When Fidel Castro announced that he would not continue as President of Cuba some saw the end of an era and others said little had changed. To be sure, Fidel was succeeded by his brother Raul who promised great continuity. But in fact, it would be a mistake to think Cuba hadn’t changed during the four decades of Fidel’s leadership. And the patterns of previous change continue and shape Cuba and its context today.
Refugees fled Cuba – and from Miami and other centers Cuban expatriates seek to shape a new phase in Cuban history. They also participate in ongoing change as easier family visits and financial remittances suggest. The US government remains intransigent about recognizing Cuba’s still-communist leadership, but has of course taken different approaches to its close neighbor at different times. Cuba was changed by the collapse of the Soviet Union which had severe economic as well as ideological consequences. Cuba’s context is changed yet again by the rise of a new generation of Latin American leaders committed to social change in their own countries and to progressive alliances abroad.
Cuba changed as it developed a remarkable health care system, changed as it confronted HIV/AIDS (and did so better than most much richer countries as well as other less developed ones). Cuba has changed in a range of ways, not stood still because it has had a single primary political leader for nearly fifty years. Good and bad have been intertwined and how to evaluate the changes is intensely contested. But in order to understand Cuba today and the prospects for Cuba tomorrow it is necessary to think a bit more deeply about change in Cuba than the typical account of communism or Castro invites.
To help this deeper thinking, the Social Science Research Council has invited a dozen leading scholars of Cuba – from different generations, different academic disciplines, different universities, different intellectual and political perspectives, and different countries – to offer essays exploring what has been, and what is, going on. They will address Cuba’s history and international context, the characteristics of Cuban society (and the Cuban diaspora) that may shape future developments, and social issues that may arise in a transition. We invite comments on these initial essays (which will be posted over the next two weeks) and we expect new contributions. The contributors all write for general readers, not academic specialists, but their analyses are informed by serious scholarly research. The SSRC has helped to encourage and support such research – and scholarly relations with colleagues in Cuba – for many years (and I am grateful to Stan Katz and Sarah Doty for their current leadership). We hope some of the fruits of this work can inform contemporary discussion.
Better understanding of change in Cuba is vitally important for Cuba, the Cuban Diaspora, Latin America and the Carribean, the United States, and the world. This is not just an interesting, safely distant story. It is a central part of the story of contemporary international relations and social change, the connections forged and the connections blocked in an increasingly global but still also national era.