The election of Raúl Castro as president by the Cuban National Assembly did not have quite the same level of tension associated with the Oscars. Nor did it merit anywhere near the same amount of press coverage. Yet the fact that there was even some uncertainty before it and that the results merited front page news indicated that something has happened in Cuba. The question is, what?

Well, Fidel is gone. Maybe. While he now lacks any official position, he remains the core of whatever Revolutionary legitimacy the government still possesses. His is the one voice that all sectors of the regime would still obey. It is likely, given his semi-divine status, and the brothers’ close friendship, that Fidel still has something of a veto power over decisions made at the very top. Raúl said as much as he assumed power, but then he would have done so no matter his real intentions

One thing we know did NOT happen. A democratic election. The election of Raúl would not meet the electoral standards of Belorussia. The electors did not even have an opportunity to hierachize the leadership as in the PRC. The ballots did not offer any choice and the results had been determined before any of the legislators put pencil to paper.

So, we can be reasonably certain that the election of Raúl and José Ramón Machado Ventura as first vice-president was a decision made by the two brothers, perhaps with some element of elite consultation. The selection of Machado Ventura had something of a Spiro Agnew quality (who knew?), and his two surnames must have already produced a few jokes about the return of history (Gerardo Machado was a dictator deposed by the 1933 revolution, while Colonel Esteban Ventura was one of Batista’s most disreputable thugs).

As to the remainder of the Council of State, not much has changed. The central role of the military is more obvious than ever as the only new Vice-President, General Julio Casa Requerio, is also the new defense minister. The generational shift that some were expecting has not happened as the average age of Cuban vice-presidents is 71.

But the absence of events can be as illuminating as their occurrence. We know now that Raúl is not about to make a dramatic break with 50 years of history nor is he about to broaden the top layer of the elite. Whatever transitions Cuba might make over the new few months or years will be at least partly shaped by the still smoky rooms of the historic Revolutionary leadership.

This does not necessarily mean that Raúl has no new vision for Cuba (he must….only a fanatic or a fool would consider that Cuba can keep going the way it is and Raúl is neither). What it means is that Raúl is going about whatever changes he envisions in his own slow and methodical way.

Despite the romantic allure of a dramatic declaration of democratic opening, this road seems a sensible one. There are many factions in Cuba that fear any change and even more who disagree about what should happen. For Raúl to announce some dramatic reorientation of the regime would have meant his losing his capacity to manage that change. As long as he maintains the status quo, he can better plan and manage new stages. The danger is, of course, that he might wait too long, but I don’t believe that Raúl had any choice.

Whether consciously or not, Raúl might be following the model of arguably the most successful transition to democracy of the past quarter century: Spain’s. In 1975, no one expected much of Juan Carlos (and he was dogged by the same kind of underestimation of his charisma and talent as Raúl). Certainly his first few months did not signal any dramatic change and his selection of Adolfo Suarez as head of government was widely derided as a disaster. In retrospect, it is clear that Juan Carlos and Suarez followed a brilliant strategy of using the ancient regime’s own laws and institutions to bury it. Rather than challenging the rightist “bunker” by repudiating Franco, they adroitly suppressed his legacy with remarkably little conflict. A few years after the death of the dictator, the Socialists had won power.

Spain was lucky. The right wing abided by the letter of Francoist law even as it saw its spirit undermined. When it didn’t obey, it was remarkably ineffective. Leaders on the left also demonstrated great discipline in going along with a strategy designed by representatives of a regime that had literally done its best to kill them. The historical moment was also auspicious in innumerable ways. Finally, Spain was lucky in its choice of neighbors as the rest of Europe managed to be supportive while non-intrusive.

Will Cuba be as lucky? There are really two questions here: What might Raúl et al want, and what can they actually do?

As to the first, the group around Raúl knows that the Cuban economy is essentially hanging by the thread of Venezuelan oil subsidies. Having opened up the economy to tourism and mining transnationals beginning in the 1990s, the easy solutions are no longer available; there is little the government can do to improve the economic situation without radically transforming the domestic sector. The decade long decline in the quality of health and education is simply the most obvious indication that the Cuban model no longer works (if it ever did without external subsidization). What goods do exist are distributed in an extremely inegalitarian manner. As recent popular critiques have emphasized, one cannot have a socialist regime relying on the monetary apartheid of the Convertible Peso. Politically, the population is now expecting some reform. As long as Fidel was in charge, many were willing to postpone their desires. Now that the historical shift has come, few will be willing to remain patient. After 49 years, the joke is just no longer funny.

Politically, socially, and economically, the regime is facing immense pressures to do something. In terms of preferences, they are probably most ideologically committed to the model espoused by Deng Xiaoping: good mice-hunting cats, no matter their color. The experience of the military over the past decade offers a beguiling model: autocratic management of capitalist enterprises. None of the Cuban leaders has ever espoused the remotest faith in the power of democracy. They are no doubt convinced that opening up the political arena would lead to disorder and disaster. They will essentially attempt to create enough medium-term stability for the next generation to handle the long-term challenges facing the island. I suspect that what they will try to do is to offer the Cuban people the prospect of more money and goods in exchange for acquiescence. Raúl’s critiques of the agricultural sector would, for example, point to a freeing of constraints on farmers, if not necessarily a full return to small holdings.

Will Cuba work as a sort of tropical Pearl River Delta? For the immediate future, it just might. I was one of the many who discounted Raúl, but the last year has demonstrated that Fidel was not necessarily as central to the regime as everyone (including, no doubt, Fidel) thought. Raúl has preserved the institutional capacity of the military and has assured the loyalty of much of the officer class through the potential participation in the for profit sector. The military as well as the internal security services are with Raúl and should remain so for the foreseeable future.

One challenge may come from the particrats who have benefited less from the economic openings of the past 15 years and who may take their commitment to “socialism or death” more seriously. It is difficult to not read the composition of the vice-presidencies without thinking that the Communist Party of Cuba (PCC) is not where the action will be: the promotion of a general, the retention of technocrat Carlos Lage, and the non-promotion of the ideologue Felipe Perez Roque. A major question here is whether there is enough popular leadership in the provincial capillaries of the PCC to challenge Raúlista reforms.

An even larger question is whether the next few months will see any form of spontaneous social or political protests. Thanks to the efficiency of the police and the delegitimation of the embargo, the Cuban dissident movement is small and disorganized. But people living on the equivalent of $17 a month and sceptical of another Castro could take to the streets as they did in 1994. At that time, Fidel opted to use the brigadas of party thugs rather than the military to impose order. Raúl might have no choice but to order soldiers and there is no way to know their willingness to support a Tiananmen on the Malecon.

Then, there is always the U.S. factor. Raúl might actually appreciate the Bush stance of no negotiation as it frees him from having to deal with yet another set of players while also helping him to maintain the nationalist chops of the Revolution. An Obama-led opening would probably be a disaster for the regime. A gusher of tourists and exiles and the opening of new business opportunities would dramatically weaken the capacity of the establishment to control the process of change. The only bright side in this scenario (from Raúl´s point of view) would be if the Miami right-wing attempted to use an opening to exert their influence. The Cuban population might be sick of the Castros, but being largely young, of color, and poor, they have no need for yet another generation of old white guys telling them what to do.

Assuming for the moment that Raúl can survive the next few months and that the Cuban government does retain control of the situation (and the odds might be at least even on this), what can they do?

  1. Certainly the first step has to be freeing the agricultural sector. For a country with as rich a soil as Cuba’s to import 70 percent of its food is patently absurd. The opening up of an agricultural market would not only increase the flow of food to the cities, but also provide new opportunities for export (mangoes can be the new kiwi).
  2. Another possibility is to free the tourist market from the monopoly of Spanish, Mexican, and Canadian chains. There is a massive global market for the kind of unspoiled beaches and mountains that Cuba can offer, plus it could do so following a paladar model of small entrepreneurs. Lots of Cubans would be happy to make money off Europeans seeking a Graham Greene experience.
  3. The third option is to tout the attractions of Cuba’s highly educated labor force and the government’s success in health care. The deal that Cuba struck with Venezuela (doctors for oil) could be replicated in different guises.
  4. Finally, and politically most difficult, the government must take apart the massive and inefficient state sector that absorbs far too much of Cuba’s money. But, the fact that government salaries have declined so precipitously might actually make it easier to get rid of them.

These changes will bring new tensions. First and foremost, inequality will get worse before it gets better. But, one of the Revolution’s greatest legacies might be to have freed Cuba form the historical stranglehold of race and neo-colonial class. Cuba remains in many ways an anachronistic racist (and extremely sexist) place. But, one does not see the caste-like divisions of a Brazil. There is the potential for the inequities of the market to actually improve the distribution of goods and services and to free the population. If this transition can be managed without creating a new class of have-nots (thereby requiring the maintenance of a police state), Cuba might have a bright economic future.

Then what? When might Cubans be able to elect their own government? In the absence of organized opposition parties and the penetration of the PCC into everyday life, Raúl´s successor could probably win at least the first democratic election. There will always be the risk of losing the next one (that is why they call it democracy), but I cannot imagine Cuba being able to follow a Chinese road in the medium to long run. First, the economy will not be large or significant enough to give the regime the kind of global waiver enjoyed by Beijing or Riyadh. Second, the set of international players, from Latin America, Europe, and Florida, will not acquiesce to a too long democratic apprenticeship. Third, the Cuban people have witnessed what the absence of democratic accountability can bring; they won’t be fooled again.

This leaves Raúl with a difficult, but not impossible, challenge. He is now captain of the ship. It is not taking on water yet, but the storm could hit anytime. He has a little time and not much leeway and all we can hope for is that he’s better than his brother at letting go and trusting the crew and passengers.