Playing second fiddle to Fidel was always Raul Castro's lot in life. While his older brother got all the height, charisma and oratorical stamina, and remained the outward face of Communist Cuba, Raul Castro was the loyal fixer who applied the patches to Fidel's leaky command economy.
Even after a declining Fidel Castro ceded the presidency to his brother in 2006, Raul operated in the shadow of his older sibling's legacy. No one has ever referred to Raul as El Lider Maximo, though his hands-on management of Cuban political and economic affairs has arguably made him a far more effectual leader than his easily distracted and economically clueless brother.
Fidel Castro's hare-brained economic schemes – from dictating a sugar monoculture that left Cuba's rich soil depleted and the island dependent on imported food, to his deluded attempt to create a breed of "super cows" with prodigious udders – left Cuba even poorer than your average socialist dystopia. The elder Castro and his apologists always blamed the U.S. embargo for all of the island's economic ills. But Cuba has long been free to trade with almost every other country on Earth, including Canada; under Fidel, the economy languished.
Without a rich benefactor, such as the Soviet Union, the economic cracks turned into canyons. Food and medical shortages have made life even more miserable for average Cubans, already deprived of basic political and economic freedoms. The state cannot even fulfill the basic promise of socialism – a decent job for everyone – and has closed inefficient factories and laid off hundreds of thousands of workers.
Raul Castro, who as the leader of Cuba's military has been every bit as ruthless as his brother, has kept the lid on potential revolt by exercising the same controls on freedom of speech as Fidel and by arbitrarily detaining anyone who challenges the regime. Political opposition is weak and diffuse.
Raul Castro has taken critical steps to ease the economic strains by welcoming more foreign tourists and investment and enabling average Cubans to create their own jobs. Cheap oil from like-minded Venezuelan leaders has also helped, though the oil bust has slowed the flow.
In this respect, U.S. President Barack Obama's 2014 executive orders enabling more U.S. travel, remittances and trade with Cuba were a gift to the regime that took the pressure off Raul Castro to enact broader economic reforms.
Businesses controlled by the military, and overseen by Raul Castro's ex-son-in-law, are the only ones authorized to partner with foreign investors. They employ the workers who toil at most of the resorts frequented by Canadians, and now U.S. tourists, earning no more than the official wage of about $20 (U.S.) a month. The hard currency from such joint ventures (51 per cent controlled by the state) keeps the regime afloat, if only barely.
The Obama administration has repeatedly insisted that the goal of normalizing relations with Cuba is not regime change. At the same time, it points out that more Cubans dependent on remittances and gifts (such as big-screen TVs) from American relatives, more foreign travel to the island and more U.S. telecommunications companies operating there will inevitably expose Cubans to new ideas and dreams, laying the seeds for post-Castro democracy. It could be a long wait.
Now 85, Raul has promised to step down in 2018. But no one knows whether his anticipated successor, 56-year-old Miguel Diaz-Canel, is destined to become anything more than a figurehead president of a military dictatorship effectively run by Raul's relatives. Fidel's death is more an impetus for nostalgics to reminisce than any catalyst for political change.
Still, it would be foolish for president-elect Donald Trump to carry through with his Twitter-transmitted threat to terminate Mr. Obama's "deal" with Raul Castro. The U.S. embargo was always Fidel's most effective propaganda tool, allowing him to depict Uncle Sam as the enemy of the Cuban people. Long after Cubans grew weary of the sacrifices that come with pursuing an ever-receding socialist dream, they always rallied behind Fidel in his denunciations of their yanqui oppressor.
That anti-American sentiment has waned in recent years. Resuscitating it in order to stroke geriatric Cuban-Americans in Florida – Mr. Trump takes pandering to his base to rare unpresidential heights – would only empower the remaining Communist hardliners in Cuba.
Treat Cuba normally and, eventually, it will act normally.