Michael: Post-Castro Cuba presents opportunity for new liberties

Cuban President Raúl Castro was elected to his fifth term in February, and released a statement on Feb. 24 stating it would be his last. The Castro regime, after a long 59 years, is set to end in 2018. Castro mentioned some other constitutional reforms he wants to see implemented before leaving office, such as age caps on politicians and a term limit on the presidency. Despite the irony of 81-year-old Castro proposing age limits on future politicians, these reforms could set Cuba on the path to liberalization should they succeed.

The Castro brothers have been in power in Cuba since 1959. Former leader Fidel Castro held the premiership until the position was abolished, afterwards taking the presidency until 2006. Raúl Castro took the reins as his older brother’s health began to deteriorate, but had all the while been an important figure behind the scenes. Their legacy has been a fascinating one. On one hand their regime brought Cuba’s literacy rate up to 99.8 percent according to a 2010 study, passed antidiscrimination laws and provided quality education for the majority of Cubans. On the other hand there are the persecutions and executions of political dissenters, the lack of a free market, hard limits on free speech and other flagrant human rights abuses.

In the past two decades, with the fall of the Soviet Union and the subsidies it provided, Cuba has found itself in financial straits. There has been some economic liberalization in an attempt to stimulate the Cuban economy. Small businesses have emerged in the form of restaurants and private taxis, and restrictions on foreign travel have been relaxed significantly.

While small concessions traditionally opened the floodgates in the former Soviet bloc to radical liberalization, the Castros have been more pragmatic in their reforms. Businesses operate, but with restrictions on the amount of workers, an inability to apply for loans and other intensive handicaps uncharacteristic of a true free market. Travel to foreign countries, too, has limits on the amount of people allowed to leave at one time in an effort to retain a healthy amount of the highly educated, such as doctors and engineers.

Raúl Castro’s announcement of an end to the Castro era and the proposed constitutional amendments are to be a historic moment in the island’s history. As Cuba continues to struggle with economic troubles, it’s likely we’ll see more shifts toward a free market. The younger Castro has been careful in the policing of the freedoms afforded to small businesses in Cuba, and suggested that a return to capitalism was impossible. Still, could even these gradual changes have been predicted in the Soviet Union’s heyday?

Cuba is changing, and the end of the Castro family’s long regime will be the steppingstone to the country’s eventual liberalization. President Barack Obama’s administration has said the reforms Castro proposed aren’t enough to lift the embargo, though some restrictions on medical supplies, travel and food have been relaxed. 

The end of the Castro regime will mean the beginning of a more liberal Cuba. While Miguel Díaz-Canel, Castro’s most likely successor, doesn’t seem interested in liberalizing the reluctant communist nation, the pressures of an increasingly globalized world are bearing down on the country’s government. Cuba’s liberalization seems inevitable in a post-Castro Cuba, with the small reforms that have been allotted opening the gates to a brighter tomorrow.