Here’s a Clue to What Might Happen in Cuba Now

News Abroad
tags: Fidel Castro, Cuba

Matthew D. Jacobs received his PhD in History from Ohio University in 2015. He is an Assistant Professor of History at Anderson University in South Carolina and has conducted research at the Cuban National Archive and the Cuban Foreign Ministry Archive, both in Havana

Cubans from all over the island gathered this past week to bid farewell to Fidel Castro. His death also provoked a wave of responses from around the world. There are those who focus on Cuban gains in education and healthcare, or Havana’s commitment to revolution as demonstrated by their interventions in Africa during the 1970s. Others strongly note the island’s absence of many personal freedoms, failing economy, and Fidel’s record of human rights abuses. Now, while commentators and journalists continue to argue over the strongman’s legacy, many Cubans on the island are asking what will post-Fidel Cuba look like? Here, history can serve as a potential guide for the path Havana may take. In fact, the example set by Vietnam following the death of a longtime leader during the 1980s could prove quite instructive.

Beginning in 1959 Cuba began a complete transformation under Fidel Castro’s revolutionary government. A centralized planned economy took hold and political culture became defined by the notion of perpetual revolution. Castro’s activist foreign policy made the island a center of the Cold War, while the mass exodus of many families created new exile communities in the United States.

Though the meaning and trajectory of the Cuban Revolution certainly evolved throughout the 20th century, the bearded and green army fatigue wearing Fidel remained a constant. Even with the transfer of power to Raul Castro in 2008, Fidel endured as a central figure in Cuban politics. Most recently, in April of this year, he delivered remarks at the Cuban Congress Party meeting in Havana. State television broadcast his address as party members responded to Castro’s words with cries of Fidel.

When Raul pursued his biggest diplomatic reform, reengaging with the United States, Fidel did not remain silent. Only days following President Barack Obama’s visit to the island in March 2015, he published an op-ed in the government run newspaper Granma denouncing U.S. policy and writing that “we don’t need the empire to give us anything.” While Fidel proved to be the last cold warrior, with his death, Raul and other Cuban leaders will no longer be looking over their shoulders. As Ted Piccone of the Brookings Institute recently wrote, “Fidel’s death presents the most important opportunity in decades to steer Cuba onto a path of sustainable development unburdened by an orthodox and outdated view of caudillo politics.”

In the coming months and years, Cuba will chart a new political and economic course for the island post-Fidel. As they do so, one particular historical example from another communist nation can offer insights into how leaders in Havana may go about adapting to a changing world. While more attention is generally given to the communist transformations that occurred in China and the Soviet Union respectively, Vietnam offers a more fitting comparison with Cuba.

In 1986 the country said goodbye to Le Duan, the General Secretary of the Vietnamese Communist Party since 1960. A national hero who strenuously pushed for North-South reunification, he became the most powerful political figure in Vietnam as Ho Chi Minh’s health began to fail. Following the defeat of South Vietnam in 1975, Le Duan led a post-war unified Vietnam under hardline communist rule. The next decade Vietnam experienced international isolation and economic stagnation, all while trying to rebuild a nation devastated by 30 years of war. By the mid-1980s, Le Duan ruled over a Vietnamese political system dedicated to resisting change and unwilling to embrace widespread economic modifications.

Revered by many for his commitment to Vietnam’s anti-colonialist and anti-imperialist struggles, Le Duan’s death left a void throughout the country. Yet, the long serving leaders passing also opened the door for new debates to take place and large-scale economic reforms to become a reality. In fact, the Doi Moi (Renovation) reforms of December 1986, only months after Le Duan’s death, commenced a decades long program that sought to attract foreign investment, respect certain private property rights, integrate globally, and allow for market based approaches to the national economy.

Overtime, a series of successive reformists determined to chart a new path led Vietnam to a growing economy and increased prospects for development. Though the changes have not led to widespread political freedoms, they have increased cultural relations and opened Vietnam up to much more of the world. Hanoi initiated a much more engaged foreign policy and fully restored diplomatic relations between the United States in 1995.

Today, with the death of Fidel Castro, leaders in Havana are facing a new world, yet the questions they must confront are not all that different from the issues confronting Hanoi in the 1980s. A stagnating centrally planned economy, rampant poverty, and the death of a national hero are clear similarities. Over the last decade Raul Castro has attempted small scale economic reforms, which have produced little for the average Cuban and national economy. Now, with Fidel gone and Raul set to leave office by 2018, Cubans are questioning what comes next.

Just as Vietnamese leaders eschewed decades of dogmatic communist thinking, and even energetically sought rapprochement with a former enemy in the United States, Cuban decision makers will face difficult questions in the coming months. Many commentators and political leaders have recently noted that Castro’s death signals the end of an era. More importantly, it may be the beginning of a new one. Only time will tell what change looks like on the island, but as key policymakers in the corridors of power in Havana debate what comes next, they may look to Hanoi for lessons from the past. 

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