It is the moment of truth for Cuba. For many years, observers of Cuban affairs were wondering what would happen on the island at the time of the announcement of Fidel Castro’s death. After several false alarms that contributed to the myth of the commander in chief, his death at 90, after the celebration of his birthday in August, did not surprise anybody.
His brother Raúl Castro made the announcement shortly after the death in a short and simple statement read on television: So they apparently executed no maneuvered management strategy of the incident.
All day Saturday, Cuban television broadcasted alternately period documentaries and news on the domestic and international reactions while providing images of the funeral. A large gathering is planned on Nov. 29 at the Revolution Square, the symbolic location of the great revolutionary events. Then, the funeral caravan will cross the island from Havana to Santiago, where the funeral will be held on Dec. 4 at the Santa Ifigenia cemetery, the same one that houses the remains of José Martí, the founding father of post-colonial Cuba. The body will be cremated, as requested by Castro himself. No mausoleum Soviet-style is expected.
The question on everybody’s mind is how Cuba and Cubans living on the island will react. This is precisely the moment of truth. The legacy of the 1959 revolution is at stake. Who will prevail: those who believe it was an accident of history to be erased at once, or those who think that, despite the many mistakes and limitations, these 57 years are not to be thrown in the trash?
And how will the new administration of Donald Trump act? This is a question of no little consequence. Of course, the death of Castro falls under unfavorable trading conditions for Cuba and not only because of what’s happening in Washington: Across Latin America, winds of change are blowing strongly, as evidenced by what happened in Brazil and Argentina. The progressive Latin America of the last 15 years is ending with the return of the right to power.
However, nothing traumatic is expected in the immediate future. Raúl Castro and the Havana government are steadfast, and even Castro’s death was already taken into account. The problem will be to understand what the reaction in Cuba will be in the medium- and long-term. The first test is for the peculiar Cuban nationalism which also displays Latin American colors. Will this identity — the so-called Cubania — prevail once more against lifestyle trends favoring the powerful American neighbor? The revolution has embodied much of Cuban culture: The last Latin American country to free itself from Spanish colonialism in 1898 was the first to challenge the U.S. dominance that had effectively annexed the island.
Undermining the principle of self-determination will not be easy for those in Miami who celebrated the death of Castro with horns and fireworks, as if Cuba had won the World Cup. Education, culture and health services despite the perennial austerity are not to be thrown away from one day to the next in the name of the miraculous virtues of the free market. Even amid contradictions and dark times, Cuba was in fact a non-trivial social, political and cultural laboratory: It is wrong to presume that it was only “real socialism” in the tropics. The status quo would not have resisted a U.S. trade embargo for more than 50 years in addition to 25 years without Moscow’s support if there weren’t a strong cluster of values and emotional connection shared by a substantial part of its population.
Therefore, the fate of Cuba is in the hands of Cubans inside and outside the island. It is difficult to imagine a scenario in which civil war or the instinct of revenge would prevail, because Barack Obama and Pope Francis — with their recent trips to the island — have paved the path of dialogue. And Havana reacted to this news with pride and intelligence.
So the issue at hand is how the already ongoing transition in Cuba toward a social model of mixed economy will develop, no longer fully a state economy, and if the political openings can handle the inevitable changes. Raúl Castro, who announced his retirement in the next two years, has the task of handing Cuba over to the third generation born after 1959. Castro had brought it this far.