Events

Understanding Cuba

December 14, 2006 // 7:30am10:00am

Participants:
Ted Henken, CUNY
Hal Klepak, Royal Military College of Canada
William LeoGrande, American University
Lisandro Pérez, Florida International University
Moderator:
Margaret E. Crahan, CUNY

The Cuban government's announcement in July 2006 that Fidel Castro had temporarily ceded power to his brother Raúl took many observers by surprise. While the Cuban government has not confirmed the details of Fidel's illness, it is assumed to be grave. On Thursday, December 14, 2006, the Latin American Program hosted the seminar "Understanding Cuba" to shed light on recent events in Cuba and discuss the implications of internal and external dynamics for the future direction of the country.

Discussing the current situation in Cuba, William LeoGrande (American University) argued that Fidel Castro's extended illness has given him the opportunity to "test drive" the succession machinery that he has been building for the last decade and has given Raúl Castro a chance to practice being president. The extended succession also gives the successors an opportunity to begin working together without Fidel's presence to resolve conflicts. LeoGrande predicted that once Fidel is gone, decision-making by the new leadership team will be much more collective since no one, including Raúl, has the same degree of authority as Fidel. This new leadership style may lead to the reemergence of disagreement about core policies such as economic and political reforms, he added. The challenge for the new leadership will be to address Cubans' pent up expectation of change while reassuring the public that peace will be maintained.

Despite these challenges, LeoGrande asserted that several important differences between Cuba and Eastern Europe make it unlikely that Cuba will collapse in a similar manner. For instance, Cuba had an authentic revolution after which the regime initially enjoyed overwhelming support, and at least an important minority of the population still accords the regime residual legitimacy. In addition, strong nationalism bolsters the regime, and U.S. policy has made ties between reformers inside and outside the regime impossible.

LeoGrande also stressed that the succession challenge in Cuba is not just about the succession of the presidency, but is more about the succession of the founding generation to the next generation of leaders. This aspect of the succession has been underway for the better part of two decades, as Fidel and his team have been promoting young people into leadership positions in order to give them the experience to run the country when the founding generation is gone.

Discussing the position of the armed forces as a result of the succession and Raúl's expanded leadership role, Hal Klepak (Royal Military College of Canada) argued that the armed forces are ideally positioned for a number of reasons. First, power transition has not been marked by any conflict or turmoil. Second, Raúl, who is considered a hero within the armed forces, now has the opportunity to show his mettle more widely, and place people with whom he has great confidence in positions of considerable influence. Third, while they have yielded to political forces for many years, the armed forces now are being called upon to fulfill their historic mission to defend and carry on the revolution. Although the military is unquestionably the most important institution in the transition, Klepak argued, it need not play a central role but will become a powerful asset for any power group.

Klepak added that Raúl is viewed as a good administrator and a reformer when the achievements of the revolution, particularly that of national independence, are not in question. He argued that the military would be willing to support reforms that do not threaten Cuba's independence. With regard to the opinion of the officer corps, Klepak remarked that there is a fear that a "happy transition" scenario will give excessive confidence to the conservatives within the party and slow the process of reform. There is also a concern that Raúl may be required to show strength before reform, which would further disappoint widespread demands for change.

Focusing on the future direction of the economy under new leadership, Ted Henken (Baruch College, City University of New York) argued that Cubans are able to maintain a certain standard of living despite extremely low wages and a rationing system that fails to satisfy their basic needs. To some extent, this is due to massive state subsidies, including housing and health, and, to a larger extent, to Cubans' entrepreneurship and their involvement in the informal economy. The central question, Henken said, is how Raúl will differ from Fidel in his position on the economy, particularly regarding informal sector work. Although many analysts view Raúl as an economic pragmatist who has not had the opportunity to put his views into practice, Henken noted that in the past Raúl has also taken a hardline position, which suggests that his economic policies may be more unpredictable than many analysts assume.

Henken added that Raúl has more policy leeway because there is less pressure for economic reform, due to the success of several industries such as tourism and nickel, foreign direct investment, and aid from Venezuela. The major economic reforms made between 1990 and 1993, after the fall of the Soviet Union, were done out of necessity and were either frozen or stalled in 1996. However, echoing LeoGrande's warning, Henken argued that Raúl and the successor team will have to address pressure for change coming from the Cuban people. He added that change may be slow, as Raúl and the successor team are not likely to depart from past economic policies while Fidel is alive.

Regarding the attitude of the Cuban American community towards the situation in Cuba, Lisandro Pérez (Florida International University) argued that, since the news of the succession first surfaced, Cuban Americans are beginning to recognize the sturdiness of the Castro government. This realization, Pérez said, has set into motion Cuban Americans' reconsideration of the viability of the U.S. strategy, which assumes a rapid transition following Castro's demise. The fact that Cuba has remained stable after the incapacitation of Fidel has been an unexpected and sobering event that has left many Cuban Americans feeling powerless, Pérez argued. Moreover, due to its reliance on the Cuban American community's view of the Cuban transition—the "rupture scenario"—the U.S. government lacks a blueprint for dealing with the process of gradual change that is unfolding in the island.

Even before recent events in Cuba, public opinion in Miami began to shift as many Cuban Americans were strongly opposed to measures enacted by the Bush administration. These policies limited contact between Cubans on and off the island and were seen as a serious threat to the viability of the Cuban family. It is unclear, however, whether there is support in Miami for changes in U.S. policy that go beyond the removal of the more recent travel restrictions, Pérez said.

Participants also addressed the possibility for new Cuba policy initiatives given the influence of a number of interest groups and the recently inaugurated 110th U.S. Congress. LeoGrande said the new House and Senate are likely to vote in favor of lifting the travel restrictions, although it is unclear how the Democratic leadership will respond to the President's veto threat. He predicted that there might be a negotiated compromise between Congress and the White House that would involve some rolling back of the restrictions on travel imposed by Presidential executive order, rather than a full lifting of the travel ban.

Although the business community is often seen as a source of pressure for change in U.S. policy towards Cuba, Henken noted that the United States is already in an ideal situation. The United States is Cuba's fourth largest trading partner after Venezuela, China, and Spain, and Cuba is required to pay in cash for purchases of U.S. goods. Pérez added that although many businesses are in favor of lifting the travel restrictions, U.S. policy towards Cuba is not a priority for them like it is for the Cuban -merican community, which means that Miami politics will continue to dominate the policy debate in the United States. Agreeing with LeoGrande that Congress is a much more likely setting for policy change than the White House, he added that the Administration could be swayed by the realization that public attitudes in Miami are changing, particularly regarding the restrictions on family visits and remittances.

The U.S. military has also sought greater engagement with the Cuban military in recent years since this would facilitate crisis management, with migration being the principal area of concern, LeoGrande said. Klepak added that there is tremendous room for cooperation between the U.S. and Cuban armed forces, especially since the Revolutionary Armed Forces (FAR) acknowledge the U.S. military's desire for a peaceful transition in the island. Despite the fact that both sides may welcome greater military communication, Jay Cope (National Defense University) noted there is concern within U.S. government circles that military contact could be misinterpreted in Cuba as a weakening of U.S. policy.

Experts & Staff

Wilson Center Photo Gallery

Browse or share photos from the Wilson Center’s events.

To Attend an Event

Unless otherwise noted:

Meetings listed on this page are free and open to the public. Reservations are not required unless otherwise noted. All meetings take place at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, DC. Please see map and directions. Allow time for routine security procedures. A photo ID is required for entry.

To confirm time and place, contact Maria-Stella Gatzoulis on the day of the event: tel. (202) 691-4188. Check this page for the latest updates and notices.