Who and what will follow Raúl?
Climb into one of those stately 1950s Plymouth sedans at Havana’s Plaza de San Francisco and head west, and you take a journey through Cuban history. The splendid stone churches, palaces and town houses of Old Havana are testament to four centuries in which Cuba was Spain’s “ever-faithful isle”, its most durable American colony. Drive along the wave-swept Malecón, and you will glimpse the cupola of the now-shuttered Capitolio, built in reverent imitation of the Capitol building in Washington, DC. Carry on to Miramar and you come upon the vast compound once occupied by the Soviet embassy.
Having been a Spanish possession, an American neo-colony and then a Soviet client, “for the first time in its history—or at least since 1510—the island is really on its own,” wrote Hugh Thomas, a British historian, in 2001. That seemed true then. Cuban officials would refute it now, pointing out that they have secured normal relations with the whole of Latin America and a close alliance with four of its countries, as well as influence in Africa and ties with rising China.
Havana has 181 foreign embassies, more than Madrid, even if most are small posts whose diplomats down their mojitos and struggle to build close relationships with Cuban officials. Above all Cuba now has Venezuela’s Mr Chávez. Yet he is a contingent asset: his aid will last only as long as his grip on power.
Might offshore oil bring relief? At the end of January the Scarabeo 9, a deepwater rig built in Asia to get around the American embargo, appeared on the horizon off Miramar. In the next few weeks its operator, Spain’s Repsol, will announce whether or not it has found oil in commercial quantities. But even if it has, the oil will be costly and difficult to extract.
Carry on westward in that sturdy Plymouth, and in 45 minutes you come to the scruffy town of Mariel, overrun with bicycle-rickshaws and best known as the site of a boatlift in 1980 when 125,000 people left the island. Outside the town, Brazil’s Odebrecht is building a deepwater port and a container terminal for the giant ships that will soon traverse a widened Panama Canal. The new port complex, to be operated by Singapore Ports, will be a “special development zone” with factories producing for export. Much of the $975m for the infrastructure comes from Brazil’s National Development Bank.
Mariel is likely to be an important part of Cuba’s future as a capitalist country. Brazil, like China, Spain and Canada, is investing on market terms. When Brazil’s president, Dilma Rousseff, visited Cuba in February she refrained from public criticism of its human-rights record. Officials in Brasília insist that, just like the United States, they would like to see political freedom on the island, but they go about it differently.
The imperative of change
There is no obvious alternative to Raúl’s reforms. But the paternalist state produced an infantilised society, and as it retreats popular anger could easily mount unless living standards rise. The other clinching argument for change is what Cubans call “the biological factor”. Given his age, Raúl seems unlikely to stay in charge for more than another five years or so. Cubans were in awe of Fidel. They are less so of Raúl, and may not be at all of his successor.
Who might that be? Mr Ponte, in Madrid, fears a dynastic temptation. Although Fidel largely kept his children out of sight, Raúl’s son, Alejandro, acts as his national security adviser; his daughter, Mariela, is a prominent campaigner for gay rights; and one of his sons-in-law, Colonel Luis Alberto Rodríguez, runs part of the armed forces’ business empire. But none of the three is on the Central Committee, let alone the Politburo. The chances are that the next leader will come from among current or recent provincial party secretaries, like Ms López Acea or Mr Díaz-Canel.
What is the destination of change? The reformist economists think that Cuba should move towards market socialism as practised in Vietnam or China, but others dismiss the parallel, citing cultural and geographical differences. Cuba could look for models closer to home. Fidel was determined to turn his island into a world power. “While Fidel’s obsession was the world, Raúl’s is Cuba,” a foreign diplomat observes. Geographically, Cuba is a declining part of a rising Latin America. It has several big assets, including its highly educated workforce and, potentially, the capital of its diaspora. The high-tech industries of Costa Rica, the tigerish dynamism of Panama and the social democracy of Brazil all offer things that Cuba could emulate.
There are less attractive political models, near and far. For example, it is not hard to imagine a Cuban Vladimir Putin emerging from the army or the security services. A somewhat less bad scenario, envisaged nearly 20 years ago by Jorge Domínguez, a Cuban-born political scientist at Harvard, would see Cuban politics start to resemble Mexico’s under the long rule of the Institutional Revolutionary Party. The Communist Party would establish a loyal opposition of quasi-autonomous parties, hold a fairly free election which it would probably win, and use that to negotiate with the United States. But then again the Cuban people might have other ideas.