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Cuba’s Next Transformation

A banner in Santiago de Cuba marking the 60th anniversary of the Cuban revolution and vowing to uphold its spirit. CreditCreditYamil Lage/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
A banner in Santiago de Cuba marking the 60th anniversary of the Cuban revolution and vowing to uphold its spirit. Credit Yamil Lage/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Cuba has also weathered the collapse of the Soviet Union, its main Cold War benefactor, and a slew of traumatic internal ructions including the Mariel boatlift in 1980 and the Cuban raft exodus in 1994. Last but not least, Cuba has managed its first major political transitions, following the death in 2016 of its defining leader, Fidel Castro; the presidential retirement, last year, of his younger brother, Raúl Castro; and Raúl’s succession in office by Miguel Díaz-Canel Bermúdez, a 58-year-old Communist Party loyalist.

For the first time since 1959, in other words, Cuba is ruled by someone other than a Castro, and it has handled the transition without the drama or bloodshed that many other revolutionary states have experienced after the death of their patriarchs.

The Cuban Communist system shows no sign of collapse. But the internal struggle over whether to have more democracy or continued dictatorship is well underway in Cuba, although it is not couched in those terms.

How that struggle is resolved will determine the nation’s future. Although most of the debate is conducted in a rhetoric that is almost liturgical in its strictures, there is a growing space for differing points of view. It is increasingly clear that Cuban society is no longer — if it ever was — a homogeneous bloc of revolutionary workers willing to simply applaud or fall silent at the decisions of their leaders.

In a possible sign of change, Cubans will vote next month on a new Constitution to replace the country’s Cold War-era charter. Several hundred changes were made to the draft to incorporate the views of Cubans who were consulted on proposed reforms. Not all of the changes are progressive: In response to apparent widespread public demand, a clause was dropped that would have explicitly allowed same-sex marriage; another alteration reinstated language that describes Cuba’s ultimate political goal as “advancing toward communism.”

Souvenirs for sale to foreign tourists at Morro Castle, a fort built in 1589 to guard Havana's harbor against invasions. CreditTomas Munita for The New York Times
Souvenirs for sale to foreign tourists at Morro Castle, a fort built in 1589 to guard Havana's harbor against invasions. Credit Tomas Munita for The New York Times

There was also public pushback against a draft law prohibiting the accumulation of private property. In response, the government agreed to a compromise in which state regulators will decide what property can be owned case by case. Another recent decree that has generated resistance seeks to impose a system of prior official approval for cultural performances and of censorship of art determined to have “immoral or vulgar” content or which “misuses patriotic symbols.” The government has agreed to step back aspects of the law.

This wrangling underscores the evolving struggle over the nature of the Cuban state. Some of the concerns raised about the draft Constitution clearly reflect the will of older Cubans, many of whom are socially conservative, have spent most of their lives living under Communism and constitute a growing percentage of the population. Other concerns point to the emerging self-confidence and clout of younger Cubans, increasing numbers of whom are involved in the country’s new economy, known as cuentapropismo — or self-employed work, which was authorized and significantly expanded during Raúl Castro’s presidency.

A private storefront in Havana. “Cuentapropistas” and their employees represent nearly 600,000 of the country’s work force.CreditYamil Lage/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
A private storefront in Havana. “Cuentapropistas” and their employees represent nearly 600,000 of the country’s work force. Credit Yamil Lage/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Nowadays, cuentapropismo accounts for the work of nearly 600,000 people (about 13 percent of Cuba’s work force) and arguably constitutes the most vibrant, innovative and lucrative part of the nation’s economy. The tendency of the government, though, has been to try to slow down its growth. Recently, private taxi drivers went on an informal strike, an almost unheard-of action, after the government announced nettlesome new regulations for such drivers as well as plans for more public transportation.

A main concern of the government is how to sustain an economy that had a dismal 1.4 percent growth rate last year and how to maintain its free education and health systems as well as its food security and housing and job programs while balancing the budget.

But though most of the news coming out of Cuba nowadays is about economics, it is peppered with items that have an out-of-time quality. In December, for instance, there were headlines about how Cubans were going to get 3G on their mobile phones, an event prosaic in most Western countries but huge for Cubans, who were not allowed even to own cellphones until 2008, when Raúl Castro decreed that they could.

The government allowed Cubans to own cellphones in 2008.CreditYamil Lage/Agence France-Presse — Getty Image
The government allowed Cubans to own cellphones in 2008. Credit Yamil Lage/Agence France-Presse — Getty Image

Another notable bit of news at year’s end was that Cuba reached a new high in tourist visitors: 4.75 million. That figure is nearly double that of just four years ago, when President Barack Obama and Raúl Castro announced their diplomatic breakthrough, which restored relations between the United States and Cuba after a half-century’s rupture.

In contrast to the Obama administration, the Trump administration has adopted a posture of hostility toward Cuba, imposing sanctions intended to deny financial investment in or assistance to Cuban businesses and institutions, including some tourist hotels and resorts, in which the Cuban military or intelligence services have a stake.

Relations between Washington and Havana have also deteriorated as a result of mysterious “sonic attacks” that have affected several dozen American and Canadian diplomats on the island since late 2016, bringing about a virtual shutdown of the United States diplomatic presence in Cuba. The State Department has moved its consular services for Cubans to its embassy in Guyana, 2,000 miles away. In the fall, the national security adviser, John Bolton, castigated Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela as a “troika of tyranny” and vowed to enact polices that would help bring down their governments.

Fidel Castro being interviewed by a New York Times reporter in 1964.CreditJack Manning/The New York Times
Fidel Castro being interviewed by a New York Times reporter in 1964. Credit Jack Manning/The New York Times

While Cuba’s official relationship with the United States remains precarious, the contacts between ordinary Cubans and Americans have generally deepened and improved. That Cubans are now able to own their own businesses and to travel — something that required official permission just a decade ago — means that they are less isolated and freer than they used to be.

All of this bodes well for the future of Cuba, although its rulers still need to be convinced that freedom of speech, assembly, art, literature and media is not to be feared. They will also need to continue to be shrewd in their dealings with the United States to avoid a repetition of the sort of containment polices that isolated them during the Cold War, and which are being used again today to isolate Nicolás Maduro’s regime in Venezuela.

At a time when the United States can no longer lay claim to being the democratic bastion it once was, Cuba has an opportunity to compete, albeit on a much smaller scale. In much of the world, and for all its faults, Cuba is respected for its pluck in standing up to the American behemoth over the last half-century. Cuba is also beloved and admired for its international medical assistance program, for its prowess in music and dance, in art and in athletics. But such achievements are not enough to keep the island going.

To exist in a way that is not only about survival, Cuba needs to find a new role for itself. It can begin by seeking to avoid taking sides in a newly polarized world order.

Most immediately, that means rethinking its relationship with Venezuela and Nicaragua. Both are countries with which Cuba has longstanding ties and much shared history, but which have become increasingly repressive and are no longer friends to be proud of. Cuba need not betray its friends in order to do the right thing: It could deploy its considerable political and diplomatic resources to take a leadership role in ensuring that the political transitions necessary in Venezuela and Nicaragua be peaceful ones.

Cuba’s rulers also need to continue to open up. Just as it did 60 years ago with a revolution that, for better or worse, helped reshape the modern world, Cuba can once again choose its own path, and once again be a leader among nations. It can choose to be more democratic. Now that would be truly revolutionary.

Jon Lee Anderson is a staff writer at The New Yorker and the author of Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life.

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