May 2018

By Daniel P. Erikson


On April 19, 2018, the Castro era came to an end in Cuba. After 59 years of rule by Fidel Castro (1959-2006) and his younger brother Raul (2006-2018), Cuba’s first vice president Miguel Díaz-Canel formally assumed the role of Cuba’s new president. With the death of Fidel Castro in 2016, and now the semi-retirement of the 86-year old Raul (who will remain the top official of Cuba’s Communist Party), Díaz-Canel is Cuba’s first leader born after the Cuban Revolution. The 58-year old top official is expected to pursue a path of modest, incremental reforms in the face of Cuba’s pressing economic and social challenges. In his inaugural address, Díaz-Canel declared there is, "no room in Cuba for those who strive for the restoration of capitalism," signaling that he is not likely to break from Cuban communism anytime soon.

Ten years ago, during the transition of power from Fidel to Raul Castro in Cuba, and from George W. Bush to Barack Obama in the United States, I wrote a book describing the competing tensions in Havana and Washington called The Cuba Wars. After detailing the multiple political, ideological, cultural and security confrontations between the two countries, I concluded that “the next revolution will be the revolution of expectations that is slowly being unleashed in Cuba by the unfolding leadership transition, and it will undoubtedly be matched by rising expectations for a change in U.S. policy when the next American president . . . steps into the White House.” And indeed, during President Obama’s time in office, a significant breakthrough in U.S.-Cuban relations did take place.

Well, that was then and this is now. Given the importance of this political moment in Cuba, a wide range of academics and experts have offered their analysis of Cuba’s leadership change and predictions of what the future may hold – and how the United States should respond. There are a few telling personal details, like Miguel Díaz-Canel once rode a bicycle in his provincial Cuban neighborhood and is known to use an iPad, and an overarching consensus that his political and economic choices will be severely constrained by the legacy of the Castro rule and his own limited sources of power. Below is a survey of the best recent articles and books on what the future holds for Cuba and U.S.-Cuba relations.

  • In a major Brookings report on Cuba’s Economy After Raul Castro: A Tale of Three Worlds, non-resident fellow Richard Feinberg illustrates that the once monolithic Cuban economy has gotten more complicated, and more interesting. He examines Cuba’s “three worlds” – state companies, joint ventures with foreign investment, and an emerging entrepreneurial sector – and suggests that together they contain the ingredients of a viable national economic policy.

  • In Raul Castro Prepares to Resign as Cuba’s President, Closing a Dynasty, Azam Ahmed of the New York Times outlines the gauntlet of challenges facing Miguel Díaz-Canel, including Cuba’s fading but still powerful revolutionary generation, the challenges posed by the United States and Venezuela, attracting investment, and unifying the dual currency. Ahmed concludes that “even the most seasoned Cuba experts have only faint clues as to what he will do, how he will lead, and how much latitude he will have to chart his own course.” 

  • In Fidel Died and Raul Resigned, but Castros Still Hold Sway in Cuba, Times reporter Frances Robles reminds us that the Castros are still very much in the picture. In Who is Miguel Díaz-Canel, Cuba’s New President?, Ahmed and Robles sketch a portrait of a faithful and militant Communist Party loyalist who nevertheless patiently listens to complaints, is comfortable with social liberalism, and would rather shake hands with a dissident than risk being rude.

  • In her Foreign Affairs article Cuba After the Castros, Marguerite Jimenez, a former U.S. Commerce Department official and Cuba expert at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), urges the Trump Administration to drop its hostility towards Cuba in exchange for supporting a process of change on the island, which would make it easier for Díaz-Canel to embrace a path of reform.

  • In A Castro in All But Name?, former top CIA analyst and author Brian Latell tells Politico readers not to be fooled by Miguel Díaz-Canel’s relaxed appearance akin to “a business executive on vacation.” In order to succeed, Díaz-Canel will have to roll up his sleeves and complete the reforms that Raul began, while navigating “a leadership class riven by disputes between economic reformers and old guard Marxist intransigents.”

  • We Shouldn’t Ignore Cuba, warns Columbia University scholar Christopher Sabatini in the New York Times, especially given that the specter of Castroism, and a crumbling and fragile economy, will hem in Miguel Díaz-Canel’s policy choices. The answer, he says, is “cautious, principled” engagement by the United States and support from the International Monetary Fund and World Bank.

  • In Time to Tighten the Screws on Cuba?, former diplomat Elliott Abrams of the Council on Foreign Relations assesses that both the Obama and Trump administrations have failed to win human rights concessions from the Cuban government. His solution is to turn up the heat, arguing that “the United States should consider stepping up pressure on Havana, relenting only when new leadership grants the Cuban people real democratic gains.”

  • Writing for Americas Quarterly, American University scholar William Leogrande ponders How to Stop the U.S.-Cuba Backslide. LeoGrande argues that the U.S. and Cuba need to break the current impasse which started with the alleged sonic attacks on US (and Canadian) Embassy personnel in Havana. He says that the State Department needs to decide, “what conditions would be sufficiently credible to restore the embassies to full strength even if the mystery of the health problems is never solved.” Separately, in two pieces for The Conversation, Leogrande reviews the challenges facing Miguel Díaz-Canel and ponders whether there will ever be a Trump Tower in Havana.

  • Emily Mendrala of Center for Democracy in the Americas fears the United States is missing in action. She writes in The Hill that, In Cuba, Let’s Get back in the Game, calling for the Trump Administration to fully staff the U.S. embassy in Havana and step up investigations to resolve the health incidents affecting American diplomats allegedly affected by sonic disturbances. Otherwise, she advises, U.S. interests in Cuba will be undermined by faltering bilateral cooperation and reduced contacts on the island as new leadership takes the helm.

  • In Cuban Communism Is at Its Reform-or-Die Moment, veteran reporter Melissa Chan argues in Foreign Policy that Díaz-Canel will need to focus on “bread-and-butter issues” to maintain the goodwill of ordinary Cubans who are suffering from the stagnant economy. Otherwise they will keep voting with their feet, by leaving the island for the United States. 

  • Brookings scholar Ted Piccone prophesizes that U.S.-Cuban relations are about to get worse. Noting the rising influence of Florida Senator Marco Rubio, and the appointment of foreign policy conservatives like National security Advisor John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Piccone says “we should expect the White House to double down on its first year’s embrace of punitive regime change.”

  • In Cuba After the Castros: The country and its broken economy need a fresh start Bloomberg’s editors argue that Raúl Castro failed to deliver long-promised reforms and note that Díaz-Canel has to reform the dual currency system and make other economic reforms such as giving farmers the right to own land, expanding the list of authorized private enterprises, and enabling foreign businesses to directly hire their own workers.

  • For those wish to dig deeper into the recent past of U.S.-Cuban relations, Ambassador Vicki Huddleston’s memoir, Our Woman In Havana, offers a guided tour of the past three decades, from Washington to Miami to Havana, and all the stops in between. At the end of her compelling book, she glimpses a future where “Cuba’s youth would someday prefer Havana to Miami,” but concedes that this vision is slipping further out of reach.

Welcome to the future

Even without a Castro at the helm, Cuba remains one of the world’s last remaining communist strongholds, and the U.S. embargo of Cuba is among the most comprehensive, far-reaching, and long-lasting policies of its kind in the world. Despite the many developments over the past decade – including the death of Fidel Castro, the historic opening pursued by Barack Obama, the sharp reversals of the Trump administration, and the retirement of Raul Castro and the rise of Miguel Díaz-Canel – those two facts are still true. While Díaz-Canel’s precise reform agenda remains unknown, and the vicissitudes of American politics will be unpredictable, it seems clear that the policy battles over Cuba will remain as dynamic as ever.

For Cuba-watchers who have long waited to see the shape of post-Castro Cuba, the future finally seems clear, even as the present remains shrouded in mystery.