By Risa Grais-Targow
By all rational measures, Cuba is effectively irrelevant to the United States. The island is small, its economy is about the size of New Hampshire's, and since the collapse of the USSR it poses no strategic threat. Yet the Castros have a habit of popping up in the headlines. In part, that is because of the inevitable fascination with a small country that has been a foreign policy irritant for the United States since 1959 and, more recently, its outsized role in Florida politics. But change is coming to Cuba, slowly but surely, and with change comes the possibility of unexpected volatility.
Cuba is gearing up for the first Cuban Communist Party (CCP) congress in 14 years, to be held April 16-19. Much of the event will be focused on formalizing Raul Castro's small steps toward economic liberalization (e.g., trimming the state's workforce and allowing more room for entrepreneurs) outlined in a November 2010 wish-list of 300 reforms. Another, perhaps more important, development will be the identification of the next generation of leaders, including the appointment of a new second-in-command for the CCP (the second most powerful position in Cuba). The long delay since the previous CCP congress suggests that there has been much internal wrangling over that issue.
The Castros are clearly on the way out (Fidel is 84 and Raul is 79), and the CCP has promised that the congress will usher in a new generation of leaders. Just how new and young they will be remains to be seen. On March 25, Raul Castro announced that the 50-year-old Economy and Planning Minister Marino Murillo, who has been the architect of much of the economic reform agenda, would now oversee its implementation as a sort of economic czar, signaling Raul's devotion to the reform process. The CCP may, however, simply shuffle senior party members into new positions rather than appoint younger reformers.
Such developments could also be important for the U.S. and perhaps trade with Cuba. Unless Congress decides to revisit the issue, the Helms-Burton Act of 1996 stipulates that the Cuban embargo cannot be lifted while the Castro regime is still in power. A shift in the leadership could also open the way to dealing with other potential concerns. For example, Cuba is actively exploring for oil in the Gulf of Mexico, raising U.S. concerns about how it would handle disasters similar to the 2010 Macondo well blowout.
But the CCP faces deeper challenges than this round of leadership refreshment. Most young Cubans are disenchanted with the regime. They have spent most of their lives in post-Soviet Cuba dealing with grinding economic hardship. Finding true believers among that generation is likely a difficult task and the regime's ability to implement meaningful reforms will affect the stability of Cuban politics further down the line.
Risa Grais-Targow is an analyst in Eurasia Group's Latin America practice.
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