The U.S. president is the world leader best positioned to encourage democracy on the island. Political reform is inevitable; the only question is whether it will come before 2018 — when there will be a change in the presidency — or after.
For decades, the world has speculated over what will happen in Cuba after the death of Fidel Castro. However, the need for speculation has been diminishing in recent times given that a post-revolution and post-Fidel style of government has already arrived. Signs that Cuban society is becoming more and more divided and moving away from Castroism, owing to the growth of a market economy and the birth of a new group of globalized elites, are proof of the death of the type of politics previously seen on the island.
Obama’s visit will serve to accelerate the changes taking place in a regime that is set to outlive its founder. The U.S. president arrives to a country that is vastly different than the one Fidel Castro tried, at a great cost, to keep alive in the decades following the fall of the Berlin Wall and the breakup of the USSR. Much of what we are now seeing on the island — an increase in self-employment, the buying and selling of cars and houses, trade liberalization, an increase in shipping, more flexible migration laws, and an increase in tourism — should have happened 25 years ago.
At this stage, the more important question is, owing to how hope will rise enormously in the next two years, what will happen in Cuba after Raúl Castro vacates the presidency or, rather, after Obama leaves? Obama will wave goodbye to the Cuban people just days before the start of the 7th Congress of the Communist Party of Cuba, the last meeting of its kind before the inevitable leadership change in 2018. The reality is that the biological clock is ticking, and continuing with a government run by octogenarians would be more of a sign of weakness on the part of the regime than a reflection of some sort of mafia-like idea of power.
No world leader who has visited the island in recent decades has had a better chance to encourage the democratization of the Cuban political system. Neither Mikhail Gorbachev, Jimmy Carter, Pope John Paul II or Nelson Mandela was able to do so. However, with a host like Raúl Castro, Obama may be able to do what those who preceded him could not. He is the first U.S. president to have committed to a sustained dismantling of the trade embargo with four separate packages of measures between December 2014 and March 2016. Above all, he is a leader who personifies something that the people of Cuba have not had for a long time — a young statesman who won clean elections fairly and who is set to bow out after eight years in power.
Obama embodies much of what the island’s young population values after 56 years of Communism — the upward social mobility of African-Americans in the U.S., an administration run for the good of the people, support for diplomatic exercises that prioritize conflict negotiation, and a 21st century supporter of democracy who speaks the language of 21st century democracies. On top of this, Obama is living proof of something that the Cuban youth regards with a mixture of astonishment and fascination — a politician who will leave office at 55 years old, the same age of even the youngest potential successors to those who currently govern the island.
In Cuba, unlike in Mexico, Brazil and Argentina — countries that Obama will visit shortly after leaving Cuba — the U.S. president is the embodiment of an ideal of something forbidden. Any Cuban who since 1959 has shown even the slightest desire or will to become a politician in a democracy has paid a heavy price, having been executed, imprisoned, repressed or exiled. Obama appeals to the people of Cuba and to the Cuban opposition, although not all opposition figures support his policies. [Obama] is a secret inspiration for the country’s aforementioned group of successors who, at the same age as the president, are timidly preparing to take the reins of power from a group of elderly men who distrust them.
Obama’s touch will have the immediate effect of the emergence of democracy in Cuba. However, democracy on the island, if it arrives, will come about because of the Cuban people themselves and without any external pressure if it is to endure. The long-running disagreement with the U.S. has been a cornerstone of the current regime, and with any political change will come the re-establishment of bilateral ties and diplomatic normalization. That said, the new link formed between the two countries depends on which of two possible outcomes prevails — an authoritarian succession that consolidates the current system of state capitalism, or a democratic transition.
The government would have to do very little to get the ball rolling on a democratic transition. First, it would need to suspend the temporary arrests that currently occur every weekend and allow opposition figures to protest freely and publicly. It could also bring forward the projects of constitutional and electoral reform that the Communist Party has been considering for some time. What has stopped the government from doing just this up to now has been the influence of the biological calculation that underlies all of its decisions. In their eyes, political reform is only allowed to come about when it does not threaten the power of the Castros and the old guard.
One inconvenience of Obama’s visit to Cuba falling at the end of March is that it may allow Raúl Castro to close ranks. The ideological challenge proposed by the visit is not unsubstantial for a regime that, not long ago, alongside many other Bolivarian states, based its entire media strategy around confronting U.S. hegemony. Even though diplomatic normalization has been agreed upon by the leadership and has important support from the grassroots, it flies in the face of the desires of many military reserves and the most ideological, change-resistant sections of society, and as such, we should remain alert of the possibility that change will not come.
The leadership knows that political reform is inevitable. The only question is whether it will come before or after February 2018, when there will be a change in the presidency. If it comes about before this date, it will allow for the transition of powers to take place in a climate of higher legitimacy for the designated heir. If, however, the leadership holds out and resists change, as is possible owing to the regime’s totalitarian instincts, it runs the risk of causing a crisis of governability that could ultimately threaten the stability of a small Caribbean island, which, without having maintained good relations with Washington, is currently free from any of the turbulence that many countries in the region are experiencing.