Thursday, February 9, 2017 - 12:00
Urban Institute, Washington, District of Columbia
Presented By: Democracy, Rights, & Governance Workgroup, Latin America and Caribbean, Peace & Security Workgroup

2017 in Transition Discussion Series - Transition in Cuba: Change or Continuity?

With the passing of Fidel Castro, a new US administration, and plans for Raul Castro to step down in 2018, SID-Washington has invited Dr. William LeoGrande, Professor of Government at American University, and Peter Schechter, senior vice president and the founding director of the Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center of The Atlantic Council, to discuss future political, economic and social trajectories for Cuba.  Dr. LeoGrande is a recognized scholar of Latin American politics and U.S. foreign policy toward Latin America. He has written extensively on Latin America and recently coauthored Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations between Washington and HavanaIn his role at the Council, Peter Schechter is a frequent speaker on Latin American issues at Washington venues.

Against expectations, Cubans have weathered the US embargo along with enormous global changes and shocks over the last fifty years, demonstrating an almost unaccountable resilience. The relationship with the US has remained surprisingly consistent during these changes, characterized by one step forward and two steps back, and the Cuban government has consistently maintained its unyielding commitment to the principles of sovereignty and independence at the heart of the Cuban revolution. At the same time, limited reforms introduced by Raul Castro indicate a recognition that, without subsidies and trade preferences from traditional patrons, their outmoded economic model is unsustainable. Unilateral actions by President Obama to open travel, establish diplomatic relations, and conclude agreements on issues of mutual interest, were aimed at removing the US as the core challenge to Cuba’s existence in order to create space for Cuba to explore alternatives to its outdated socialism and repressive political system. The resulting influx of tourists has created economic opportunity for small businesses, but little has changed with regard to political freedoms and human rights. The recent passing of Castro and a likely return to a hostile, retro US policy toward Cuba have injected new ramifying dynamics into the question of Cuba’s possible economic and political trajectories. With Raul Castro stepping down in 2018, what will transition in Cuba look like?

This event is also a part of an important series on the upcoming transition and its impact on the development community. More information on our 2017 in Transition Discussion Series will be available soon.


Paul Sherman, SID Washington, gave introductory remarks by welcoming the attendees, panelists, and moderator. He provided a brief description of the functions of SID-Washington as well as the 2017 in Transition Discussion Series, the upcoming Annual Conference, and Andrew E Rice Award. Mr. Sherman then handed the floor over to the moderator, Cecilia Ciepiela-Kaelin

Cecilia Ciepiela-Kaelin, AIS-Development Corp, thanked everyone for attending the event. She introduced the panelists, Dr. William LeoGrande and Peter Schechter, spoke briefly about their backgrounds, and explained agenda, including Dr. LeoGrande providing insight on present-day Cuba, with a follow-up from Peter Schechter about U.S.-Cuba relations. She then handed the floor over to Dr. LeoGrande.

Dr. William LeoGrande, American University, began the discussion by stating that Cuba had been undergoing profound change, even before the opening of relations with the Obama Administration. He described the economic reform that came with the transition from Fidel Castro to Raul Castro, and the similarities between the Cuban, Chinese, and Vietnamese model of economic reform. He explained that the reform efforts were having success, with legalized private labor increasing, increased engagement with the global economy, restructured foreign debt, and a significant influx of foreign investment. However, that flow of foreign investment has made Cubans skeptical of capitalism, which has led to moderate resistance and thus slowing down possible improvements to the standards of living of the average person. Secondly, he explained how the market-based economy has provided more insight into the dual currency problem, and its effect on income inequality. With all these abrupt changes, he concluded that Cubans are better off now with the transition, as most Cubans have access to more international travel, free markets, and independent journalism. He also noted that Raul has imposed terms which will ensure a new generation of Cuban Leaders.

Peter Schechter, Atlantic Council, started off stating that Washington is also going through a transition, which is creating a high level of uncertainty for the next steps for U.S.-Cuban relations. He noted that opening relations with Cuba has also helped relations with the rest of Latin America and that the stereotypes of drugs and crime coming from the current administration might put Latin America at the bottom of President Trump's agenda. He said the immigration issue could poison Cuba’s relationship with the U.S as well as the rest of Latin America. Mr. Schechter worried about the impact of the instability of the price of oil on the Venezuelan economy. He noted that a recession in Venezuela would present more economic challenges for Cuba.

Dr. William LeoGrande agreed that the immediate future does look bleak, as Venezuelan economic problems could pull Cuba into a slow recession. He admitted that the current U.S. administration's review of Cuban relations may pay dividends. 

Peter Schechter says there is a general consensus that the U.S. didn’t get enough in the Cuban deal and that majority of Americans are open to stronger relations between the two countries.

Cecilia Ciepiela-Kaelin posed a question if it was in Cuba’s best national interest to improve relations with the rest of the world, and if Castro stepping down will make any difference to Senators like Marco Rubio and Robert Menendez, who remain skeptical of the old generation of Cuban leaders still in power.

Dr. William LeoGrande said only when a new generation of leadership rises to power will it be acceptable to Senators Rubio and Menendez.

Peter Schechter explained that President Barack Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton won the counties with the most Cuban Americans, so a formal relationship with Cuba is becoming less of a political issue. He insisted that presidential candidates must win the Cuban-American vote to win the state of Florida. He said most of the negativity around the opened relationship meshes between the notion that the United States must defend human rights and the violations of said rights in Cuba.

Dr. William LeoGrande reiterated Mr. Schechter’s point of the changing demographic of Cuban Americans and how Ms. Clinton got a higher vote within the Cuban-American demographic than President Obama and Bill Clinton.

Cecilia Ciepiela-Kaelin opened the floor to questions from the audience.

To view photos from this event, please click here.


Cecilia Ciepiela-Kaelin
President, AIS-Development Corp


Senior Vice President and Director, Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center, Atlantic Council
Professor of Government, American University

Workgroup Co-Chairs

Distinguished Fellow, RTI International
Director, Corporate Relations and Strategy, Pro-telligent, a Tetra Tech Company
Senior Governance Advisor, USAID
Member, The Change Leaders UK
Senior Associate, Education for Development Division, Creative Associates International, Inc.
Principal & Founder, Change Management Solutions
Sergio Cambronero
President & CEO, NetAssessment Inc.
Cecilia Ciepiela-Kaelin
President, AIS-Development Corp