Survival, Adaptation and Uncertainty: The Case of Cuba

By Mujal-Leon, Eusebio | Journal of International Affairs, Fall-Winter 2011 | Go to article overview
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Survival, Adaptation and Uncertainty: The Case of Cuba

Mujal-Leon, Eusebio, Journal of International Affairs

The Cuban Revolution recently experienced a major transition of leadership as power shifted hands from Fidel Castro to his younger brother, Raul. Eschewing the role of caretaker, Raul embarked on an ambitious program aiming to streamline a cumbersome and inefficient state while reforming the economy in ways that will increase agricultural production, encourage self-employment and lead to sustainable economic growth. At the same time, Raul Castro refashioned the ruling coalition and proposed major changes to the ruling Communist Party, including term limits, leadership rotation and the separation of party and state functions. This article analyzes the emergence of a new Cuban political elite, explores how power is distributed between its military and party wings and examines the major challenges this coalition must overcome if it is to successfully manage the transition from the Castro era and stabilize Cuban autocracy.


The Cuban Revolution is now in its sixth decade. Born in the crucible of the Cold War, it survived the effects of longstanding U.S. sanctions, the collapse of the communist bloc and Fidel Castro's quixotic efforts to create the "new man" through both socialism and communism. The collapse of the Soviet Union plunged the Cuban economy into a prolonged tailspin from which it has yet to emerge; twenty years later, most economic indicators are still at a fraction of their pre-1989 levels. (1) Christening this phase as the Periodo Especial en Tiempo de Paz (Special Period in Time of Peace), Fidel Castro vowed never to surrender. He did not capitulate and the regime endured. The profound economic crisis that engulfed the island spurred neither dangerous instability nor drastic political change.

Forty years after coming to power, Fidel Castro was still in charge; only a serious illness in July 2006 finally forced him to abdicate his posts. As the economy continued to stumble, he seamlessly turned power over to his brother Raul, who formally assumed the presidency of the Council of State in February 2008 and then the post of the first secretary of the Communist Party of Cuba (PCC) at its Sixth Congress in April 2011.

The defining characteristics of the Cuban Revolution have been chronic economic difficulty and remarkable political durability. But how long can this endure?

There is little doubt that Raul Castro views the faltering economy as a challenge to the regime's long-term survival. His speeches are replete with calls for order, discipline and exigency in all spheres; his words exude a sense of urgency. In an address to the National Assembly, he declared that the country was on the verge of a "precipice." (2) During another, he noted: "We have to permanently erase the notion that Cuba is the only country in the world where people can live without working." (3) "Socialism," he affirmed on yet another occasion, "means social justice and equality.... Equality of rights [and] of opportunities, not of income. Equality does not mean egalitarianism [which is] another form of exploitation ... exploitation of the responsible worker ... by the slothful." (4)

Since taking over from his brother, the eighty-one-year-old leader has begun to implement wide-ranging changes designed to reform the Cuban economy and reduce the bloated state--which employs nearly 85 percent of the workforce--while putting in place a "successor generation" that will inherit a more stable Cuban Revolution. (5) Raul Castro does not describe his efforts as "reforms," preferring instead to describe them as an actualizacion (updating) of the model. (6) It is too soon to tell whether these initiatives, which are timid in comparison to those implemented in China and Vietnam over the past three decades, will spur sustainable economic growth, but they nevertheless represent a sharp break from the paternalistic vision of his brother.

Raul Castro seeks to change more than the face of the Cuban economy.

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