THE BLOG
01/19/2015 09:00 am ET Updated Mar 21, 2015

What Happens in Cuba After Fidel?

Boris Spremo via Getty Images

As a U.S.-born Cuban and historian who has traveled to Cuba dozens of times since my career began nearly 18 years ago, there is one question that I am asked more than any other: What will happen in Cuba after Fidel Castro dies?

In many ways, the question itself reveals how most people outside of Cuba understand the revolutionary government: whether they agree with the image or not, most Americans and Cubans in the United States (with the possible exception of recent immigrants) inadvertently validate the revolutionary government's own vision of itself as a monolithic state legitimately embodied in the heroic, charismatic figure of Fidel Castro. Just as Cuba's state-controlled media and officials have always wanted us to believe, Fidel is not only supposed to be the state but, by default, the Cuban people. As Che Guevara once wrote, one is the same as the other.

By contrast, most island Cubans call the revolutionary government el sistema. Why they do might provide the best possible answer to the question of what will become of Cuba in the wake of Fidel's disappearance from the political scene and the legacies of his rule. Moreover, understanding the inner workings of el sistema serves to explain how Raúl Castro and Barack Obama's recent decision to renew diplomatic relations may not change Cuba in ways politically or economically beneficial to the majority of citizens.

In order to predict the future of Cuba without Fidel, one first has to look back to understand what Cuba was like with Fidel. Today, few would deny the overwhelming popular euphoria that hailed the triumph of Fidel Castro's 26th of July Movement over the U.S.-backed Batista regime in 1959. Yet denials of his overwhelming support among the population for years after 1959 have become increasingly common in recent years, especially in Miami. While it is impossible, at one level, to measure support for Fidel and the Revolution in the absence of polling, a free press or the right to form organized opposition forces at the time, most exiles who left Cuba in the mid-to-late 1960s and early 1970s (the peak of immigration) testified that Fidel Castro's popularity never dramatically waned among a majority of Cubans over the course of the first 15-or-so years of the revolutionary state.

Nonetheless, the difference between this historic, in-the-moment testimony and exiles' memory today is understandable. Contrary to what most outside observers, especially U.S. supporters of the Revolution, reported at the time, Cubans became much more equally poor than equally rich under communism in the 1960s and 70s, at least until the effects of Soviet planning and subsidies set in. While certainly many Cubans -- particularly landless peasants and underemployed workers -- benefited from state-funded housing and educational programs in the first years after 1959, most Cubans enjoyed better salaries but quickly found that they had little or nothing to buy. Undoubtedly, the U.S. embargo hit Cubans hard, but the misguided policies of Fidel's capricious economic planners, such as laws restricting the rights of small farmers to grow and market crops of their own choosing, hit them even harder.

Still, despite the extraordinary geopolitical pressures, raging austerity and daily challenges involved with acquiring basic goods on the ration, the Communist Party and its attending apparatus of "mass organizations" -- such as Cuba's unique neighborhood-based citizen-surveillance groups known as Committees for the Defense of the Revolution, or CDRs -- grew stronger, not weaker.

How did that happen? Arguably, the political power of the state grew in direct proportion to its control over people's material lives and the restricting of citizens' autonomy, that is, their ability to pursue a livelihood unconnected to leaders' demands for loyalty.

To be precise, 1968 represents ground zero for the consolidation of el sistema in this regard. Overnight on March 13 of that year, the state nationalized all small businesses, banned private enterprise of any kind and initiated unprecedented mass mobilizations of unpaid, "voluntary" labor. In order to pass ideological muster, membership suddenly became mandatory in CDRs, the elementary school-based Pioneers for Communism, Federation of Cuban Women, state-run labor unions, etc.

As Fidel Castro repeatedly explained, political education through these organizations, together with hard, free manual labor for the state, would strip citizens of their "selflessness" and "greed," preparing them for the prosperous, egalitarian and materially developed paradise that was yet to come. Indeed, Cubans soon joked that Fidel Castro paid so much attention to Cuba's future in virtually every speech that if the future tense did not exist, Fidel would have gone mute.

Of course, that paradise never came. Instead, by the mid 1970s, Cuba boasted the smallest, most elite Communist Party in the world. Meanwhile, citizens passed through highly politicized schools and universities to enter workplaces that distributed promotions and material rewards based on demonstrated political loyalty and expressions of uncritical views of "the Revolution," rather than efficiency, professionalism and results. More than ever, citizens understood that cultivating certain attitudes and performing them -- on the street, in rallies, at work, even in some homes -- was essential to being seen not just as revolutionary but, in the emerging political parlance, simply "Cuban." In short, the will to police oneself and others in a surveillance culture went hand in hand with deference to leaders' higher will and allegedly higher political consciousness. As ¡Comandante en Jefe, ordene! became a common political slogan, the will to surveil and to follow Fidel served as primary markers of revolutionary citizenship.

No wonder so many Cubans left Cuba at the end of the Revolution's first decade and no wonder so many thousands more spontaneously rushed the gates of the Peruvian Embassy in 1980 and filled the port of Mariel in subsequent weeks for the chance to live in the United States: in Cuba, not only were one-party, one-line politics impossible to escape, but the whole structure of society allowed citizens no breathing room. Put simply, whether in the form of a chess club or a ladies' sewing circle, citizen organizing without prior state authorization and representation, mostly through one's local CDR, was simply not allowed.

In 1989, the collapse of the Soviet trading bloc ended a period islanders referred to as la época de las vas gordas [the time of the fat cows] and initiated what many called la época sin vacas [the time of no cows]. Labeled "The Special Period in a Time of Peace" by Fidel Castro, a sweeping set of reforms announced in 1992-93 reversed most of the policies of 1968. They also overturned earlier fundamental laws passed in pre-Communist years, when the goal of supportive citizens was to eliminate U.S. violations of Cuban sovereignty and foreign domination of the economy. Just as suddenly as they had once been banned, citizen entrepreneurialism, open expressions of religiosity and small-time capitalism emerged as rights -- so along as these activities did not compete directly with the state's profits or political objectives.

To the shock and horror of most citizens, many of whom had come to believe in the ideological principles they passionately defended, the very military chiefs who once prohibited foreign investment and condemned neoliberal trade zones in the rest of Latin America championed a state-owned, state-run economic model based on nearly the same thing. Since 2011, Raúl Castro's policies, especially the law allowing citizens to own and sell private property, have helped to consolidate the power of these military officers and top Communist officials who, until that point, could not easily invest the salaries they earned running state-capitalist corporations and joint venture firms with foreign partners.

Today, nearly a month after Raúl Castro and Barack Obama's announcements of a normalization of diplomatic relations, the wealth and power of Cuba's already wealthy and powerful political elite can only increase. With the support of former giants of the pre-1959 foreign-dominated economy, such as Cuban sugar magnate Alfie Fanjul and potentially well-known U.S. corporations such as Dole (an outgrowth of the infamously monopolistic United Fruit), one can easily imagine the creation of a classic Latin American oligarchy in Cuba, ironically founded on a post-nationalist, post-Fidel Communist state.

When Fidel Castro dies -- if he is not dead already -- Cubans will face an era marked by forces and constraints similar to those they have faced in the past. In other words, el sistema is stacked against them: without the right to organize politically, let alone lead a march down any Havana street or start a chess club without permission, they enjoy little or no influence over their government and their leaders enjoy little accountability. Obviously, Fidel Castro remains primarily responsible for the policies that most affected Cubans and created both a national security state and a surveillance culture long before such terms were common. Yet, arguably most citizens know that, in the past, the creation of structures of state control in the name of national security and the strict management of an "opposition-free" environment relied on citizens' willingness to believe in the need for control -- or at the very least, turn the other way whenever that control was defied.

Voluntarily in many cases and forcibly in others, Fidel Castro and other leaders made citizens complicit and therefore also responsible for the security on which Cuba's Communist Party-led government relies. If el sistema does not change or if Cubans feel that they cannot change it themselves, Fidel Castro's life or death will make little or no difference to Cuba's future. However, along with most islanders I know, there is no doubt that the opening of diplomatic ties between Cuba and the United States is something that many of us thought would never happen, especially in the absence of a formal declaration from Cuban state officials of Fidel Castro's death. For better or for worse, if Fidel Castro's life radically changed the historical path Cuba might have taken, there can be no doubt that his death can and will mean the same thing.

This post is part of a Huffington Post blog series called "90 Miles: Rethinking the Future of U.S.-Cuba Relations." The series puts the spotlight on the emerging relations between two long-standing Western Hemisphere foes and will feature pre-eminent thought leaders from the public and private sectors, academia, the NGO community, and prominent observers from both countries. Read all the other posts in the series here.

If you'd like to contribute your own blog on this topic, send a 500-850-word post to impactblogs@huffingtonpost.com (subject line: "90 Miles").