After Castro, Cuba wonders what comes next
By THE WASHINGTON POST
November 26, 2016 at 8:05 pm
Nick Miroff, The Washington Post
HAVANA, Cuba – For the nearly five decades Fidel Castro ruled this
country, he was a daily presence in Cubans' lives. His speeches echoed
on their televisions and his stern rules shaped almost every aspect of
They woke up Saturday and found out he was gone.
A numbness has set in here since. Few Cubans seemed to believe the death
of Castro at age 90 will bring immediate transformation of their
country, the only one-party state in the Western Hemisphere. After all,
poor health forced Castro aside in 2006, and the system he created has
carried on without him.
But Castro's death nonetheless represents a psychological break with
Cuba's past and the figure who has dominated it for three generations.
There is enormous, built-up pressure, especially among younger
generations, for a faster pace of change that brings new freedoms and
better living standards.
Now the Cuban government must manage those expectations at a moment of
new uncertainty in the island's all-important relationship with the
United States. The Communist government has tentatively embraced
improved relations with President Barack Obama's administration and a
new surge of American visitors. Many here fear that President-elect
Donald Trump will roll back the changes.
Among the Cubans who want change to come faster, and who are tired of
the political divisions and tensions that Castro represented, there was
a hushed sense of relief Saturday at the news of his death.
"People here are so tired. He destroyed this place," said a university
engineering student who was walking home Saturday morning from the
market in Havana's central Vedado neighborhood. He began trembling when
a reporter told him that Castro had died, and that this time it wasn't a
"I think you have to look at both the good and the bad, but there was
more bad," said the student, who declined to give his name, saying it
would land him in trouble at school.
As reports of the Cuban leader's death spread Saturday morning in the
capital, there were no signs of unrest but, perhaps just as tellingly,
not much spontaneous mourning either. Cubans went on with their lives in
a world that is very much Castro's creation: They went shopping at
government stores, waited in government hospitals and tuned in to (or
turned off) round-the-clock Castro tributes on government television.
"This isn't like the death of Stalin, or Mao, when people threw
themselves into the streets and thought the world was coming to an end,"
said Aurelio Alonso, a sociologist and the deputy editor of the Cuban
journal Casa de Las Americas. It was something they have been expecting.
"People are mourning, sure," Alonso said, "but he had a long life."
For years, foreigners speculated about whether the death of Castro would
bring dramatic change. But Castro's succession plans were completed
years ago, leaving his noticeably healthier brother, Raúl, 85, fully in
charge. Cuba's military and security services remain firmly in control
of the state and allow no organized opposition or public dissent.
Raúl Castro plans to step down in 2018, and vice president Miguel
Diaz-Canel, 56, a career Communist Party official who is not related to
the Castros, is in line to succeed him.
Cuba has mostly recovered from the post-Soviet austerity period that
left Cubans hungry and desperate in the early 1990s, when riots broke
out in Havana and Fidel Castro showed up to quell the crowds.
Fidel opened Cuba up to tourism, and a record 3.5 million visitors
arrived last year, far more than the number who came here before his
1959 revolution shuttered the island's casinos and led to the seizure of
all the hotels. Those travelers include an increasing number of U.S.
visitors, providing a cash infusion at a moment when economic growth is
otherwise stalled. The first commercial flight from the United States to
Havana in more than a half-century is scheduled to land Monday
Still, there is growing discontent with the system Castro created and
The socialist system affords Cubans access to health care, education and
food rations but has failed for decades to provide them with more than
the essentials. And the country's economic outlook appears to be going
from bad to worse.
With the death of Venezuela's Hugo Chávez in 2013, Fidel Castro lost his
political protege and Cuba's main economic benefactor. Chávez sent
billions of dollars in petroleum shipments, helping the government in
Havana keep the lights on and the air conditioners running, with enough
left over for Cuba to re-export the oil at a profit.
But oil prices have crashed, Venezuela is mired in crisis, and no other
easy income source is coming to the Cuban government's rescue. Cuba's
economic growth is once more stalled, and emigration is at a 10-year high.
Modest steps toward economic liberalization undertaken by Raúl Castro
led to a boom in small businesses, especially restaurants and
bed-and-breakfasts, but the opening has lost momentum. The government
has kept American firms at arm's length despite a surge of interest from
U.S. businesses after Obama's normalization moves.
Some have speculated that Raúl Castro may pick up the pace of reforms
now that his brother is gone.
In an April speech, the younger Castro quipped that Cuba was not
actually a one-party state: "We have two parties here, just like in the
United States," he said. "Fidel's and mine."
Fidel's is the Communist one, Raúl added, "and you can call mine
whatever you want."
Critics found nothing to laugh at, but former Cuban diplomat Carlos
Alzugaray said it wasn't entirely a joke. Hard-liners within Cuba's
hermetic power circles identified more with Fidel than his younger brother.
Many of the liberalization moves introduced by Raúl Castro represent an
implicit rejection of his older brother's rigid, state-dominated
economic model. "Raúl Castro will have a freer hand now," Alzugaray said.
"It's not that Fidel Castro would have opposed him," he said. "But it's
like when you have a sick relative and don't want to upset them. There
are things Raúl probably didn't want to do while his brother was still
But many Cubans worry about the possibility that Trump could tighten the
Cuba trade embargo and toughen travel restrictions. During the
presidential campaign, Trump said he would reverse Obama's policy of
expanding relations with Cuba unless the Castro government allowed more
religious freedom and freed political prisoners.
Fidel Castro never wanted any statutes of himself to be put up in Cuba.
There are no streets or parks named for him. That will almost certainly
The government has declared a nine-day period of mourning, heavy with
Castro's body will lay in state Monday and Tuesday in Havana's Plaza of
the Revolution, where Cubans will be able to "pay tribute and sign a
solemn oath to fulfill the concept of Revolution," according to a
statement in the Communist Party daily Granma.
After a mass gathering in the plaza planned for Tuesday, Castro's body
will be carried to Santiago de Cuba, at the southeastern end of the
island, reversing the journey that his bearded rebels made in January
1959 when they seized power.
Castro will be cremated on the morning of Dec. 4 and laid to rest at the
Santa Ifigenia cemetery in Santiago, the site of the tomb of Cuban
national hero José Martí and other 19th-century independence leaders.
On Saturday, police and soldiers sealed off access to Havana's central
plaza, where most of the headquarters of the Communist Party and
government buildings are clustered. But there was no heavy security
deployment visible in the city's streets.
Castro's death is "a huge loss for us," said Jose Candia, 70, who woke
up to the news and took his dachshund for a walk along Havana's Malecón
Candia and other older Cubans dedicated their lives to low-paying
government jobs that demanded absolute loyalty and discipline. The news
of his death seemed to hit them hardest.
"I think of his bravery. His honesty. I've been committed to him all my
life," said Yolanda Valdes, 75, a history teacher and Communist Party
member. Tears began running down her face. She said that she had been
crying all morning.
"I adored him," she said.
Source: After Castro, Cuba wonders what comes next – The Denver Post -