Havana, Cuba on December, 2015: a local Cuban shop. Photo: Shutterstock

A vegetarian restaurant with brown sauce chicken on the menu

Cuban revolution becomes softer on the economy (but remains hard-line on politics)

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As it happens with yogurts – for biological reasons, they have an expiration date –, 89-year-old Raúl Castro (who turns 90 in June) officially left his post as secretary-general of Cuba’s Communist Party a few days ago. Besides being the real power on the island, the PCC (Partido Comunista de Cuba, in Spanish) is the country’s sole political party. Raúl spent 62 years inside the high ranks of power on the island, since his brother arrived in Havana in January 1959, after a brief – if intense – years of guerrilla warfare in the Sierra Maestra, in the Cuban countryside. At the time, the Castros overthrew the right-wing dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista and installed their own left-wing dictatorship.

But the Party’s update went beyond Castro since other historical figures also stepped down from the now octogenarian/nonagenarian hardcore of  “La Revolución”, among them the 88-year-old commander Ramiro Valdés (who was the vice president of the State Council, a post comparable to the vice president) and 90-year-old José Ramón Machado Ventura (who was the PCC’s second secretary-general).

Exit the military veterans, the former guerrillas who overthrew the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista in the 1950s. Enter the civilian technocrats, all of them born after the Revolution. Such is the case of the PCC’s new secretary-general, Miguel Díaz-Canel, who was appointed by Raúl Castro to be the president of the Council of Ministers (a post comparable to the president of Brazil) in 2018.

Miguel Díaz-Canel and Raúl Castro in a Labor Day celebration, 2019. Photo: Cuba Government’s website

The change of power happened during the 8th Conference of the PCC. Now, Díaz-Canel holds the two posts, just like Raúl did until three years ago and Fidel did before him.

According to political pundits, there is a marketing issue. Díaz-Canel doesn’t have the “revolutionary mystique” of those who were in the Sierra Maestra, a feat that enabled the old guard to justify any measure. To make matters worse, Díaz-Canel deals with an economy that plummeted 11% last year, with the American embargo still in effect and with the island still trying to recover from last years’ devastating hurricanes, which caused severe damage to agriculture and infrastructure. And, on top of all that, there is a lack of foreign tourists because of the pandemic.

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However, Díaz-Canel bets on the four COVID-19 vaccines in development by Cuban laboratories. Two of them are in the final phase of testing. If the scientists succeed, the plan is to export the vaccines and eventually attract tourists to get a shot from the island supply.

Good cop, Bad cop

Fidel Castro controlled the regime from 1959 to 2006. In the latter year, he participated in a Mercosur summit held in Córdoba, Argentina. In the plane back to Havana, he felt sick. Upon arrival, he went to the hospital and had several surgeries. He would never be the same after that. His brother Raúl assumed power unofficially (the presidential office, the post of secretary-general of the Communist Party and the command of the military forces).

But in 2008, because of Fidel’s failing health, Raúl as a leader became official.

Fidel Castro, February 1989. Photo: Shutterstock

However, until his death in 2016, Fidel continued to be a symbolic influence. In the end, several generations of Cubans knew only one leader. While Lenin died 7 years after the Russian Revolution; Mao Zedong died 27 years after assuming power in China; and even North Korea saw three generations of the same family hand over the command one to the other; Fidel Castro remained alive 57 years after his troops took over Havana.

Fidel was the grumpy old man, the killjoy, the bad cop… Whereas Raúl, as president, was the nice guy, the good cop. In 2015, one day before the arrival of Obama’s envoy as part of the reconciliation between the two countries – a process started by his brother Raúl –, Fidel wrote a piece complaining that the United State owes Cuba “many millions” of dollars for the damages caused by the American embargo.

Castro-less (ou nearly)

Without Raúl, the name Castro disappears from the high ranks for the first time since 1959. However, one Castro remains, the low profile and very powerful Alejandro “O Caolho” Castro Espín, an army colonel who commands the department of intelligence and counterintelligence. Although Alejandro is the son of Raúl, he spent all his life closer to his uncle Fidel, with whom he shared a more orthodox take on the regime, unlike his “more relaxed” father.

He earned the nickname “O Caolho” [One-Eyed] after being injured in the Angolan Civil War (Alejandro was hurt during military training and not in combat).

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Over the years, political analysts mull over the fact that Alejandro would be “the heir” to the Castro dynasty. But Raúl would have decided to leave the explicit nepotism aside in order to avoid comparisons with North Korea and the Kim family. And thus chose a civilian for the post.

However, Alejandro will continue to inform his father of every decision made by Díaz-Canel and his team. Besides that, all signs point to Díaz-Canel knocking on Raúl’s door once in a while asking for advice in crucial matters.


“Without stop… but with no hurry”, said Raúl in 2011, when he suggested the beginning of a reform to break with the Soviet model established by his brother Fidel. This process was called “socialism update” in order to appease the old guard. A euphemism to name the economic overture to increase the role of capitalism.

Raúl Castro, April 2017. Photo: Shutterstock

Gradually, Raúl has granted licenses to small-scale Cuban entrepreneurs. First, it was a handful of sectors, like restaurants, hostels and hair salons. Then the list was expanded to mechanical workshops, electronic retail shops, small farming enterprises and so on.

The private sector expanded gradually and constantly, and today holds 15% of the jobs on the island. But its value is bigger, since it accounts for 33% of the GDP (Gross Domestic Product).

In 2019, the regime took a step further and approved a new federal constitutional law that recognizes “private property” and “the market”. Therefore, the “communist society” established by the old law ceases to exist. However, according to the new constitution, the PCC is “the vanguard of society” and is responsible for the guidelines to rule the country.

Days before the PCC’s conference, something happened – something unimaginable just a few years ago. The regime gave permission for farmers to sell beef and dairy after they meet the state quotas. And, for the first time, the president and the prime minister have met with representatives of the private sector. Or, in another euphemism used by the regime: those who work with “non-state management”.

This is like a vegetarian restaurant where you can eat baby-beef and brown sauce chicken. However, the sign outside still says: “Vegetarian Restaurant”.

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A few days ago, Díaz-Canel said it was necessary to attract foreign money. “It’s time to erase the prejudices of the past… and to ensure a new business model”, said the Cuban leader.

The diplomatic talks with the Barak Obama administration years ago made the economic overture easier. But the election of Donald Trump put an end on this effort. And stipulated some setbacks.

Trump left the White House. And for now, president Joe Biden, the new tenant, is quiet about Cuba.


Días-Canel, known as “a manager”, wears jeans and listens to The Beatles, both things would be despised in the era of Fidel Castro. But they are just two examples of how the island has changed. In 2016, this became transparent when symbols of the “bourgeois and decadent capitalism” landed in Cuba, in great style.

The Rolling Stones was first. They performed the “Friendship Concert” and half a million people came to see the band at Havana’s Cidade Esportiva. Another half a million stayed outside the huge terrain, just listening to the show, i.e., almost 10% of the entire population of Cuba was there to attend something that Fidel described as “a decadent musical genre”.

Chanel fashion show in Havana, 2016. Image: Screenshot / Youtube / Chanel

In the same year, the regime gave permission for the producers of the movie “Fast and Furious” to shoot in Havana. Last but not least, soon after that, the french brand Chanel staged a fashion show to kick off a new collection by the designer Karl Lagerfeld. And on top of it, Tony Castro, one of Fidel’s grandchildren, was one of the models. Cubans have an ironic sense of humor and they said that the island went from being “Marxist-Leninist” to become “Marxist-Chanelist”.


Simultaneously, Raúl Castro made a peculiar move and started to approach the Catholic Church, dominant on the island for five centuries since the arrival of Christopher Columbus.

The first move was made by Fidel in 1996, when John Paul II became the first pope to visit Cuba. In 2012, Raúl was president when pope Benedict XVI traveled to the island.

In the constitutional law of 1976, Cuba declared itself an atheist state. However, in 1992, after the fall of the Soviet Union, Fidel changed the status and declared that the Cuban state was secular. Therefore, priests and religious people were not considered “counter-revolutionaries” anymore.

In 1997, after 28 years of prohibition, the Cuban regime gave permission to the Christmas celebration. In 2012, the government reinstated the Holy Week. And, in march 2014, the cardinal Jaime Ortega laid the foundation stone of a new church, dedicated to John Paul II. And, as a sign of the new politics towards the Vatican, the land was given by the Cuban state to the Catholic Church.

In 2015, Raúl Castro met with Pope Francis at the Vatican. After the meeting, he said to journalists: “I read all the speeches of the pope, his commentaries, and if the pope continues this way, I will go back to praying and go back to the church. I’m not joking”. As young men, Raúl and Fidel Castro attended to Colégio Jesuíta de Dolores, in Santiago de Cuba.

The statement would be a heresy to any Marxist on the planet. However, according to some ironic political analysts, “Cubans are Marxists from the Caribbean”.

Role models

After the end of the Soviet Union in 1991, the island suffered without the financial and commercial support of its most important ally – a relationship that lasted for 30 years. The result was a huge economic crisis that impoverished the country.

The USSR turned into dust when the double move of Mikhail Gorbachev failed, i.e., the Perestroika (economic reform) and the Glasnost (political reform).

8th Conference of the Communist Party of Cuba, in April 2021. Photo: Cuba Government’s website

For the regime in Havana, it became clear that the only way to stay in power is the Chinese way, the “Găigé Kāifàng” of Deng Xiaoping. Or the Vietnamese version, the “Doi Moi”. In both cases, the regime would stimulate more economic reforms – capitalism for the people –, but with the PCC holding the power.

In an example of this, alongside the economic overture, the regime continues to arrest political dissidents and to regulate the growth of the social media (considered “subversive”).

A few days ago, Ted Henken, professor at Baruch College, in New York, and author of  “Cuba’s Digital Revolution”, said that the Cuban regime “is afraid of any change that it is not choreographing and in control of, and that doesn’t come from the top down — which is ironic for what began as a popular revolution [in 1959] that was massively supported by the people.”

Translated by Carolina Pompeo.