Cuba, the Communist island-nation that has been dominated by the Castro brothers (first Fidel, now Raul) since the revolution that overthrew U.S.-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959, may soon have a fresh public face. “I am going to resign,” Raul Castro, the 81-year-old incumbent president who took over for his ailing older brother in 2006, told reporters Friday. He declined to elaborate or offer any kind of timeline, instead simply citing his old age as a legitimate reason to step back from public life and teasing that he might break news in his speech after parliament officially grants him another five year term on Sunday.
Raul Castro has been something of a change agent since taking the helm, ushering in limited private-sector reforms intended to stimulate and modernize the sputtering Cuban economy. He has also eased restrictions on those citizens who wish to travel abroad, allowing prominent blogger and dissident Yoani Sanchez to embark on a world tour (with mixed results). Of course, Cuba remains a one-party state that saw political arrests reach their highest figure in decades last year, albeit with a new (if not precisely improved) approach that features shorter periods of incarceration. Perhaps more important for the future of domestic politics, Castro has spoken out in the past about wanting to set a two-term limit for all elected officials. If Castro were to step down, it would mean that along with Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez — whom some observers believe essentially returned to Venezuela to die, easing the political transition with his presence — two of Latin America’s most entrenched politicians (and two stalwarts of regional socialism) will have left the scene. And their absences might prove transformational.
The ascent of new leadership in Cuba — assuming Castro helps bring in someone young as opposed to, say, an aging party luminary like First Vice President José Ramón Machado Ventura– would leave its biggest mark on relations with the United States. Though the vocal Cuban-American population (and its conservative GOP standard-bearers in the U.S. Congress) are sure to insist that the decades-long embargo remain in place, perhaps Castro’s successor would be open to making the kind of political changes (like releasing American contractor Alan Gross) that would set the stage for a thaw in relations. After all, Barack Obama caught flak on the campaign trail last year for easing travel restrictions for those with family on the island. He ultimately won by a healthy margin, but more importantly, he broke the record for Democratic support from the Cuban-American population in Florida, suggesting that the community is changing and perhaps not quite as knee-jerk in its opposition to engagement with the homeland.
We don’t know yet just how serious Raul Castro is about passing the torch: his remarks were delivered in a semi-facetious manner. And there are still a few veterans of the revolution like Ventura who might take his place. But the chance for a real paradigm shift in Latin American politics is there, even if the chilly reception Sanchez encountered in Brazil and other leftist enclaves speaks to the enduring appeal in the region of anti-U.S. bravado. Whether the growing appeal of market reforms — and new efforts by leftist leaders like Ecuador’s Rafael Correa to attract foreign capital — is sufficient to overcome decades of mistrust remains to be seen. That the departure of Castro and Chavez in rapid succession would open the door for a younger, less stridently anti-capitalist new crop of political elites looks, however, nearly certain.