Photo: NBC News

Raúl Castro Stepped Down. How Could It Impact Venezuela?

Ricardo Herrero, executive director of the Cuba Study Group in Washington, D.C., explains how the dependency on the Maduro regime could change with a new generation leading Cuba

On April 19th, marking the 60th anniversary of the Bay of Pigs fiasco, the Congress of the Cuban Communist Party saw Raúl Castro, and other old leaders of the 1959 Cuban revolution, leaving their posts at the leadership of Cuba’s sole party. President Miguel Díaz Canel took over the political lead. This transition is unprecedented and happens in the context of a deep economic crisis in Cuba: its main source of energy, Venezuela, has its oil industry in shambles and Cuba’s main source of foreign currency, tourism, was paralyzed by the pandemic. Meanwhile, the world follows the repression against a group of artists who have struggled to open some kind of perestroika from the so-called Movimiento San Isidro, and a rap group in Havana dared to defy the “patria o muerte” orthodox slogan with the hit song “Patria o vida”.

To what extent are things changing (or could change) in Cuba, and how can this impact the deep link the Cuban regime still has with Maduro’s? Cuba and Venezuela have preserved an intense relationship forged even before Chávez took power in 1999, although it’s not at the “100,000 oil barrels per day” level it was some 20 years ago. Maduro still needs the Cuban domestic surveillance skills, their experience navigating the United Nations system, and their know-how on living under economic sanctions. Cuba still charges that help in oil and fuel, and commissions in the global network of shadow businesses. 

We called Ricardo Herrero, executive director of the non-partisan advocacy organization Cuba Study Group, based in Washington, D.C., which issues an excellent newsletter for Cuba observers and promotes a moderate policy towards Cuba, opposed to the ineffective and sclerotic embargo-based policy that has worked so well for the castrista regime. 

What can be expected from Miguel Díaz Canel and his generation, now that the “históricos” are retiring?

What we can clearly see is that there’s a real interest in transforming the Cuban economy. There are ongoing processes, started before the retirement of Raúl Castro and other historical leaders, such as monetary unity, the expansion of the private sector with middle and small companies, the reduction in the list of economic activities vetted for entrepreneurs, and the end of restrictions on the sale of meat and milk… These reforms had been announced since 2011, but weren’t enacted until years later. In the summer of 2020, with so many problemsthe pandemic, new sanctions from Trump, the economic crisis and the scarcity of foreign incomethe Cuban government committed to a new economic strategy of liberalization regarding domestic sectors and foreign investment. This process has faced red tape and resistance amid the orthodox, some of them on their way out, some of them younger and still in the administration. But during the PCC Congress no one said this was to stop; on the contrary, now there are two businessmen in the Political Bureau: General Luis Alberto López Callejas, in charge of the military-controlled companies, and Manuel Marrero, who led the tourism conglomerate Gaviota, a former Tourism minister who’s now the country’s Prime Minister. We can expect a more pragmatic orientation towards the economy by unleashing the market forces. I think the commitment is clear, but it implies a conflict with the need of political continuity. A very delicate balance between ideology and the force of the market.

“If we don’t see a policy change from the U.S. towards Cuba and Venezuela, they’ll keep widening their relationship, and dependency with China, Russia and Iran.”

Photo: Ricardo Herrero

I guess this is about solving the contradiction implied in opening the economy while avoiding a collapse like the USSR experienced 30 years ago; they need to preserve the revolution’s ideological discourse.

Exactly.   

Besides better living conditions, what is it that most Cubans want, and how do we even know what Cubans want?

We know what they want just by talking with Cubans on the street. They want the end of waiting lines, of food and money shortages, and they want it all solved by whoever can. Certain needs must be covered before the Cuban people allow themselves to think of things like activism. Those who have entrepreneurial vocation want to open their own business without depending on the State, and every Cuban wants to escape the daily grind of solving every urgent need. 

How do they see the management of the pandemic?

As far as I know, the perception about that was positive during the first months, even if the economy was turned off until November, when visitors (Cubans, mostly) were allowed in again, starting a new wave that’s still uncontrolled. When I talk to Cubans on the island, I sense frustration, but they also think the government is doing what it can to finish the Soberana 2 vaccines. The monetary reform that started in January has been rougher than expected with the lack of foreign currency and a real exchange rate of 50 pesos per dollar (not one to one). Remittances have lost value and everything is getting more expensive. I wouldn’t say that people are going to rebel against the government, as some in Miami are dreaming about, but there’s desperation in Cuba, and lots of people want to leave. 

How do we read the San Isidro movement, how relevant it is?

It is relevant, no doubt about it. However, in terms of how much it forced the government to respect these artists’ rights, I see no results. The movement has been way more effective in getting sympathy abroad, especially in the Cuban diaspora, and it hasn’t escalated inside the island. The same happened with the “Patria y vida” song, it has more impact abroad than in Cuba; People may sing the song but they also have to look for food—although, in recent days, it has gotten more common as public protests mount on the island, because you do hear a lot about Cubans criticizing the government more openly, but that has been happening for a while. The government’s response made those things more visible, increasing tensions with the diaspora by accusing the émigrés of financing those movements, just when they needed to improve the relationship with Cubans abroad. That’s the key aspect here: the government hasn’t shown any strategic thinking at handling this. 

What should we expect regarding a rapprochement between Havana and Washington?

The Biden administration has said Cuba isn’t a priority, but it’ll keep the campaign promises of easing travel restrictions, remittances and consular services. The question is when are these promises going to be fulfilled, with so many others issues on the U.S.’s plate. We won’t see a comeback of the Obama policy, but Biden hasn’t said what his policy will be. The result, so far, is that Biden is keeping what Trump did. We keep waiting. Meanwhile, the Cuban government has no option but to cling to Maduro. Improving the relationship with the U.S. was precisely about diversifying the risk implied in depending on Venezuela. 

How much Havana needs Maduro and Venezuela?

While both regimes are under sanctions, they need each other to survive. The U.S. is recurring too much to the resource of economic sanctions, which forces these countries to free themselves from an international system ruled by the American dollar, and do business among themselves. If we don’t see a policy change from the U.S. towards Cuba and Venezuela, they’ll keep widening their relationship, and dependency with China, Russia and Iran.

Rafael Osío Cabrices

Journalist and author. His most recent book is Apuntes bajo el aguacero: cien crónicas empantanadas (La Hoja del Norte).