Cuba grap­ples with old is­sues as Cas­tro’s de­par­ture looms.


HAVANA | In 2008, Raul Cas­tro took over a coun­try where most peo­ple couldn’t own com­put­ers or cell­phones, leave with­out per­mis­sion, run most types of pri­vate busi­nesses or enter re­sort ho­tels.

Mr. Cas­tro set about re-en­gi­neer­ing the sys­tem he had helped cre­ate and Cuba opened dra­mat­i­cally over his decade in of­fice. But when Mr. Cas­tro steps down Thurs­day af­ter two terms as pres­i­dent he will leave his suc­ces­sor a host of prob­lems that are deeper than on the day his ail­ing brother Fidel for­mally handed over power.

Cuba has nearly 600,000 pri­vate en­trepreneurs, more than 5 mil­lion cell­phones, a bustling real estate mar­ket and one of the world’s fastest-grow­ing air­ports. Lim­ited in­ter­net use is ex­pand­ing fast, with thou­sands of Cubans in­stalling new home con­nec­tions this year. For­eign debt has been paid. Tourism num­bers have more than dou­bled since Mr. Cas­tro and Pres­i­dent Obama re-es­tab­lished diplo­matic re­la­tions in 2015, mak­ing Cuba a des­ti­na­tion for nearly 5 mil­lion vis­i­tors a year, de­spite a plunge in re­la­tions under the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion.

On the other side of the ledger, Cuba’s Soviet-style com­mand econ­omy still em­ploys three of ev­ery four Cuban work­ers but pro­duces lit­tle. The av­er­age monthly state salary is $31 — so low that work­ers of­ten live on stolen goods and hand­outs from rel­a­tives over­seas. The is­land’s in­fras­truc­ture is fall­ing deeper into dis­re­pair. Af­ter two decades of get­ting Venezue­lan sub­si­dies to­tal­ing more than $6 bil­lion a year, Cuba’s pa­tron has col­lapsed eco­nom­i­cally with no re­place­ment in the wings.

Mr. Cas­tro’s in­abil­ity or un­will­ing­ness to fix Cuba’s struc­tural prob­lems with deep and wide-rang­ing re­forms has many won­der­ing how a suc­ces­sor with­out Mr. Cas­tro’s rev­o­lu­tion­ary found­ing fa­ther cre­den­tials will man­age the coun­try over the next five or 10 years.

“Peo­ple in Cuba re­ally haven’t pro­cessed yet what it means to have a gov­ern­ment with­out Raul or Fidel lead­ing it,” said Yas­sel Padron Ku­nakbaeva, a pro­lific 27-year-old blog­ger who writes fre­quently from what he de­scribes as a Marx­ist, rev­o­lu­tion­ary per­spec­tive.

Tens of thou­sands of highly ed­u­cated pro­fes­sion­als are aban­don­ing the is­land each year, leav­ing Cuba with the com­bi­na­tion of a de­vel­op­ing coun­try’s econ­omy and the de­mo­graph­ics of a gray­ing Euro­pean na­tion. Af­ter a 2016 re­ces­sion, Cuba said growth was 1.6 per­cent last year, al­though of­fi­cial ac­counts re­main opaque and ques­tioned by ex­perts. The mood on the street is pes­simistic, with few ex­pect­ing a bet­ter fu­ture any­time soon.

“The po­lit­i­cal fu­ture of who­ever takes over in April de­pends on the eco­nomic ques­tion,” said Jose Raul Viera Linares, a for­mer first deputy min­is­ter of for­eign af­fairs. “It’s the pos­si­bil­ity for young peo­ple to dream, to de­sign their own fu­ture. That’s all based in the ma­te­rial wealth that this coun­try is able to achieve.”

The great­est im­me­di­ate chal­lenge for Mr. Cas­tro’s ex­pected suc­ces­sor — 57-year-old Vice Pres­i­dent Miguel Diaz-Canel Ber­mudez — is un­wind­ing a byzan­tine du­al­cur­rency sys­tem fea­tur­ing one type of Cuban peso worth 4 cents and an­other that is nearly a dol­lar. The sys­tem was de­signed to in­su­late a state-run, egal­i­tar­ian in­ter­nal mar­ket us­ing “na­tional money” from trade with the out­side world de­nom­i­nated in “con­vert­ible pe­sos,” but has re­sulted in mas­sive dis­tor­tions of the econ­omy with­out less­en­ing in­equal­ity.

De­spite the im­age of Raul Cas­tro as an all-pow­er­ful mil­i­tary strong­man, many Cubans say the slow, in­con­sis­tent pace of re­form shows the dif­fi­culty of mod­ern­iz­ing a Sovi­etera bu­reau­cracy con­trolled by hun­dreds of thou­sands of civil ser­vants who would be threat­ened by a tran­si­tion into a mar­ket econ­omy, a dif­fi­culty Mr. Cas­tro never dared con­front and which his suc­ces­sor now will face.

Cuba’s next pres­i­dent also must find a way to make the econ­omy grow while main­tain­ing so­cial sta­bil­ity and sat­is­fy­ing the mil­lions of Cubans who de­pend on the state and a shrink­ing list of sub­si­dized essen­tials sold in Cuban pe­sos for their sur­vival. While Cuba sees Rus­sia as one of its clos­est al­lies, Cuba’s lead­ers are des­per­ate to pre­vent the sort of shock tran­si­tion to cap­i­tal­ism that marked the end of the Soviet Union.

Mr. Cas­tro’s suc­ces­sor will have to man­age the del­i­cate re­la­tion­ship with Cuba’s pros­per­ous ex­iles at a time when re­la­tions with Wash­ing­ton have dropped from an un­prece­dented high under Mr. Obama to re­newed ten­sion and dis­trust under Mr. Trump.


Raul Cas­tro set about re-en­gi­neer­ing the sys­tem he had helped to cre­ate in Cuba and the is­land opened up dra­mat­i­cally over his decade in of­fice. But when Mr. Cas­tro steps down Thurs­day, he will leave his suc­ces­sor a host of deep prob­lems.

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