Farewell to Raúl Castro:

Will Cuba survive the end of the Castro era?

Political leadership has proven to be consistent in Cuba over the past sixty years. Socialism has always remained the guiding principle, even in times of crisis. It looks like this will remain so in the post-Castro era.

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Raúl Castro
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On April 16, Raúl Castro will step down as First Secretary of the Communist Party in Cuba. On that day the historical generation makes way for a new, younger generation. Should we hurry to Cuba before everything changes? Cuba expert Marc Vandepitte sketches Raúl's life and looks ahead to the future.


In the shadow of Fidel


Fidel Castro was an imposing figure with a strong personality and magnetic powers of persuasion. As the leader of the revolutionary process, he was constantly in the spotlight. He gave many hundreds of speeches and was interviewed very regularly. Dozens of biographies have been written about El Comandante en Jefe.


The contrast with Raúl is striking. Until Fidel's serious illness in 2006, Raúl barely came to the fore. The five-year-younger brother is frugal with giving interviews or speeches. The number of biographies about him can be counted on one hand. As a result, his role in the Cuban revolution is often underestimated.


The two brothers complemented each other. Fidel was the ideologue while Raúl is more practical. Fidel the architect, Raúl the contractor, that's how it may be summarized briefly.


A military career


Raúl's 'career' began during the guerrilla war. At the beginning of 1958, barely 26 years old, he became commander of the Second Front. After a series of military successes, he quickly took control of an area roughly the size of the West Midlands (5000 square miles). In this liberated area he set up a completely parallel administration including schools and hospitals. He carried out agrarian reform, built roads and even established a tiny air force.


In October 1959, Raúl became the head of the Cuban armed forces. He remained in that position until he was elected president in 2008.


The survival of the fledgling revolution stood or fell with the ability to withstand US military intervention. In the first months, the new Cuban army was next to nothing. A lot of equipment was unusable or inadequate and many of the officers had left for the US.


In June 1960, Raúl travelled to Prague and Moscow to secure enough military equipment and ammunition to counter an invasion. Dozens of pilots received secret emergency training in Czechoslovakia. Intensive training programmes were set up in Cuba. 25,000 soldiers and hundreds of thousands of civilians received basic combat training. Cuban secret agents infiltrated the mercenary army being prepared in the US. Several counter-revolutionary groups planning to support the invasion underground were exposed and arrested in Cuba. All these measures ensured that the Bay of Pigs invasion, which started on 17 April 1961, was crushed after only 72 hours. It was the first defeat of the US in its ‘backyard’.


However, the threat was not over. Cuba didn’t join the Warsaw Pact, which meant that after the missile crisis of 1962, the country had to rely mainly on its own forces in case of an intervention. Under Raúl's leadership, a completely new army was built. In the early 1970s, the air force, armoured troops and air defences were considered among the best in Latin America. While the Soviet army was bogged down in Afghanistan, the Cuban army achieved some stunning victories in remote areas, such as against the much stronger Apartheid army in Angola and Namibia.


In addition to the regular troops, a people's army was set up. Within twenty-four hours, two million Cubans could be mobilised. Invasion troops would, as in Vietnam, be caught in a hornet's nest and treated to traps, wells, mines, tunnels and so on. To ‘conquer’ the island, the Pentagon would have to send millions of soldiers and suffer  huge military losses. That makes the small island de facto virtually impregnable. In this sense Cuba, together with Vietnam, is an example for present and future generations of successful resistance to the aggressive policy of the US.


The army as a locomotive


After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the tightening of the blockade, the Cuban economy collapsed. Living conditions were deteriorating sharply and there was even a threat of famine. In Cuba, the severe crisis of the 1990s is known as the ‘Special Period’.


Very drastic measures were needed to get out of the crisis. In addition, the army has a locomotive function. The military were the first to experiment with new management techniques and more flexible and efficient production strategies. Not only did the army become self-sufficient, it increasingly engaged in economic activities, including in tourism and agriculture. Food surpluses were offered on agricultural markets with the aim of bringing prices down. In 1996, a third of what the military produced was supplied to the civilian economy.


The approach was a model for the rest of the economy and has been decisive in surviving the Special Period without too much damage.


Crisis management


In these difficult circumstances, the state apparatus and the Communist Party were also in need of a thorough overhaul. Raúl took on that task. In 1994 he organized a number of conferences with the top executives of the country to discuss the crisis and to look for ways out. He demanded that both government and party leaders strengthen their ties with the population and give priority to fulfilling the vital needs of the common people. A considerable number of top executives were fired and replaced by mainly young people.


In the summer of that year, the crisis reached a peak. Living conditions were becoming precarious and monthly wages were barely worth $ 1.50 on the black market. The situation was particularly critical in Havana. Raúl was appointed head of a commission to deal with the capital's acute problems. The committee ensured an improvement of the food supply and a better service. This reduced tension and prevented food riots or looting.


Economic Reforms


The economic crisis left deep scars. Purchasing power fell sharply and a gap had emerged between two groups of Cubans: those who only had to make do with a wage in pesos and those who had relatives abroad or work in a sector where payment is made in CUC, a currency much more valuable than the peso.[1] For twenty years there had also been practically no investment in the economy. These problems and challenges had to be tackled structurally, in other words, the economic model was due for an update.


Since 2003, there had been cautious reforms in that area. But in August 2006, Fidel fell seriously ill. Raúl became acting president until February 2008. Fidel resigned and Raúl was elected president. He picked up the thread of economic reforms and shifted gears. He created an economic commission within the Central Committee. It was to prepare the updating of the economy and tackle the shortcomings. For two years, the population was consulted and so-called guidelines (Lineamientos) were drawn up, which were discussed and amended at the Sixth Party Congress, which took place in April 2011. Raúl wanted the updating of the economy to take place before he passed the torch to the younger generation.


The congress launched a whole battery of measures. Most striking was the reduction of half a million jobs in the public sector and the strong expansion of the self-employment system.


The measures didn’t immediately provide the big leap forward, but the results were not bad, especially in the light of the economic blockade. Between 2004 and 2019, Cuba recorded an average annual growth of 3.9% compared to 2.6% in the rest of Latin America. This didn’t alter the fact that the country was facing many serious economic challenges, such as the lack of foreign exchange, a very outdated production system and infrastructure, low productivity, high food imports, double currency, ...


The Party and the rapprochement with the US


In addition to the economy, the internal workings of the Party were in need of an update. In 2012, the Communist Party held its first National Conference. Raúl exceptionally harshly criticizes his party members, the outdated working methods, formalism, archaic party language of some and the many party meetings that were far removed from day-to-day issues. He also warned against widespread corruption. He considered it one of the main enemies of the revolution, more dangerous than foreign intervention.


Since the start of the revolution, the US had been taking actions from economic boycott to terror to destroy the revolution. Raúl made great efforts to get closer to the arch enemy. The thaw came at the end of 2014 with the establishment of diplomatic relations and a prisoner exchange. The rapprochement between the two countries resulted in Obama's historic visit to Cuba.


Turbulent times


At his re-election as president in 2013, Raúl had announced that he would only serve two terms. In 2018, he passed the torch to Miguel Díaz-Canel. Now, three years later, Raúl is also stepping down as head of the Communist Party. This marks the definitive end to the Castro era. The generation that led the revolution is making way for a new, younger guard.


The context in which this generational shift is taking place is far from easy. Relations with Russia, China and the European Union are better than ever, but since Trump took office in the White House, relations with the US have been strained. In Latin America, the left-wing wave is receding. In addition, Venezuela's significant economic support has been seriously reduced due to the fall in oil prices, the US economic embargo and the country's internal crisis. Global warming is causing droughts and devastating hurricanes with increasing frequency.


On top of that comes the corona crisis. The sanitary situation is not too bad. Cuba has almost 40 times fewer deaths per 100,000 inhabitants than the United States and will have produced 100 million vaccines by the end of this year. But for the economy, it is a real disaster. Tourism, a vital economic sector, has almost come to a standstill. Last year GDP was down by 11 percent. Export revenues fell by 55 percent and essential imports such as food, fuel and raw materials decreased by 40 percent.


Just like in the nineties, neither the shortages of all kinds of products nor other inconveniences lead to civil unrest. In response to the crisis, a long announced currency reform was implemented at the beginning of this year. Its results have yet to be seen.


Should we hurry to Cuba?


Are major policy changes to be expected under the current president and the new number one of the Communist Party? In other words, do we have to hurry to Cuba before everything changes?


Of course we cannot look into a crystal ball, but the chances of this happening are small. The past shows that Cuban society is characterised by a surprising stability and continuity, even in very difficult circumstances.


There are several reasons for this. First of all, political leadership has proven to be consistent over the past sixty years. Socialism has always remained the guiding principle, even in times of crisis. It looks like this will remain so in the post-Castro era.


Decision-making is collective. It does not depend on the temperament or political preferences of the country's president, as is the case in the US, for example.


If reforms were needed in the past, they were always carried out cautiously and not hastily.


Finally, all major changes are always submitted to the public in detail. Without broad support, no changes. This also prevents unexpected and unpredictable changes of course.


So there is no need to rush to Cuba before everything changes there. But that does not change the fact that it is a wonderful holiday destination. Moreover, tourists will soon receive a free vaccine on arrival. Maybe that is a reason to go soon after all.





[1] Due to the economic crisis in the 1990s, the value of the local currency had completely collapsed. In order to protect the domestic market, to get the most out of tourism and to get a grip on the flow of foreign exchange (from the sending of foreign currency from family members abroad), a new currency was introduced in addition to the peso: the CUC. It has roughly the value of the dollar. Initially it was mainly intended for the tourist industry. Afterwards, many luxury products and other commodities were also sold in CUC. The dual currency system was the expression of the gap that has arisen between Cubans who have foreign currency because they have relatives abroad or because they work in the tourism sector, for example, and Cubans who have to manage with pesos exclusively (estimated at 30-40%). At the beginning of 2021, the CUC was abolished as a currency and wages (in pesos) were raised sharply.

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