Raúl Castro’s China Strategy

MEXICO CITY -- Fidel Castro’s resignation from two of his three leadership posts, together with the appointment of his younger brother, Raúl, as his successor, marks the end of an era…sort of. Raúl replaced Fidel as President of the Councils of Ministers and of State, but not as First Secretary of the Cuban Communist Party. And, in a scene worthy of the glory years of Stalinism, Raúl received the unanimous permission of Cuba’s “parliament” to consult with Fidel on all major issues.

As long as Fidel is around – writing, meeting foreign dignitaries, and weighing in on everything from ethanol to the American presidential campaign – two things will remain clear. First, Raúl will barely be able to budge even on the modest, strictly economic and regulatory reforms that he hopes, somewhat naïvely, will put food back on Cubans’ table.

Second, while the succession arrangement that the Castros designed years ago has the advantage of stability and predictability, Raúl will be unable to replace the old guard with younger leaders (his successor in the Armed Forces is 72 and his vice-president is 77). Doing so would give whomever he chooses an edge when Raúl, who is 76, passes on, and he and Fidel do not necessarily agree on who should come next.

Raúl’s strategy is to pursue a Vietnamese or Chinese solution: pro-market economic reforms under continued Communist rule, with no progress on democracy or human rights. For those in the United States who have rightly concluded that the half-century trade embargo has proved counter-productive, this is an appealing halfway response that provides an alibi for moderation: one day, economic reforms will bring political change. For Latin American pragmatists, always fearful of Cuban fifth columnists, it offers a way to square the circle: encouraging change in Cuba without going too far. And, for some European governments, it is a typical hands-off remedy that places the problem squarely in America’s lap.