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Friday, March 20, 2015

Cuba's Communist Twilight

Since December, the United States of America and the Republic of Cuba have been making headlines because of President Obama's bold statements on re-opening and normalizing relations with the island country. Talks are underway between Washington and Havana to ease tensions between the two countries.

The announcement caught many Americans (and Cubans too, I presume) by surprise and the thaw in relations has intrigued the imagination of many Americans who would like to vacation to the tropical location. Cuba is a country blessed with beautiful beaches, warm weather year round, and a vivid, rich culture that is present and thriving in the various Cuban-American communities that exist across the United States.

Americans and Cubans also share a love for the sport of baseball, and many Cuban stars escape their country to play in the top echelons of Major League Baseball. Yoenis Cespedes, an outfielder who plays for the Detroit Tigers with otherworldly power at the plate and a cannon of an arm, is affectionately called "the Cuban Missile" by many American baseball fans.

Make no mistake, Cuba is still ruled by a government that punishes dissent, heavily censors information, and hinders the country's development. While some argue that those Cuban-Americans who wish the embargo to continue are living in the past, the repression they escaped is still alive and well.

When I heard the news that President Obama wanted to end the embargo and open relations with Cuba, one of my first thoughts was "Maybe since the Castros are getting so old, he believes that the flow of money into the island and their death may facilitate regime change on the island."

Is that what he's thinking? Only he knows. He'd never say so in person as the state run media in Cuba would likely be gravely insulted by such an idea, but does that have merit? Is the communist regime in Cuba headed towards serious change?

Let's look at the current situation ninety miles south of Florida.

As of now, Raul Castro, Fidel's brother, holds the reins of power in Havana. He, like his brother, is an ardent communist, though he has allowed some small reforms to take place. Castro is 83 years old, and his brother, though no longer in power, is 88. Despite the famously excellent medical treatment in Cuba, it is likely that both brothers will die in the near future. Raul Castro has said he will step down in 2018.

This will be a landmark transition for Cuba's government. Fidel Castro held the reins of power from 1959-1976 as Cuba's Prime Minister and from 1976 to 2008 as President when the 1976 constitution came into effect. When Raul steps down, it will be the first time in 59 years that a Castro does not rule Cuba.Whoever takes their place may not have the same political clout as the Castro brothers do, as Fidel and his brother quite literally led the revolution against the military dictatorship headed by  Fulgencio Batista in 1959.

Much is still up in the air. Despite talks that have seemingly gone well between the United States and Cuba, we don't know when or even whether the embargo will be lifted.

But if it is, and the Castros relinquish power when they say they will, Cuba will be going through some substantial change. We do not know who the next leader of Cuba will be, or where he (or she) will take the country.

Considering the makeup of the Cuban government, it will obviously be another communist-but what kind of communist? Will it be a hardliner or someone who realizes the need for reform? Will it be a younger or older person who succeeds the Castros?

Some of us have may already seen this movie. In 1982, the USSR mourned the passing of Leonid Brezhnev, a hardline communist premier who ruled between 1964 and 1982. He was replaced by Yuri Andropov who became ill after only 9 months in power and died in 1984. Andropov was replaced by Konstantin Chernenko, who lasted even less time in power, as he ascended to power as a sickly 72 year old. Replacing him was Mikhail Gorbachev, a spring chicken by comparison who came to power in 1985 at the age of 53.

Make no mistake, Gorbachev was a loyal communist, but he realized that while the Soviet Union was not falling apart in 1985, it needed serious change to continue. A nosediving economy, bloated bureaucracy, an unsuccessful war in Afghanistan, corruption, and shortages were plaguing the country. Gorbachev tried to change the country for the better, but his reforms spun out of control and the Soviet Union was no more a mere six years later.

Many Cubans are frustrated and disillusioned with the communist regime in Havana. A Washington Post article on March 13th detailed the feelings as such:

“C’mon, man, don’t ask me about that,” said one 23-year-old computer engineering graduate, selling phone cards in the street. He said he was too fearful to give his name to a foreign reporter. “I’m just trying to survive.”Read the article here

The anti-American sentiment in Cuba seems to be largely diminished as well according to this article, a phenomenon that can be seen in Iran and Vietnam as well. Despite the long and brutal war Vietnamese fought against America in the 1960s and 1970s, Vietnamese do not hold animosity towards Americans and Iranians, who are generally young and do not remember the Islamic Revolution of 1979, are more frustrated with the government in Tehran than the one in Washington.

Cuba's government, though perserverant, is exhausted, and the Cuban people are watching this new detente with anticipation. If Raul Castro is replaced with someone with the same type of sentiment of "We just can't go on like this" as Gorbachev had, the chance to reform and free Cubans from repression and information denial that plague their island may be at hand. Let's hope it results in something a bit more smooth, stable, and peaceful than what happened to Russia or Yugoslavia in the 1990s.