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Cuba After Castro: How Much Change, and How Quickly?

Will Cuban President Raul Castro embrace change more rapidly now that his brother, the revolutionary leader Fidel Castro, is gone?
Image: People walk past a graffiti that reads \"Long live Fidel\" in Havana, Cuba
People walk past graffiti reading 'Long live Fidel' in Havana, Cuba, on Saturday.ENRIQUE DE LA OSA / Reuters

MIAMI — As the world takes in the news that Fidel Castro has died, many people are asking what will happen next in one of the last remaining Communist countries.

Raul Castro has been the leader of Cuba since his brother handed over power 10 years ago, and significant change has taken place on the island including reforms that would have been unthinkable under Fidel.

Raul Castro and President Barack Obama stunned the world in 2014 when they announced their countries would re-establish diplomatic ties after decades of isolation and hostility. Both nations have opened embassies and scheduled flights from the United States to Cuba have resumed after decades.

Related: Obama, World Leaders React to Death of Cuban Dictator Fidel Castro

But critics say Raul Castro hasn't gone far enough. He has legalized small and medium-size private businesses, but he has also cracked down on those that flourish and compete with state monopolies.

Will Raul Castro embrace change more rapidly now that his brother is gone? Some have speculated that Fidel Castro was holding him back with the fervent communist ideals that he built his government around.

"I think this could go both ways," said Alana Tummino, senior director of policy and head of the Cuba Working Group at the Council of the Americas, a business organization promoting free trade and open markets.

"Raul is the leader of Cuba, and he has been the reformer in Cuba," said Tummino, who said Fidel Castro's death can give his brother space to embrace even more change. But she said she was wary: There are hard-liners in the government who caution against economic reforms on the island.

Jaime Suchlicki, director of the Institute for Cuban and Cuban American Studies at the University of Miami, doesn't expect any changes.

"It has nothing to do with his brother. He's concerned that if he opens up internally it will subvert the system," Suchlicki said. "He's doing very limited things that don't threaten his power or the power of the elite around him."

Unlike other Cuban-Americans, Suchlicki doesn't see Fidel Castro's death as the end of an era. He pointed out that when North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il died, his son Kim Jong-un took power and that nothing changed.

Cuba blames the half-century U.S. trade embargo for its economic hardships. The embargo can't be lifted without congressional approval, but Obama has used his executive powers to relax trade and travel restrictions. In March, Obama made the first visit to Cuba by a U.S. president in 88 years.

The latest changes announced in October allow Cubans to buy certain U.S. goods online, permits Cuban pharmaceutical companies to do business with the United States and allows the United States and Cuba to conduct joint medical research.

The goal of the the policy directive and the new regulations was to make Obama's Cuba policy "irreversible." The idea was that by establishing so many relationships with Cuba, a future administration that might want to scale back would face widespread opposition.

But Obama is leaving office in January, and further change in Cuba may depend on President-elect Donald Trump. Early in the campaign, Trump said he supported Obama's policy on Cuba, but he retreated later, saying he would reverse Obama's executive orders and concessions until freedom is restored in Cuba.

For Arturo López-Levy, who formerly worked with the Cuban government, it's important to see what course the United States takes once Trump is sworn in.

But "I don't think the death of Castro will alter the pace of the reform," said López-Levy, a Cuba expert and lecturer in political science at the University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley.

López-Levy expects significant change to begin when Raul Castro, 85, steps down, which he has said he will do in 2018. Although various names have been floated around as potential successors, most analysts agree that the likely next leader of Cuba will be First Vice President Miguel Mario Diaz-Canel, who's 56.

"The clock is ticking to pass the presidency to a new generation," López-Levy said.

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