For the first time in over sixty years, a member of the Castro family will not be leading Cuba. At the end of another five-year term as First Secretary of the Communist Party of Cuba, Raúl Castro, who took the reins from his older brother Fidel in 2008, is finally taking a back seat. His successor, 60-year-old protégé Miguel Díaz-Canel, steps up amidst the harshest combination of conditions the country has faced in years. Cuba’s unique place in history and status today are well worth reviewing, the mysticism and political hot-air worth dispelling, in order to garner an informed notion of what the country’s future may hold under new management.
The briefest of modern histories of Cuba may as well begin with Columbus. Snatching the island from the indigenous Taíno and Guanahatabay for the Kingdom of Spain just weeks after his first American landfall in the Bahamas, definitive colonization was left to famed conquistador Velázquez. Over ensuing centuries of slavery and exploitation, Cuba became the powerhouse of the Spanish colonial empire, rivalling France’s Haiti for the moniker of ‘Pearl of the Antilles’. Although local loyalty to the Crown outlasted that of their continental counterparts, in 1868 former plantation owner Carlos Manuel de Céspedes led an independence struggle that would broil for the next thirty years.
In 1895, Bolívarian figure José Martí died leading the revolutionary invasion and became a martyr for the cause. Spain responded with over 100,000 troops (more than sent to cling on to Mexico and its South American colonies) and began a brutal campaign of repression. The pioneering use of concentration camps allegedly paved the way for infamous 20th century imitators.
Having long sought to acquire the island from Spain, the US welcomed and supported the uprising. In February 1898, the explosion of the USS Maine dispatched to Havana harbour to protect American interests sparked the Spanish-American War. The swift US victory prompted the signing of the Treaty of Paris in December 1898, which granted acquisition rights to Puerto Rico, the Philippines and Guam for a mere $20 million. The moment proved pivotal in the extinction of the Spanish Empire and the emergence of the US as a global superpower.
Cuba gained formal independence on 20th May 1902, becoming a de facto US protectorate for the first half of the 20th century. In exchange for withdrawal of US military forces, the Platt Amendment stipulated the US be allowed to return at any point, intervene in Cuba’s financial affairs and foreign relations, and hold on to a small chunk of its southern shoreline known as Guantanamo Bay. A preference for Cuban sugar in the US was also established, in exchange for an influx of the ‘American Made’ in Cuba, the results of which still line the streets in every photograph of Havana. At the time, Cuba prospered from exporting 35% of the world’s sugar cane. In the 1920’s, Cuba opened up and foreign investment flooded in to accommodate flourishing tourism. With legalised gambling and prostitution, the country became a haven of debauchery for Americans — a real-life Tortuga long before Disney or Vegas had dreamed of pirates.
When the Roaring Twenties were cut short by the Wall Street Crash of 1929, Cuba was not spared. With acute economic fragility comes acute susceptibility to the strongman-with-a-plan, of which the Cuban variant was Sergeant Fulgencio Batista. Despite initially entertaining the budding democratic practices, the soldier led a successful coup in 1952 instead of facing the unpleasantness of certain electoral defeat. Promptly outlawing the communist party, Batista aligned himself with the wealthy land-owning class. A decades-long bond with the US commercial behemoth meant that Cuba’s economy had grown wealthy, and yielded Latin America’s highest per capita consumption rates of meat, cars, telephones and radios. However, for the third of the population languishing in poverty these spoils remained in sight but out of reach. Potent labour union privileges, including bans on dismissals and mechanization, were also obtained largely at the expense of the lower classes. In a few short years, Batista’s regime had stirred all the ingredients for a socialist revolution.
In 1956, an Argentinian medical student with a face fit for a T-shirt and a taste for the revolutionary collided with the Castro brothers (with a similar appetite for revolution but with a side-order of prolonged autocratic stagnation). Ernesto “Che” Guevara, Fidel Castro and his brother Raúl assembled an 82-strong fighting force and set sail from Mexico aboard an ex-US military target practice boat to overthrow Batista (the southwestern province bears the name of the yacht, Granma, to this day). However, having retraced the route of revolutionary hero José Martí, Batista predicted their landing ground and the expedicionarios del yate Granma were almost all slaughtered or captured instantly. Crucially, the commanding trio were among the 20 survivors (most of whom spent a lifetime dining out on their revolutionary glory). It took until 1958 for their guerrilla insurgency to crystallise into a popular uprising against Batista, under the banner of the Movimiento 26 de Julio (oddly commemorating a failed prior attempt). After a decisive victory over government forces in Santa Clara, Fidel Castro reclaimed the capital on the 8th of January 1959. As his regime was deposed, Batista fled in exile and found political asylum in Salazar’s Portugal. After an spotty career as an international independence instigator, Che was eventually captured and killed in Bolivia with CIA assistance in 1967 (long before he could have profited from his likeness).
Although a restoration of democracy was initially welcomed by the US, the communist bent was coldly received by President Eisenhower. The instant enactment of the Agrarian Reform Law, expropriating thousands of acres of farmland from Cuban and American landowners alike, soured the relationship beyond salvage. The US imposed a smorgasbord of sanctions in response, including a comprehensive trade embargo and a freeze on all Cuban-owned assets on US soil. Castro naturally embraced the Soviet Union, with whom a trade agreement was signed in 1960. Staring down a NATO threat on its doorstep from Norway and Turkey, onboarding Cuba a mere 90 miles south of Florida was a geopolitical triumph for the Soviets. In exchange for accommodating a military presence, Cuba now depended on Moscow for substantial aid and sheltered markets for its exports. Since 1965, the Communist Party of Cuba has maintained an iron grip on the country: the most recent constitution still describes it as the “leading force of society and of the state.”
In the early sixties, Cuba became the flashpoint of the Cold War. Mere months into Kennedy’s presidency, in April 1961, the ill-fated Bay of Pigs Invasion saw a group of 1,400 Cubans —overtly trained and armed by the CIA — try and fail to dethrone Fidel Castro. Only the possibility of WWIII and a nuclear holocaust provided by the Cuban Missile Crisis in October the following year overshadowed the embarrassment. As aerial photos revealed the presence of missile materials on Cuban soil, the US quarantined the island by naval blockade, deemed an act of aggression by Soviet leader Khrushchev. Eventually backdoor negotiations secured a withdrawal of missiles in exchange for a US promise not to invade. In response to American hostility, Cuba built up one of the largest armed forces in Latin America, second only to that of Brazil. In 1985, Cuban military expenditure peaked at 13% of GDP. This oversized might provided assistance for Soviet conflicts in Africa and the Middle East, most notably in Angola. In return for being the number one thorn in the US underside, Fidel Castro became the target of increasingly creative assassination attempts by the CIA: US government figures state they number 8, while Cuban intelligence counts 638 attempts.
The implosion of the Soviet Union in 1991 brought about a ‘Special Period’ of severe depression in Cuba, some $6 billion in annual subsidies disappeared overnight. GDP shrank 35% and took until the turn of the millennium to return to pre-crisis levels. Free-market measures were temporarily introduced to assuage shortages of food, fuel and services, including legalising limited self-employment, the use of the US dollar in business and incentivising tourism. New friendships were kindled with like-minded socialists such as Chávez’s Venezuela, Bolivia and China. As a founding member of Petrocaribe, Cuba secured a share of abundant Venezuelan oil supplies on a concessionary financial agreement. By the end of 2012, up to 30,000 Cuban medical personnel worked in Venezuela alone under the oil-for-doctors programme.
As illness caught up to him, Fidel Castro ceded the position of President of the State Council in 2008 to his younger brother, yet maintained the superior position of First Secretary of the Communist Party of Cuba. In his inauguration speech, Raúl promised that some of the restrictions on freedom in Cuba would be removed, and that the country would open to the world once again. The very same year the European Union agreed to resume full relations and cooperation activities. In 2011, Raúl also became First Secretary.
In 2009, President Barack Obama declared “the United States seeks a new beginning with Cuba” and demonstrated as much by reversing his predecessor’s prohibitions on travel and remittances by Cuban-Americans. The process of rapprochement that ensued, dubbed the ‘Cuban Thaw’ and secretly officiated by Pope Francis, culminated in the reestablishment of diplomatic relations, the release of political prisoners and the re-opening of embassies in 2015. While the embargo was not completely abolished, it was relaxed to allow certain limited commerce. The White House also removed Cuba from its undesirable list of state sponsors of terrorism. In 2016, Obama became the first US president to visit the island since Calvin Coolidge in 1928. In November that year (and perhaps not unrelatedly), Fidel Castro, the longest-serving leader of the 20th century, died — in the ultimate act of defiance, he did so peacefully in old age. A longstanding pledge of Obama’s, the closure of the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base that the Cuban government has decried illegal since 1959, nonetheless eludes realisation to this day.
As the political pendulum swung back, President Trump promptly “cancelled the Obama-Biden sell-out to the Castro regime” by prohibiting travellers from bringing home Cuban cigars and rum and staying in government hotels. The sanctions were explicitly slated to deny any US dollars from funding the autocracy. Critics called it pandering to Cuban Floridians, a crucial Republican-leaning voting bloc in the swingiest of swing states, that generally despise the regime they fled in droves. In his final days in office, President Trump also reinscribed Cuba on the blacklist of terrorist sponsors.
Defying expectations, Cuba fares surprisingly well on a number of developmental metrics. The country boasts an HDI considered ‘High’, an elevated life expectancy and low infant mortality rate reflective of a regionally outstanding healthcare system (known as the ‘Cuban health paradox’), literacy rates akin to Western Europe, high mean years of education and relatively low gender inequality (53.2 percent of parliamentary seats are held by women). However, these outwardly rosy results must be taken with a few grains of salt, given the substantial subsidies by the Soviet Union and the central planning capacity of the Communist Party dispassionately neglecting other arenas of social welfare.
The 1992 Constitution of the Republic of Cuba defines the state as “guided by the ideas of José Martí and the political and social ideas of Marx, Engels and Lenin.” To these ends, the means of production are owned and run by the government and the majority of the labour force remains on the state payroll. Every Cuban household is issued a ration book entitling it to a monthly supply of food and other staples. Paradoxically, the vast majority of Cubans legally own their own homes,and pay no property taxes or mortgage interest. Healthcare is universal yet plagued by shortages of medical supplies. Although the island exports sugar, tobacco, and coffee, it relies heavily on imports for fuel, clothing, machinery and food. Cuba’s most lucrative mineral resource is nickel, a key component in Lithium-Ion battery production, with the fifth-largest reserves in the world in 2020.
Tourism was initially restricted to enclave resorts where tourists would be segregated from Cuban society, unflatteringly referred to as ‘tourism apartheid’. Until January this year, Cuba had a dual currency system: most wages and prices were set in Cuban pesos, while the tourist economy operated on convertible pesos set at par with the US dollar. It has been widely reported only semi-jokingly that for this reason Cuban doctors, on a meagre state salary denominated in Cuban pesos, earn far less than doormen through casual tips.
The medical tourism sector also caters to thousands every year. According to the 2019 Bloomberg Global Health Index, Cuba ranks highest rank among developing countries and healthier than the US. Not unrelatedly, the country maintains the highest doctor-to-population ratio in the world and has sent thousands of doctors to more than 40 countries. According to the WHO, Cuba is “known the world over for its ability to train excellent doctors and nurses who can then go out to help other countries in need.” However, state-capped salaries for medical personnel remain low, the facilities and equipment poor, and essential drugs frequently absent.
On a less-rosy note, Cuba cannot escape classification as an ‘Authoritarian regime’ on The Economist’s Global Democracy Index 2020 and ‘Not Free’ by the 2021 Freedom in the World report. Human Rights Watch has stated that the regime “represses nearly all forms of political dissent” and that “Cubans are systematically denied basic rights to free expression, association, assembly, privacy, movement, and due process of law.” To date, Cuba remains the only country in the Americas that denies Amnesty International entry, and “continues to reject recommendations by other UN member states to ratify even the most basic international human rights treaties” according to the organisation.
In particular, Cuba’s prisons have long cast a blight on its record. A 1999 report by Human Rights Watch documented that Cuba’s extensive prison system, one of the largest in Latin America, consisted of 40 maximum-security prisons, 30 minimum-security prisons, and over 200 work camps. Prisoners were reportedly confined in “substandard and unhealthy conditions, where prisoners face physical and sexual abuse.” Although Cuba considers the US policy of attrition-by-embargo itself a violation of human rights, the US has pledged to prolong it “so long as it continues to refuse to move toward democratization and greater respect for human rights.”
The 2021 World Press Freedom index ranked Cuba 171st out of 180, behind the likes of Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey. According to Reporters Without Borders, journalists who run afoul of government defamation strictures are subjected to “arbitrary arrest, the threat of imprisonment, persecution and harassment, illegal home searches, and confiscation and destruction of journalistic material.” All mainstream media is state-run and private ownership of broadcast outlets is illegal. Internet usage is among the lowest in the Americas, and all access is controlled, email communication monitored and content restricted. The faulty hook-up for the island runs from Venezuela as the embargo prohibits an undersea cable from Florida.
The unceremonious unravelling of their socialist comrades (and benefactors), Venezuela, cast Cuba onto the rocks. In 2019, exacerbated by the US tightening of the trade embargo, the cut-off of Venezuelan aid and the failure of the state-run oil company brought the country to its knees. Rationing was imposed on chicken, eggs, rice, beans, soap and other staples. From this footing Cuba entered the coronavirus pandemic. With local lockdowns and the collapse in tourism and remittances, the Cuban economy shrank 11% in 2020. As food became evermore scarce, the echoes of the ‘Special Period’ grew louder. Earlier this year the implementation of the longstanding plan to unify the island’s dual currencies fuelled the flames of discontent as the cost of living crept up.
Nonetheless, Cuba has weathered the pandemic well, even sending doctors to other countries to help manage outbreaks. Thanks to its advanced biomedical research sector, Cuba is the only Latin American country able to manufacture a vaccine domestically other than Brazil (which is not doing so). Clinical trials of the Cuban jab, somewhat grandiosely named ‘Sovereignty’, are currently underway. Once its own people are vaccinated (as the embargo makes acquisition on international markets tricky), the sale of vaccines abroad is hoped to spur the island’s financial recovery.
At the opening of quinquennial Cuban communist party congress, the 89-year-old Raúl Castro announced he was vacating the highest seat of power in the land, purportedly retiring with the sense of having “fulfilled his mission and confident in the future of the fatherland.” On April 19th, 2021, current president Miguel Díaz-Canel also assumed the role of First Secretary. Born a year after the revolution, he is almost 30 years Raul’s junior. From humble beginnings in the city of Santa Clara, the stage of the decisive victory of the revolutionaries and Che Guevara’s fitting final resting-place, he cultivated the image of the hard-working everyman throughout his political career. Beginning in his twenties as a member of the Young Communist League, he scaled the ranks to become a provincial leader, before assuming the role of minister of higher education in 2009. In 2013, he became vice-president of the powerful council of state, becoming Castro’s right-hand man. Five years later, in 2018, he was elected Cuba’s president by the country’s National Assembly with an almost-perfect 99.83% of the vote.
Ironically, since launching his Twitter account in 2018, one of Díaz-Canel’s favourite hashtags has been ‘#SomosContinuidad’: we are continuity. To the dismay of younger generations and outside observers hoping for change, he is bound to this mantra. Selected for his loyalty and deference to the communist party, he is hemmed-in by his predecessor’s watchful presence. Raúl’s declaration of keeping “one foot in the stirrup” dispels any doubt on this point. In his maiden speech, the new First Secretary aped the sentiment, saying: “He [Raúl] will always be present, aware of everything going on, fighting energetically and sharing ideas and thoughts on the revolutionary cause through his advice, orientation and alerts in the face of any error or deficiency.” Continuity is also a strategic play on behalf of Diaz-Canel, a member of a younger generation of political leaders that lack the stripes of the revolutionary old-guard that still possess the upper echelons. As they gradually shuffle off their mortal coils, the incumbent may find more room to manoeuvre.
Nonetheless, there is cause for cautious optimism – not least because the Castro autocracy is ending in name. Miguel Díaz-Canel has displayed himself as more accessible to everyday Cubans, travelling around the island for face-to-face visits broadcast on state television, shedding the image of the unknowable dictator. He has also long advocated for broader internet access, and now tweets regularly. Albeit pressured by the liquidity crisis caused by his own merging of the currencies and the widespread shortages, earlier this year Díaz-Canel followed through on many long-shelved reforms expanding private enterprise (although not necessarily indicative of a trend, as momentary doses of liberalisation were used to alleviate the pains of crisis in the past).
Perhaps the best hope of positive change lies in burying the hatchet with the US. Díaz-Canel welcomed last year’s election of US President Biden, tweeting that he believed “constructive bilateral relations respecting another’s differences” were possible. With surprisingly diplomatic parting words, Raúl Castro himself expressed a “willingness to conduct a respectful dialogue and build a new kind of relationship with the United States.” However, although Joe Biden vowed to loosen the vice of his predecessor’s sanctions, the White House said a change in its Cuban policy was not a priority.