Harvard International Review | By Jaime Suchlicki, Emilio Bacardi Moreau Distinguished Professor and Director, Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies, University of Miami.

Fidel Castro is fighting his last battle—one that he cannot win. Death will not elude him. Cuba is witnessing the end of the Fidelista era and the beginning of a Raulista one. Now that power has passed into the hands of the younger brother, questions about Cuba’s future remain: What can Raul hope to accomplish within the existing socio-political and economic context of Cuba? More importantly, what options in domestic and foreign affairs are open to Cuba’s new leaders? What are the chances that they will be unable or unwilling to exercise any major options at all? Should they fear upsetting the multilevel balance of interests upon which a new government will depend?

Raul faces significant challenges: a non-productive economy highly dependent on Venezuela and other foreign sources, popular unrest, a need to maintain order and discipline among the population, and a need to increase productivity. Raul is critically dependant on the military. Lacking the charisma of his brother, he will also require the support of key party leaders and technocrats within the government bureaucracy.

Of paramount importance is the need for the Raul Castro regime to strike a balance between the need to improve the economy and maintaining political control. Too rapid economic reforms may lead to an unraveling of political control, a possibility feared by Raul, the military, and other allies keen on remaining in power. An initial solution may be to provide more consumer goods to the population, including food, but without any structural economic changes.

The stability of the regime is based primarily on the strength of its institutions. The armed forces are undoubtedly the most vital of the three “legs” on which the revolution stands. The other two, the Communist Party and the security apparatus, are under increased military supervision and serve to control, mobilize, socialize, and indoctrinate the population under increased military supervision. The organization and strength of the bureaucracy that has grown up around these institutions seem to assure the revolution’s continuity. A revolt against Raul Castro’s rule in the absence of large-scale outside intervention seems unlikely, especially as long as the Cuban armed forces remain loyal to him, which appears highly likely. Created by Raul Castro, they have developed a large measure of professionalism, are thoroughly integrated into the political system, and enjoy an important and trusted role in the general management and control of the economy. Today, more than 60 percent of major industries and enterprises are in the hands of current or former military officers.

However, opposition and dissident groups and projects have developed in the recent past. The best known is the Varela Project, which gathered more than 11,000 signatures to petition the National Assembly to amend Cuba’s laws and permit free elections. For the first time in more than four decades, large numbers of Cubans peacefully mobilized to petition the government. Fidel Castro’s response was swift and brutal. He held his own plebiscite to proclaim the permanent and unchanging communist nature of his regime and prohibit the National Assembly from considering such projects. This was followed by the arrest and sentencing to long jail terms of several dozen dissidents, journalists, and librarians, including many members of the Varela project.

While opposition and unhappiness have been growing in Cuba, the dissident groups are weak and usually infiltrated by Cuban state security. Without access to the media, which is totally state-controlled and constantly harassed by the police, these groups find it difficult to organize and operate. Many of their leaders have shown enormous courage in defying the regime. Yet, time and again, the security apparatus has discredited or destroyed them. They do not represent a major threat to the regime.

A consolidated Raul regime will most likely follow the policies of Fidel, offering few new substantive domestic or foreign policy initiatives. Any serious overtures to the US do not seem likely in the near future. Any pro-US action would mean the rejection of one of Fidel Castro’s main legacies: anti-Americanism. Pro-US action might create uncertainty within the Raul government, leading to friction and factionalism. It would require the weakening of Cuba’s anti-American alliance with radical regimes in Latin America, Iran, and Syria. From Cuba’s point of view, the United States has little to offer that is not already in Cuba: American tourists, which Raul neither wants nor needs, American investments which he fears may subvert his highly centralized and controlled economy, and products that he can buy cheaper from other countries. The United States does not have the ability to provide Cuba with the petroleum Venezuela is sending for little or no payment. Recognition by the United States may mean a great victory for Raul and the legitimization of his regime. Yet it’s a small prize when compared to the uncertainties that a Cuba-US relation may produce internally and externally among Cuba’s allies.

Raul is no Gorbachov or Deng Xiaoping. With his brother alive, and even when he is gone, he is not likely to institute major economic or political reforms. Forty-seven years as Minister of Defense has hardened him; he is more Stalinist than liberal reformer. Whether the Raulista era lasts a long period or not, Cubans seem destined to endure difficult times and a harsh military dictatorship. With increased military control, the transformation of the island into a democratic society will be difficult.