Is Raúl Castro simply a clone of his elder brother Fidel? Solving that evolving puzzle may be a step toward ending one of the most prolonged and divisive disputes in U.S. foreign policy today, though neither a positive nor negative conclusion justifies a continuation of the current embargo.

During the Cold War, trying to isolate Cuba served American security interests because Cuba was the most important ally of the Soviet bloc in the Western Hemisphere. But since the fall of the Soviet Union, U.S. policy toward Cuba has focused on “nation building” and agitation to improve lives for Cubans and overthrow the Castros. Analysts who reject those as adequate grounds for a legitimate policy, as I do, can also critique what Washington is doing on its own terms: has it been successful in nation building or ousting the Castros? No.

The first challenge is to see if Raúl’s reforms since taking the top political offices between 2006 and 2008 have really begun to change conditions on the island. The best Cuban exile experts disagree. Economist Carmelo Mesa-Lago has called the reforms “the most extensive and profound” changes on the island in decades, though still inadequate, whereas journalist Carlos Alberto Montaner calls them “token gestures.”

Raúl and the Cuban Communist Party (CCP) speak only of “updating the economic model.” At best, this a ploy to mask criticism of Fidel’s decades of economic failures while undertaking serious reforms. At worst, it is a fraud for policies truly intended only to apply bandages to policies recently characterized as Frankenstein’s “monsters”; they are welcome but in the end non-starters.

Changes and Conditions

I surveyed Raúl’s specific policy responses to Cuba’s challenges earlier this year in an essay entitled “Cuba’s Tortured Transition.” After a two-week visit to Cuba in mid-year, my sixth since 1983, I will here focus on the individual, cultural, and institutional factors that promote or impede substantive reform in the years ahead.

If Cuban leaders were free to think outside the socialist box, their best reform model would be Taiwan, where an authoritarian regime created a balanced and productive market economy and cultivated a democratic political system. Realistically, however, Cuba will not take this route under its current leadership, and thus its more likely near-term models are allies China and Vietnam. Former high-level Cuban officials who worked closely with Raúl and later coauthored articles with me affirm the younger Castro’s standing interest in systematic, long-term economic reforms in the direction of those undertaken by these Asian allies. Raúl’s current heir apparent, Vice President Miguel Diaz-Canel, visited both countries in June.

The Castros have never respected individual rights, though they claim to do so with education and preventive health programs for all. But in these and other socio-economic fields Cuba rated high among Latin American nations before the Castros arrived, though with an imbalance between urban and rural sectors. Under the Castros Cuba has fallen in the regional rankings. The United Nations Development Programme’s 2013 Human Development Index rates Cuba fifty-ninth in the world and sixth in Latin America, a respectable but not stunning record. The 2013 Human Rights Watch World Report concluded that Cuba “represses virtually all forms of political dissent” and economic freedoms are just beginning to sprout in a system recently branded “handcuffed capitalism.”

Frankenstein in Havana

Cuban professor Carlos Alzugaray has underlined the gravity of Cuba’s current economic problems by using what he calls the “Frankenstein metaphor.” Speaking in June at Stanford University, he said Fidel’s economic policies were meant to be a gift to mankind, like Frankenstein’s creature. But like the creature they turned out to be "monsters." Though Alzugaray did not openly criticize “Father” Fidel, he noted the latter’s debilitating insistence on state control of all economic policy and his long opposition to the free markets, individual initiative, and entrepreneurship.

Fidel’s freely chosen economic plan was, over the course of a half-century, uniformly disastrous in terms of political freedoms and economic development. From the 1960s on, Fidel’s policies paralyzed the nation.

Fidel Castro was one of modern history’s most arrogant leaders. He never learned about economic realities or human nature from his own studies or disastrous policy failures, nor from the collapse of his late allies in the Soviet bloc or his current friends in China and Vietnam. Fidel himself sometimes acknowledged that markets could be more economically productive than socialism, but only at the expense of “social justice.” Yet as Juan Antonio Rodríguez Menier and I show in our book Inside the Cuban Interior Ministry, some of Fidel’s policies deliberately limited economic growth simply because that kept Cubans more dependent on himself and his government.

Fidel’s Cuba is a case study in the tragic waste of opportunity and life that is inevitable under a Caudillo Messiah with a paternalist utopian domestic agenda and an expansive revolutionary international policy. Thus a key question today for Cubans is, what direction can the country take now that Fidel’s role is at the least very much reduced?

Raúl on Fidel’s Monsters

The most influential expert witness on Cuba’s economic condition today is Raúl, historically the more pragmatic of the brothers. Since taking power he has often critiqued deeply ingrained attitudes that have kept Cubans from openly recognizing, confronting and resolving problems.

In 2011, he said bluntly that changing Cuba would depend on “transforming erroneous and unsustainable concepts about socialism, deeply rooted in broad sectors of the public for years, as a result of the excessive paternalistic, idealistic, and egalitarian focus that the Revolution adopted in the interest of social justice.” After a visit to Cuba last year the head of the Vietnamese Communist Party, one of Cuba’s oldest and closest allies, said publicly that what the Cuban people need most is “a change of mentality at all levels, from the highest level to the grassroots.” Colleagues at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences have said the same for more than a decade.

As soon as he took over in 2006 Raúl proclaimed, ”We’re tired of excuses in this revolution!” Cubans, he warned, must “erase forever the notion that Cuba is the only country in the world where one can live without working.” Shouting slogans and scapegoating will no longer do, he has said repeatedly. The farmland is there waiting to be cultivated, and jobs of all sorts are waiting to be created and done.

One of Raúl’s most revealing critiques emphasizes the challenge of simply getting things done when people have little motivation and a weak work ethic. He relates that decades ago Vietnamese leaders asked Cubans to teach them how to grow coffee, which Cubans did. Vietnam soon became the second largest coffee exporter in the world and a high Vietnamese official asked, incredulously, “How is it possible that you taught us to grow coffee and now you are buying coffee from us?”

Raúl has not fully owned up to the depth of the country’s problems, however, for he has downplayed the impact of Hispanic tradition. Fidel and his late acolyte Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez are just the most recent in a centuries-long parade of Latin American caudillos or dictators who have proclaimed themselves Messiahs and thus been welcomed or tolerated in societies that traditionally looked to paternalistic leaders. But the Castros squandered a half century, during which the Asian “tigers” demonstrated development prospects in the mid-20th century, and like most Latin caudillos they left their “children” in most ways far worse off than they found them.

Fidel’s Independence Fraud

One of Fidel’s proudest, most widely accepted and dishonest claims was that he finally made Cuba independent. True, under his leadership the island became a militant enemy of its dominant neighbor the United States, and he even sometimes bit the Soviet hand that fed him. But economically Cuba was always on the dole to foreigners who in various forms often sent him a quarter of the country’s annual GDP.

Thus the Soviet bloc subsidized Cuba throughout the Cold War, and when the bloc collapsed and aid stopped in the early 1990s Cuba’s economy crashed utterly. Thereafter Fidel arranged generous support from Chavez, China, and even indirectly from the United States, the latter allowing extensive trade in foodstuffs as a humanitarian gesture outside the embargo. Direct “aid” came from Cuban-Americans whom Fidel always called “worms,” who sent and still send remittances that, according to differing calculations, are today either the main source of foreign exchange revenue for the state or greater than all other sources combined.

Slogans, challenges, and the future

Despite Raúl’s rhetoric, however, the official vocal enthusiasm for socialism is as alive as ever. Buildings and roadsides in the cities and countryside are plastered with slogans like: “The Revolution Moves Ahead, Vigorous and Victorious”; “This is the Hour of Our True Greatness”; and “United, Vigilant and Combative in Defending Socialism.” Stultifying Cuban publications constantly rehash the great “triumphs” and heroes of decades ago when in fact those events and people were the chief reasons Cuba now has so many seemingly intractable problems.

As in the past, the most omnipresent image in Cuba is that of Che Guevara, the supposedly selfless “new man” who lauded moral over material incentives and was often even more violent, stubborn, and utopian than Fidel. His image is everywhere. Almost all postcards for sale across the island feature Che, but the most absurd and jarring adulation is the 120-foot-high “silhouette-outline” of him on the Ministry of the Interior building in Revolutionary Square. In truth, after 1959 Che was much more useful to Fidel and the Revolution dead than alive. First, he wasn’t around long enough to seriously challenge Fidel, who never tolerated competition. Like the men and maidens on Keats’s Grecian Urn, he “survived” in mythology and the unchanging glamorous photos of the forever-macho young hero in his prime rather than as the loser he really was from Cuba to the Congo to his death in Bolivia.

So contradictions and inconsistencies abound in Cuba today, and Raúl and his cohorts send mixed messages to the Cuban people and the world about their intentions and the island’s prospects. Does Raúl really support serious reform? Is he being sabotaged by middle-level bureaucrats and surviving ideologues, including Fidel? Is he being thwarted by rampant corruption at all levels of society? Are enough of the Cuban people willing to work hard and long enough to build and sustain a new economy and life if given the chance to do so? In the words of one of the most popular pre-revolutionary songs heard around the island, “Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps.”

Raúl’s reforms to date fall far short of what China and Vietnam have done and what is needed to bring Cuba into the economically developing world. Even so, more Cubans are moving in the right direction now than at any previous time in the past half-century. The bottom line for U.S. policy should be to let Cubans resolve their own domestic problems as best they can without frictions deliberately generated from abroad.