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.