What Castro’s Death Means for Cuba and the U.S.

By Colonel Jim Waurishuk

The much anticipated but still surprising death of Cuban dictator Fidel Castro at 90 has sparked celebrations in Miami, condolences from Russia and Obama and obviously will set the stage for a new round of discussions about what is next for Cuba. Particularly, in 54-days or so from now, under the new American leadership of President Donald J. Trump.


Nevertheless, the not-so-simple simple answer about the impact of Castro’s death on Cuba is nothing and everything — nothing immediately but everything eventually.

Castro’s death will not bring immediate change to Cuba – so get that through your heads immediately but for the first time in almost 60 years, there is a glimmer of light and change is possible. But it will take perhaps a half, if not a full generation.

Further, it will however also take political skill, diplomacy and most of all true statesmanship – something we have been lacking for a long time. It will not come by way of concessions and incentives from Washington and certainly not promises from Havana, particularly Raul Castro and his self-selected regime stalwarts and career loyalist.

In the immediate future  Castro’s death will change little inside Cuba. Unlike Venezuela, which has seen disarray and systemic failure following the death of leader Hugo Chavez, the Communist regime in Havana has long established a clear succession plan that favors family, pro-Castro forces, and loyal revolutionaries of the regime.

For the U.S., Castro’s unexpected passing eclipses President Obama’s Cuban foreign policy and fails his legacy of bridge-building and opening relations with Havana as Castro’s Communist movement has evolved from a Fidel-centered movement in 1959 to a Communist system in 2016.

Raul Castro, Fidel’s younger brother, remains in-charge of Cuba, and while he has instituted slow and steady reforms, he has not backed away from the basic system set up by Fidel Castro and that of the Revolution, which is paramount.

While many political experts often paint the 85-year-old Raul Castro as more pro-democracy and pro-capitalism than his brother, Raul Castro remains true to the basic roots of Cuba’s Communist system, the dictatorship, and most of all to the “Revolucion.” Under Raul, while Cuba has introduced some economic openings and so-called positive gestures toward the United States, there is no historic precedent to weigh the true impact or results. Such gestures are disguises for hidden agendas. Further, there have been no positive political changes in Cuba, nor has Raul discussed introducing democratic changes. Human rights also remain questionable under Raul, with dissidents and the press is firmly controlled. In fact, in recent years repression against select groups has increased.

While Raul Castro carries the Castro name, he lacks both the credentials and the charisma of Fidel. Furthermore, unlike his brother, Raul’s position is not guaranteed and his rule depends on support from the Cuban military and the regimes elites. Raul received the mantle from his brother and any shift from Fidel’s system could cause his demise. His power depends largely on the approval of the same elites that maintain loyalty to Fidel Castro’s vision of the Revolution, and any effort to move away from those tenets could cost Raul his position. These powers could easily remove the octogenarian under the guise of ill health if he overstepped his boundaries. Particularly loosening the system’s hold and control and most importantly jeopardizing the opportunity for those in line of succession to have their turn at the helm of power and wealth.

In fact, some, including myself, see a more hardline stance from the cult of personality that originally surrounded Fidel Castro and transitioned to the hardened institution that now rules the island. The “historicos” – those with long loyal ties to the revolution and to Castro – are firmly ensconced in positions of power, including the military and the Politburo. Cuba’s regime elites have strong ties to the Castro family, and have benefited from the Castro-Communist system. They have long awaited their turn and will avenge anyone who tries to deny them of it. Cuba today is more like post-Mao China, than Venezuela’s post Chavez disaster.

Moreover, Cuba’s leadership will continue to clamp-down on dissent out of fear that any small opening would blow the system apart. The hierarchical leadership in Havana below the Castro’s has long worried that even small reforms would spark a counter- revolution on the island, a chance they are not willing to take.

While in a different vein, the military – which controls the Politburo, as well as the majority of the Cuban economy – abhors the idea of massive demonstrations and will take action to ensure it remains in control of its share of power. The military leader’s approach, while its sees the warming of relations with the U.S. as more important because it means more tourist dollars for the military-controlled tourism industry (and which go directly into the pockets of the generals), it on the other hand realizes normalizing relations jeopardizes its control and power as well. So this is something to watch closely. Nevertheless, for a long time to come, any outside foreign business and investment deals will continue to be controlled solely by the Cuba government, not directly with any private businesses or individuals within Cuba, without expressed specific consent of the Cuban government.

It should be understood that the system established and devised by Fidel Castro does not depend on Fidel or any Castro for success. It established and positioned the Communist system to remain intact even after Fidel and Raul leave office. Raul has already stated he will step-down in February 2018, and has essentially anointed Miguel Diaz-Canel as his successor. While Diaz-Canel is 30 years younger than Raul Castro, he is known on the island as a “Fidelista” and the president in waiting. He has been described as a Fidel loyalist and “disciplined Marxist.” In other words, his nomination is a deliberate decision for the continuation of the Communist regime and it’s Socialist policies after 2018, and well into the Cuba’s future.

To no end, Fidel nevertheless left options for exalting Communism's control and vanguard of the Revolution. Likewise, there is also the option of carrying on the Castro regime’s dynasty through Alejandro Castro Espin, Raul’s son, who is Raul’s personal advisor and Cuban’s Military and Interior Ministry’s intelligence service and represented Cuba in secret negotiations with the U.S. He is a hardline Communist and could easily replace Diaz-Canel as heir-apparent if Raul and the elites began to question the loyalty of Diaz-Canel. And after these two hardliners, there is still General Luis Alberto Rodriguez Lopez-Callejas, the father of Castro’s grandchildren and one of Cuba’s most powerful men and Mariela Castro Espin, Raul Castro’s daughter believed to be in line to lead the country following the other successors. So we will wait and see.

That said, however, the symbolism of Fidel Castro’s death is not insignificant. Without the shadow of Fidel over the island there is the possibility of change that did not exist as long as he was alive. This could include more positive communications with the United States, essentially forbidden while Fidel Castro was alive, potentially including cooperation on important issues, perhaps such as counter-terrorism and counter-narcotics efforts in the region.

The death of the iconic leader is certainly likely to reevaluate the stance of many anti-Cuba voices in the United States as well. First and foremost, Fidel Castro gave Americans a tangible, real target. Without him, there just isn’t the same intensity. It’s now Cuba, not Castro. With that, the death of Fidel Castro provides an opportunity for U.S. President-elect Donald Trump to reevaluate the U.S. direct anti-Castro rhetoric without Fidel Castro on the island. Condemning Castro as a “brutal dictator” on Saturday, Trump also spoke of a new beginning for the Cuban people toward prosperity and liberty — of course note, he specifically said “the Cuban people,” and not Havana, the Cuban government, or Raul Castro.

Further, Trump stated, “While Cuba remains a totalitarian island, it is my hope that today marks a move away from the horrors endured for too long, and toward a future in which the wonderful Cuban people finally live in the freedom they so richly deserve.”

Similarly, Trump put one of the harshest critics of Obama’s Cuba policy on his transition team, Mauricio Claver-Carone, who is executive director of the U.S.-Cuba Democracy Political Action Committee. But he also named a new deputy national security adviser, Kathleen T. “KT” McFarland, who has publicly backed open relations with Cuba, under the right conditions and to leverage the regime which of will be key, of course. Trump’s strict policy of never telegraphing our intentions will as a result require us to wait until the time and place of his choosing after he is President.

Certainly, timing will be critical as it will be necessary that we take the appropriate steps soon to ensure that Cuba doesn’t become a pawn Russian or Chinese  and thus serve as a launch pad to threaten American and reginal security were they to establish a military presence on the island. Russia has already been making inroads over the past year or so during the Obama administration, using the island to recover and refuel its reconnaissance bombers and to reestablishing its intelligence operations at Lourdes, Cuba its former Cold War signals intelligence collection site.

Fidel Castro’s passing may provide Trump with an opportunity to shift back to an earlier position when he supported conditional relations with the island – it is easier to finesse a campaign promise when it’s overtaken by events, particularly in light of Castro’s death.

As noted, predicting what Donald Trump will do next is not easy. Like other policies, Trump’s views on Cuba shifted over the course of months as the campaign heated up. During the Republican primaries, he repeatedly said he supported the idea of restoring diplomatic relations with Cuba, but criticized Obama for not striking a better deal that demand human rights, religious and press freedom, and significant political and democratic reform.

It was during the general election, when the Florida vote was in the balance that Trump shifted to a tougher line. During a September trip to Miami, he promised the traditionally conservative Cuban-American population that he’d reverse Obama’s appeals to Cuba unless the Communist government freed political prisoners and restored religious and demonstrated political freedoms.

Trump said at a campaign event, “All of the concessions Barack Obama has granted the Castro regime were done through executive order, which means the next president can reverse them, and that I will do unless the Castro regime meets our demands … Not my demands – our demands.” So again, we will see. I trust Trump will ensure America and the Cuban people’s interests are the priority. Although the Socialist system on Cuba is poised to continue, without Fidel, the possibility of real change exists – but again it will take tough American political leadership, diplomacy and statesmanship.

In closing I will leave you with this, the biggest reason Fidel Castro’s death matters is that is demonstrates that the Castro’s are, in fact, mortal. Change can and will happen. The only question is when. Fidel’s death perhaps will bring a sense of justice, but again, it will not change Cuba, certainly not immediately. Raul Castro has been at the head of the government for years – his succession is set and in play. In the meantime, Cuba is not free yet, so let’s not over react.

Jim Waurishuk is a retired USAF Colonel, serving nearly 30-years as a career senior intelligence and political-military affairs officer with expertise in strategic intelligence, international strategic studies and policy, and asymmetric warfare. He served combat and combat-support tours in Grenada, Panama, Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as on numerous special operations and intelligence contingencies in Central America, Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. He served as a special mission intelligence officer assigned to Joint Special Operations units and the CIA’s Asymmetric Warfare Task Force, as Deputy Director for Intelligence for U.S. Central Command (USCENTCOM) during the peak years of the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and the War on Terrorism. He is a former White House National Security Council staffer and former Distinguished Senior Fellow with the Atlantic Council, Washington, D.C