After more than five decades of communist rule over the island, many are hoping that Fidel Castro’s death last weekend signals the beginning of a free life for the Cuban people – something unknown to generations since 1959. For years, many have hoped that the end of Castro would mean the end of the regime. After the announcement of his death, thousands of Cuban exiles flooded the streets of Miami to celebrate. However, the death of one of the world’s most famous dictators only brings greater uncertainty when it comes to Cuba’s future. It is too early to chant victory: the death of the notorious revolutionary does not mean that there will be freedom and democracy on the tropical island.
To begin with, Fidel’s brother Raul Castro is still in power. Despite his recent opening of relations with the United States and his economic reforms, Raul has shown no signs he will allow democratic elections. After being Fidel’s right-hand man and leading the Cuban Armed Forces since the Cuban Revolution, Raul assumed power after his brother officially resigned in February 2008. Far from being democratically elected, he was unanimously named President of Cuba by the country’s National Assembly. Following in his brother’s footsteps, Raul plans to step down in 2018 and establish Vice President Miguel Diaz-Canel as the new president – a long-time communist official. As things stand today, there is no reason that to believe that the one-party regime will relinquish power and transition the island nation toward democracy.
Just as Fidel’s death will not bring about democracy for Cuba, it will not bring an end to the systematic oppression of the Cuban people. With Cuba’s military and security remaining in the hands of the state, opposition to the regime will remain an offence punishable by imprisonment. Tellingly, the day after Fidel died, Cuban dissidents were arrested and others canceled their routine protests. One of these was Danilo “El Sexto” Maldonado, Cuba’s dissenting graffiti artist. He was abducted and jailed within hours of the official announcement of Fidel’s death. Speaking against the Communist Party of Cuba will still land you to jail.
So what does Cuba’s future look like? If the one-party system remains in power and Raul continues liberalize the economy, allowing more private firms to enter and more tourists to visit the island, Cuba could follow the footsteps of current-day China. Despite its seemingly free market, China’s economic liberty is overstated, while its people still lack political and civil freedoms. China is still ruled by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) – the president is not elected by the people but by China’s National People’s Congress. The CCP has a tight control over its population: access to information is limited, obedience to the Communist Party is strictly enforced, and dissidents are constantly being persecuted. And it is not getting better – since 2012, repression has only increased in China. Beyond political and civil liberties, the so-called free market in China is still largely made up of giant state-owned enterprises and sub-companies that receive instructions from the CCP. As for the few real private enterprises in China, they are constantly under CCP pressure and those that don’t succumb have seen their CEOs and business leaders slowly disappear.
Even if communist regime in Cuba miraculously fades away, better living standards and democracy will not come overnight. Cubans have lived under communist institutions for generations, and institutions take a long time to change. Most people still depend on the state for many things: healthcare, education, food, and jobs. These institutions have an already established incentive structure that will take a decades to adjust to the freedom of competition, and getting people comfortable with a new lifestyle will be difficult. While Fidel Castro may have fallen, his pernicious effects on Cuba will be long lasting – we must only look at the post-Soviet states to see the lasting damage caused by communist oppression. Free societies and economies are long-term projects that take decades to evolve.
Fidel’s death might be one step towards a free and prosperous Cuba, but there still is a long way to go. We can only hope that these changes happen sooner rather than later, so that the Cuban people can experience their long deserved freedom.
Katarina Hall is the director of the Human Rights Center at Universidad Francisco Marroquin in Guatemala.