Was Fidel Castro a hero or villain? The world’s media couldn’t decide after the dictator’s death, after a long illness, at the age of 90. This was a bit odd because it was fairly obvious that Castro was both.
He was heroic as a fiery revolutionary who liberated his country from a corrupt dictatorship – and villainous as a dictator who brooked no dissent, authorised torture and set up prison camps for gay people, regarding homosexuality as proof of bourgeois decadence.
Any Cuban who is 60 or younger cannot remember a time when someone who wasn’t called Castro ruled their country. Fidel ran Cuba from 1959 to 2008 when illness forced him to hand over power to brother Raúl (who is now 85 and has indicated that he will stand down in 2018 – although that statement was made before Donald Trump was elected US president).
Fidel was the ideologue: even when he stepped down as head of Cuba’s Communist Party in 2011, he insisted that “persisting in revolutionary principles” was the “principal legacy” his generation could pass on to younger Cubans.
Paradoxically, many of his compatriots under the age of 15 barely recognise his voice. As Yoani Sánchez wrote in El Pais: “The man who filled every minute of Cuba’s life for 50 years, gradually became dimmer, disappearing from people’s view in a manner akin to an extremely long movie in which a character slowly walks away, getting smaller until he is nothing more than a speck in our retina.”
While officially sticking to his brother’s revolutionary principles, Raúl has trimmed the bloated state bureaucracy, approved the start up of thousands of micro-businesses, the private sale of homes and cars, tried to normalise relations with the US (prompting Barack Obama to lift its trade and embargo) and allowed foreign investors to form joint ventures with local businesses. Mind you, as Matt Schiavenza put it in strategy+business: “In almost every case, setting up the joint venture is an exercise in patience.”
The result is that Cuba is still officially Communist but, in one Havana shop that specialises in passport photos and photocopying, the bestselling product is a USB stick known as ‘el paquete semanal’ – literally “the weekly packet” – on which the most popular items are episodes of America’s Funniest Home Videos.
Nobody knows whether Raúl, freed from his brother’s restraining influence, will be able to seriously reform the regime. An old guard of revolutionary cadres still has plenty of clout and may balk at dramatic change. That is troublesome because dramatic change is exactly what the regime needs to survive.
In a scathing indictment of Fidel’s rule in Foreign Policy magazine, Javier Corrales wrote: “Whereas the Americas’ per capita GDP essentially doubled between 1958 and the late 2000s, in Cuba it grew by a paltry 5%. Only Haiti, and perhaps Honduras, have done worse.”
Cuba’s infrastructure is shabbier than in many sub-Saharan Africa countries. It imports 80% of its food. Less than 5% of Cubans can access the internet at home. People can earn more begging for foreign currency than working in the professions. And the country’s GDP per capita is lower than Kazakhstan’s.
That said, Cuba does have enormous potential. A more open economy could export more nickel, cobalt, rum and cigars. The workforce is well educated: US consultants Nearshore Americas estimate that the country has a potential IT workforce of 25-100,000 people.
Cuba has a surplus of good, qualified doctors – although medics joke that they can earn more driving taxis in their spare time – and exports them to other countries. The state’s Centre for Molecular Immunology developed a vaccine for lung cancer in 2011, which is currently being reviewed by America’s Food and Drug Administration. This pool of talent and knowledge could be immensely valuable to big pharma.
As a market, a country with a population of 11.5m, many of whom have little or no disposable income, Cuba is no El Dorado for foreign firms. As recently as 2015, the government rejected an offer – believed to be from Google – to supply the island with a wi-fi network. The snub is symbolic of strategic confusion at the top. China’s rulers had a clear game plan to open up the economy while retaining political control. Cuba’s approach is more piecemeal, with no apparent long-term strategy to use foreign capital to improve society or foster economic growth.
It is possible that change will accelerate when – if? – Raúl steps down in 2018. One of his potential successors, vice-president of the Council of Ministers Marino Murillo, led the process of reform that partially opened up Cuba’s economy.
Whoever takes charge will have to reckon with the army, the Cuban institution with the most military, economic and political power. American intelligence analyst Brian Latell, author of the book After Fidel, says: “No one will be able to impose policies that this disciplined and unified military leadership opposes.”
The Cuban revolution did not die with Fidel – and it will survive Raúl’s retirement. What will be negotiated over the next three to five years is how significantly that revolution has to change to survive. For many foreign investors contemplating Cuba, the soundest strategy may be to wait and see how that process unfolds.