There was a time in the mid-20th century at the height of the Cold War and for many years beyond when every political event in Cuba was watched and analyzed closely by U.S. policy makers and the American public. Geopolitical realities have reduced that need and interest, but it would be a mistake to completely ignore what takes place in the Communist nation that is less than 100 miles from the United States. Directly and indirectly, Cuba still can influence hemispheric and global diplomatic and economic activity.
The just-concluded Communist Party Congress in Havana - the first in 14 years - is a case in point. The event marked the official end of the Fidel Castro era. It did not, however, signal the major changes in government that many in Cuba and elsewhere had hoped to see.
The Congress simply acknowledged fact. Fidel Castro surrendered the Cuban presidency and effective leadership of the Communist party in 2008 because of ill health, and that Raul Castro, his brother, assumed both posts. The conclave did provide a stage for Raul Castro to unveil his plans for the future in a more than two-hour talk. Unfortunately, the speech suggests that little will change anytime soon.
Raul Castro's elevation required a replacement in the party's No. 2 post. It went to a hard-liner, a longtime supporter of the Castros. The No. 3 post went to someone with similar credentials. There were, in fact, few new faces on the new governing council.
Most appointees are in their 70s and 80s and have been associated with Fidel and Raul Castro since the early days of the revolution. They likely will support the status quo rather than a progressive agenda.
There is a possibility, though, that failure to include younger leaders with more progressive outlooks could lead to unrest in Cuba. If that proves the case, repercussions could ripple throughout the Americas, especially if it prompts waves of Cubans to leave the island to seek freedom and security in nations - including the United States - that are ill-prepared to deal with a massive influx of refugees.
Raul Castro did hint at change. He talked about more "democratic" debate and publicly endorsed a series of economic reforms, though he was careful not to reveal what any of the latter might include. Those familiar with party workings suggest the reforms might include permission to buy and sell private property, which has been forbidden, an easing of restrictions on small businesses and a sharp reduction in government payrolls. There's no way to confirm any of that.
Indeed, as one respected analyst quickly noted, appointment of the new party leaders was done in secret and the economic program remains mostly secret - despite all the talk of "democratic changes" and more openness. It is, it seems, business as usual, with Cubans and the world community left to decide on the basis of scanty information whether the promises of change and reform are rhetoric or reality.