Uncertainty for Cuba’s youth after death of Fidel Castro

Fidel Castro, Havana, 1978. (Credit: Marcelo Montecino/Flickr)

For many Cubans who have fled their country in desperation for economic opportunities in the U.S., the death of Fidel Castro Friday symbolized the beginning of a new era, but experts warn that they may not see widespread reforms for years to come.

The 90-year-old Cuban revolutionary leader had been president from 1959 until 2006. Under his regime, Cuba has seen marked improvements in health care and education, almost 100 percent literacy, and a lower infant mortality rate than the United States, according to the World Bank.

Castro’s proponents also credit him for raising the standard of living of Cuba’s poorest populations. Cubans do not experience poverty like that of other Latin American countries – many are divided by deep inequality – but instead have a generalized level of wealth.

But for generations of Cubans, this standard of living has been barely enough to scrape by. Poverty is endemic in many communities, unemployment is still at depression levels (especially for young people), and a June report estimated the average Cubans’ income is just $20 per month. Cuba’s shrinking economy has also led to drastic cuts in electricity, imports, investments and fuel consumption through the end of this year.

A combination of dismal economic prospects and high education and literacy levels has sparked a mass exodus of Cuba’s young professionals – now economic refugees – to the United States every year. Many have ended up in Miami, where hundreds flooded the streets to celebrate the announcement of Castro’s death over the weekend.

“We are not celebrating one man’s death, but the death of an ideology,” Carlos Lopez told The Miami Herald. “We are celebrating that little piece of liberty we got back today.”

As the New York Times explained, younger generations of Cubans have become increasingly resentful of the ruthless dictator who failed on his promise for free elections, impoverished the island, advocated for the use of nuclear weapons, sent homosexuals to internment camps, and deprived Cubans for decades of freedoms and opportunities. Among these critics, the most hopeful see Castro’s demise as the start of a new post-communist era.

But many experts say Cuba will not be much different after Castro’s death. The government has been preparing for Castro’s death since ill health forced him to hand over his executive powers to his brother, Raúl Castro, in 2006.

Roberto Veiga, the director of Cuba Posible, an organization in Havana that promotes political dialogue, said that Fidel Castro’s death would “deeply affect” Cubans, but would not change the course of the country.

“It will have an emotional impact,” Veiga told the New York Times. “It will have a political impact. But it won’t have any impact on how the country is governed.”

The fate of Cuba’s job-seeking youth is further complicated by Donald Trump’s presidency. Before the U.S. election, Trump supported President Obama’s decision to lift the decades-long embargo and restore diplomatic ties with Cuba, but seemed to change his mind during his campaign. A reversal of the agreement would also reverse the currently relaxed trade, re-established diplomatic relations and direct flights between the two countries.

Whether Trump will flip again on Cuba policy remains to be seen, but for now, it appears he will revisit the agreement. Trump condemned the “brutal dictator” and is being urged to cut ties with Cuba by Republicans in the Senate.

Regardless of what Trump decides, some experts say there is reason to expect that the Cuban economy to improve. With Raúl Castro at liberty to govern without the influence of his older brother, they say, the president may now speed up the slow reforms he has started since taking office a decade ago. So far, Raúl Castro has loosened travel restrictions on Cubans going abroad and legalized small and medium private businesses as part of a slow-growing effort to strengthen a weak economy, and some expect Raúl Castro will now begin to reform other aspects of the regime Fidel Castro so carefully constructed.

The 85-year-old president is seemingly in good health, and has said he will step down from office in 2018, though he may remain as first secretary of the Communist Party for a further three years. Raúl Castro’s vice president and former minister for higher education, Miguel Mario Díaz-Canel Bermúdez, 56, is expected to fill the presidency.

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Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Madrid-based reporter for Humanosphere, covering gender equality, indigenous rights and poverty in Latin America and worldwide. Find her on Twitter at @lisanikolau, email lisa.nikolau@humanosphere.org or see her latest work at www.lisanikolau.com