Regardless of how long he lives, Fidel Castro has already played an influential role in shaping Cuba's political history. Fidel was the most popular leader in a generation of Cubans, a protagonist who reached world dimensions during the Missile Crisis and the struggle against Apartheid in the Southern Cone of Africa. No leader in Cuba could speak; bring enthusiasm to his followers, and plant fear in his enemies as Fidel Castro did. His charisma and nationalist defiance against the U.S. embargo was no doubt an important source of the communist party's support but he also attracted many Cubans due to his writings, and speeches.
A completely Fidel-centered approach was always insufficient to analyze Cuba after the revolution. Some of Fidel's policies were the product of his own views but other campaigns were the result of influences by different interests within Cuba's power structure. But when Fidel was committed to a policy, he was the minimal winning coalition. Politics at the government level consisted of guessing and implementing what could help Fidel's grand strategy. This limited the feedback on policy and the information flows of the system.
The recently approved term limits were unthinkable under Fidel's aegis. He was not only the main creator of institutions in post-revolutionary Cuba but also the charismatic totalitarian leader who reduced their importance, sometimes unconsciously. In his statements, Fidel Castro always advocated for "democratic centralism," not a cult of personality, but in practice, his charisma and political dominance prevented the complete institutionalization of a legal-rational bureaucratic rule. The government was wherever he was; its priorities were his priorities.
The "Fidel in command" model truly ended when he got sick in 2006. Unlike Mao in China and Stalin in the Soviet Union, Fidel Castro seems comfortable with his planned succession. He acts as a chairman emeritus of a corporation, sometimes visiting projects and taking part in few, but important decisions. He has basically entrusted Raul Castro with the fate of the project he founded. He knows that his younger brother and the alliance of military leaders and party czars are in full control of the Armed Forces, the Cuban Communist Party (CCP), the intelligence and counterintelligence units, and the entire State.
Now, Raúl Castro's commitment to economic reforms and institutionalization is opening venues for the emergence of a new general political discourse. The expansion of the market in the economy, the new property structure and rights, and the expansion of the role of rules in the functioning of the government and the Communist party (CCP) are openly discussed. This is not part of a transition to a multiparty democracy but embodies the relaxation of information controls and empowers the expression of pluralistic interests within the Cuban society. Public discourse is breaking away from the homogenous path of previous times, not only in the publications of the Catholic Church or reform oriented magazines, but also in the core publications of the system. Newspapers and radios on the provinces, and even Granma, the Communist party newspaper, are talking about the need for separating the party from the government.
One ideological factor that is emerging in post-Fidel Cuba is an increased emphasis in a nationalist narrative. During Fidel Castro's leadership, particularly before 1989, the CCP promoted a feeling of belonging to the international communist bloc. Internationalism, not nationalism, was the central ideological principle of Cuba's foreign policy. Now, the emphasis on the revolution as a solution to a history of national humiliation is becoming predominant and issues such as national unity, economic growth and public order are emerging more forcefully in the official discourse. The struggle against the U.S. embargo is becoming again the strongest unifying ideological factor in the elite and between the CCP and the population.
What would happen in Cuba when Fidel Castro dies? A funeral. It is important not to exaggerate his current impact in Cuba's policy-making. He has been a retired head of State for seven years. In the short term, one can predict with certainty: that there will not be a collapse of government in Havana, regardless of how long the older Castro or the "younger" Castro remain alive. The processes of economic reform and social liberalization are irreversible but the acceptance of political pluralism remains a pending task. Raul Castro has already chosen his successor Miguel Diaz Canel, a former provincial party czar on his early fifties and most likely will play the leading role in choosing Diaz Canel's first Vice-president, the potential successor of his successor, in 2016 since the Communist party adopted a rule of two five years-term limits.
Cuban politics is becoming more impersonal. Economic and travel reforms together with an expansion of freedom of religion is altering the political dynamics not only in Cuba but also on the Cuban American community and U.S. debate about the embargo. The intensities of the antipathy and sympathy generated by Fidel are not transferable to any other Cuban leader. That is a present that Fidel Castro has given all of us to contemplate on this, his 87th birthday.