The Trump Administration is about to reset U.S. Cuba policy. The right policy needs to understand what might be about to happen in Cuba. After 59 years a day in February 2018 may be the last promise of the Cuban Revolution. That is when Raul Castro has said he will step down – at least as President. After that most assume Cuba will remain wedded to its Revolution, the one party state, the military-run conglomerates, universal social programs and the minimization of the individual. It seems that 8 months off from the Post Castro (PC) era Cubans themselves have little to be excited about.
The government continues to be fulsome about its legacy. But the Revolution’s reality for most Cubans today is an increasingly unequal form of poverty. Education and healthcare remain free but the economy works for only the Castro family, military elites and now some Cuban Americans. Neither Raul they nor the designated successor Diaz-Canel have communicated a brighter future for the individual Cuban.
Reforms have stalled and over 70 percent still work for the state on $25 a month income. Media remains boring and sycophantic but the internet is now arriving. And change is increasingly happening despite the government’s rearguard actions to counter it. Change agents are arriving in the form of flash drive bundles of information and hundreds of thousands of visiting Cuban Americans, many of whom have made a lot of money the American way. The Trump Administration should note. With that backdrop some aspiring Cuban politicians will embrace a new agenda. Cuba is a society without major ethnic or religious tensions. Race is a factor and Afro-Cubans are among the poorest. But decades of universal controls have produced order and discipline and the Cuban workforce is well-educated, eager to seize new opportunities. The dismal pay levels mean that $100 a month, even for professionals, would be a significant improvement.
The barriers to change are also formidable. Many Cubans are apathetic, numbed by the government’s broken promises and largely false news. Most do not understand how a private sector can be harnessed to pay for social programs and see market forces as meaning higher prices and inequality. And whoever emerges many Castro family members remain.
A good politician might listen to Cubans. The University of Chicago NORC Poll published in February gave some insights of what many want. 64 percent of the sample had family outside the country, mostly in the US. Over half of all Cubans wanted to leave the country including an astonishing 80 percent of the 18-29-year-olds. But 65 percent wanted more private businesses. Poverty and crime were the big issues of concern. The U.S. and China are both widely admired – a common both represent affluence and a willingness to allow individuals to become rich. President Obama had a 75 percent favorability rating, far ahead of Putin.
Without the Castros Cuba will no longer have an unquestioned decision-maker. So, for the first time - and probably sooner rather than later - politicians will have to coalesce around new ideas not organizations or parties. Controls cannot be tightened but many will fear change. A successful politician should offer something to everyone but not everything. Offer most to the young.
Reassure Cubans on attacking poverty, corruption and preserving security. Offer a business pact to the military and promote not constrain the private sector, recognize the social achievements. But promote ideas like ‘it’s good for Cubans to get rich’. Draw on Raul’s early reform mantras like scrapping ‘false unanimity’ ‘the inverted pyramid’ of wages, and a ‘rose-tinted media’. Move quickly to end the absurd dual currency and raise the minimum wage. None of this will be easy but a battle of ideas may be about to start in Cuba.
There could not be a worse time for The United States to barge into that battle. The Cuban government would love to excuse another crackdown on ideas and change agents because of a new US hostility. Cuba is on the verge of a unique opportunity to move forward. American ideals, its culture and the wealth and activities of Cuban Americans are already good enough policies to facilitate that change.