In the run-up to President Obama’s decision to reverse U.S. policy toward Cuba in December 2014, the American public was fed a steady diet of assurances by Cuba experts. Raúl Castro, who succeeded his brother Fidel in 2008, was “a pragmatic reformer,” they maintained — he recognized the country’s desperate need for change. Despite the lack of evidence that Raúl was ever anything but a hardline, murderous Communist, the experts insisted that he would boldly usher in a liberalizing transition to a Chinese- or Vietnamese-style “mixed economy” and that the U.S. needed to get in the game to “help” the process along.
No such reforms ever materialized. Instead, Raúl presided over an unprecedented expansion of the Cuban military’s control over the nation’s economy, especially in the tourist sector. In short, he cut his military cronies into government revenues to ensure their enduring loyalty. (U.S. tourists may as well write their checks out directly to the Cuban Revolutionary Armed Forces and the repressive Ministry of the Interior.)
Fidel’s death, then, would serve as a liberating event for Raúl, removing the younger brother from his older brother’s shadow. “Now that Fidel is gone, there may be a boldening, a quickening of the economic reforms,” an analyst told CNN after the elder Castro died last November. “There may be a louder voice within the Politburo . . . from the side of the reformers, the modernizers to allow more economic progress.”
Suffice it say, no such boldening has occurred, and the bloom is now off the Raúl rose. Indeed, he is now merely a “transitional president” between the old guard and the future. He has said he would retire as president next year. As one proponent of Obama’s policy lamented to the Miami Herald, “Raúl Castro and his aging colleagues seem to lack the vision and energy to drive comprehensive reform, so the Cuban people will have to wait until 2018 when new leadership — a new generation — comes forward.”
It is precisely a continuation of Obama’s feckless Cuba policy that would help lock the Cuban people into a North Korean–style dynasty.
Raúl’s son, Alejandro Castro Espín, 49, is a state-security colonel who coordinates internal spying with the Cuban military. If anyone has the goods on challengers to the political throne, it is Castro Espín. His political profile has been rising steadily, as he attended meetings between President Obama and Raúl and was reputedly a key interlocutor in negotiations to normalize relations.
On the economic side is Raúl’s son-in-law General Luis Alberto Rodríguez López-Callejas, effectively the gatekeeper for all foreign companies looking to do business in Cuba and one of the most powerful men on the island. He runs GAESA (Enterprise Administration Group), the holding company that controls the military’s business interests. It owns the best hotels in Cuba and most retail outlets, rent-a-car companies, and import entities. Estimates are that GAESA companies account for more than half of the business revenue generated in Cuba — and that number is rising.
Although the prospects for positive change in Cuba look bleak, the Cuba apologists remain undaunted. In fact, they have seized on President Trump’s criticisms of Obama’s unilateral concessions to the Castro regime, warning that if Trump demands reciprocal gestures from Havana, then the imagined reform process could be imperiled. “If Trump demands a lot of the Cuban government, that could be counterproductive,” as Michael Shifter of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington think tank, told Agence France-Press. “It could generate a strong nationalist reaction and could end up boosting the hardliners and delaying further reforms.”
Such sophistry should be rejected once and for all. It is precisely a continuation of Obama’s feckless Cuba policy that would help lock the Cuban people into a North Korean–style dynasty. President Trump would do well to explore a different path, a more principled stand, on behalf of democracy and human rights, that would empower the Cuban people and give them more opportunities than merely the opportunity to persevere.
— José R. Cárdenas served in senior foreign-policy positions at the State Department, the National Security Council, and the U.S. Agency for International Development during the George W. Bush administration, focusing on Latin America and the Caribbean.