts and Raúl was selected in his place.
Within a short time, Raúl proved to be able to consolidate his political power. He also publicly and forcefully criticized the shortcomings of the revolution’s economic system, or at least its many inefficiencies, and authorized the establishment of independently owned and managed micro-enterprises, a development that has resulted in the creation of several hundred thousand private sector jobs.
Raúl’s new economic policies did not go unnoticed in Cuba policy circles, especially within the Obama Administration. And, surprisingly, Raul announced that he would leave government office – although he said he would continue to lead the Communist Party – in 2018.
Although there had been few significant proposed changes to Cuba’s political system, could Raul be the reformer that would act as the bridge between the mid-20th century and the early to mid-21st century and, therefore, facilitate a more pragmatic relationship?
President Obama decided to test this question shortly after winning reelection in 2012 and announced at the end of 2014 – simultaneously with Raúl Castro – their new approach to normalize relations.
Any fair assessment of President Obama’s efforts, particularly in light of the very acrimonious relationship between the two countries since 1959 and the U.S. domestic political risks involved, would recognize the great lengths to which he has gone to attempt to repair that relationship.
Indeed, critics have pulled no punches in pointing out how few concessions the Cubans have made to U.S. overtures and have wondered why it has been so difficult for U.S. companies to do business in Cuba, even to the extent permitted under the embargo and as a result of the President’s regulatory changes.
Theories abound, but unless one has access to the very highest circles of the Cuban government, no one knows for sure.
One theory is that Fidel, despite having been formally out of office during the last 8 years, nevertheless continued to exercise influence over his younger brother, and that Fidel had been very skeptical of the U.S. overtures.
It was, after all, Fidel who was first to openly and harshly criticize the President’s speech in Havana during his historic trip to the island this year. And it was shortly thereafter that U.S. companies began to express increased frustration with attempts to do business on the island, despite the Cuban government’s insistence that it is open for business, including with U.S. companies.
So, once again I am asked the same question, reframed: what do I think will happen now that Fidel has passed?
Part of the answer is easy: Raul, of course, will continue to lead his government. But because he has started down the path of reforms, reforms that he deems critical and would appear irreversible, it will be entirely up to him and his senior leadership team to determine the substance and speed of those reforms.
There is an opportunity to change the course of history in an even more profound way than Fidel was able to accomplish. Will Raul seize it?
Gustavo Arnavat is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and worked in the Obama administration, representing the U.S. on the executive board of the Inter-American Development Bank.