The death of Fidel Castro at the age of 90 last week, definitely ends an era in Cuban history. He is no doubt, the most important leader of this island nation in the 20th century. His influence, will continue to determine the course of economic and political development inside Cuba.
For the majority of the Cuban people, they cannot remember a time when Fidel Castro was not their leader or at least as in recent times, was overlooking developments within the country. There are many who will mourn his passing, not really aware of how controversial a figure he has been, both inside Cuba and even more so internationally.
The leaders of these countries and others, have conveniently overlooked how Castro came to power and how he brutally through murder and intimidation maintained it. Many vocal opponents of the regime, have remained imprisoned for years or even decades.
Francois Hollande the President of France, hailed Castro as a “towering figure in the 20th century” and insists that the United States trade embargo on Cuba should be lifted. The obstinate socialist Hollande, has an approval rating that is barely above single digits inside France, with a national election only months away.
Nicolas Maduro the President of Venezuela, has close to 90% of the electorate in opposition to his remaining in office. He has ruled against early elections, in a desperate attempt to cling to power. It is still not clear he actually won election in 2013, following the death of his mentor Hugo Chavez.
The opposition insists there was sufficient fraud employed by his advocates, to put him over the top. The election council overseeing the process, was clearly in support of Maduro.
President Maduro like his predecessor Hugo Chavez, idolized Fidel Castro. Maduro has said that it is necessary to continue the Castro legacy and carry the flag of independence. In the path towards liberation, Mr. Maduro feels both Castro and Chavez will be absolved by history.
The President of Venezuela refuses to acknowledge the failure of Chavez and his own policies, that have brought ruin upon the country. Inflation is nearing 700% and the economy is in a state of total collapse. This is despite of the great wealth, contained in the nations massive oil reserves.
The Prime Minister of Canada describes the former dictator a “family friend“ and then goes onto praising Castro, for his significant improvements to the education and healthcare of Cuba.
The liberal Trudeau seems willing to bypass the political oppression and economic deprivation of the Cuban people, for the nearly half century when Castro was in charge.
Mr. Trudeau has since been forced to publicly recognize, the abuses of human rights that took place in Cuba during Castro’s leadership.
The Chinese President Xi Jingping stated that the people of China had lost a good and true comrade and that Castro would live forever. Kind words from a leader who became President of his country in 2013, without the annoyance of a popular election.
Russia has continued good relations with Cuba despite the fall of the former Soviet Union in 1991. The Communist leadership had perceived Castro, as the main leader of the Third World socialist movement throughout the Cold War.
In the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, the Soviet Union viewed Cuba as a strategic ally and between economic and military aid, was spending the equivalent of millions of dollars a day, in support of the Castro regime.
When the Soviet Union collapsed and aid was cut off, the Cuban economy entered an era of economic hardship, known domestically as the Special Period in Time of Peace.
Russian President Vladimir Putin still considers Cuba a strategic partner in his contest with the United States. It is therefore no surprise that he called Castro, a “sincere and reliable friend of Russia“.
The South African President Jacob Zuma praised the former dictator as an inspiration to freedom fighters in his country, which included Nelson Mandela. It is no mere coincidence, that he is facing a no confidence vote within his own party. The reason is largely due to charges of personal and governmental corruption.
In Latin America, the alliance of the left has been weakening of late and allies of the Cuban government are becoming far fewer in number.
In 2015 for example, Argentina voted to replace the more socialist leaning government that President Cristina Fernandez espoused, once her two terms in office ended. Despite her best efforts, the electorate rejected her designated political heir Daniel Scioli and instead voted for the conservative opponent Mauricio Macri.
In the presidential primaries held in April, voters in Peru had already abandoned the more leftist policies of President Ollanta Humala. The June elections were actually between two conservatives, who supported free market policies. They both advocated more free trade and greater deregulation.
The winner was the former Wall Street and banker Pedro Pablo Kuczynski. At 77, he could point to a long and distinguished career in economic policy that was rooted in capitalism.
The former leftist president in Brazil was impeached earlier this year. Despite winning re-election in 2014, Dilma Rousseff was removed from office in August. This ended a center-left coalition, that had politically dominated the nation since 2003.
Although her Vice President and successor is now dealing with an effort by the opposition to have him impeached as well, the center-right Michel Temer is attempting to move the country in a new economic direction.
Brazil is still suffering through the worst recession in 80 years. Critics blame part of the present economic predicament, on the spendthrift governments of former Presidents Rousseff and Lula da Silva.
In Bolivia, Evo Morales from the Movement for Socialism has been in power since 2006. He has won three consecutive presidential elections, but in February lost his bid to change the constitution. This would of permitted him to serve, an unprecedented four term.
President Morales will now be forced to leave office in 2020. However, upon hearing of the death of Fidel Castro, he responded by saying that the former dictator left “a legacy of having fought for the integration of the world’s peoples.”
At the same time, Morales himself is embroiled in a growing number of scandals.
President Rafael Correa in Ecuador tweeted “A great one has gone. Fidel has died. Viva Cuba! Viva Latin America!“ There is little doubt he greatly admires the former leader of Cuba.
Mr. Correa has been in office since 2007 and will remain in office until 2017. He last won re-election in 2013. He is likely is run for president once again, once he sits out for one term. He wanted to be out of office for the next presidential term, due to the difficult economic situation ahead. The run up in debt during his tenure, has been enormous.
This is similar to the situation that occurred in Russia, with Vladimir Putin. He gave up the presidency to his Prime Minister in 2008, only to regain the office four years later.
Upon hearing of the scathing attack of Castro made by the United States President-elect Trump who called the former leader a brutal dictator, President Correa responded by referring to the incoming American president, as ignorant and an example of what Latin America can expect.
Evo Morales also had sharply criticized Trump, calling it fascist to feast over Fidel’s death.
In Mexico, the reaction was a bit more muted. Although President Enrique Pena Nieto stated, he lamented the death of Fidel Castro. He is nearing the end of his term and suffers from a dismal approval rating from inside his country.
Fidel Castro himself, has not been in charge of the day to day running of the country since 2006. After 49 years, he was forced to cede power to his brother Raul due to illness in 2008. The younger Castro has gradually moved the country in a new direction.
Raul Castro has already initiated a number of market-style economic reforms that have subsequently benefited the Cuban people.
A year ago, he made the decision to end decades of hostility towards the United States. Diplomatic relations were re-established, with little real public support from Fidel.
The elder Castro in fact, has not held any leadership positions for the last 8 years. He did occasionally meet with foreign leaders, spoke out at times, and wrote a number of commentaries.
Regardless of the passing of Fidel, the real shift in power will arrive in 2018. This is when the now 85 year old Raul, has pledged to step down from office.
The Communist Politburo has already elevated new and younger leaders to positions of authority.
One notable person is the current Vice President and now heir Miguel Diaz-Canel. He is young enough to have a major impact on Cuba in the years ahead. He has held his present position since 2013.
The reforms promoted so far have indeed led to more free enterprise. There also has been an effort to permit more personal freedoms. However, these moves should not be interpreted as a move away from socialism. In fact, the Communist Party wants to strengthen its hold on the country.
Vice President Diaz-Canel, Economic Reform Czar Marino Murillo and Foreign Minister Rodriguez who are all in their 50’s, represent the next generation, but are still self identified stalwart socialists.
For example, the Vice President is advocating the modernization of the state run media. He is also in favor of expanding the present public access of the internet. It has remained at a dismal low rate in the 21st century.
It may seem like there will be more press and web freedoms in a Diaz-Canel presidency, if he does indeed succeed Raul Castro. However, one only has to look at China to understand that the government will still be able to maintain overall control.
The question of what a future Trump Presidency will mean for Cuba is still not clear. He has said that he will revisit the issue and possibly reverse, the diplomatic opening President Obama made last year. For now, United States sanctions on the island nation remain in force.
The incoming Trump Administration is insisting that a further development of relations, will be dependent on further changes coming from the Cuban government. Members of his team have suggested that less political repression, more open markets, freedom of religion and the release of political prisoners, are all part of the mix if a true normalization is to take place.
There may be a re-tightening of educational exchanges that had been somewhat reduced during the Obama years. Travel to Cuba by American citizens with ties and educational business there, could also be curtailed once again. Further restrictions on visas for Cuban citizens, may result as well. The aforementioned had all been relaxed by President Obama beginning in 2011.
The American government has recently permitted less restrictions on United States citizens doing banking on the island. The recent resumption of commercial air travel to Cuba from the mainland, may be short-lived.
The Cuban people themselves, will be the real catalyst for change. They may show up for rallies and chant slogans, knowing the possible repercussions if they do not. In privacy, many feel quite differently. They are ready for economic and political change, that will transform their country. As a whole they yearn for reforms, that will provide more freedom and a better standard of living.