Former Cuban leader Fidel Castro passed away on Nov. 25 at the age of 90. But while his life certainly left a mark on the island nation and his death will be noted, in the end his passing will be largely symbolic and of little consequence to the changes already happening in Cuba.
Coming to power in January 1959 by overthrowing President Fulgencio Batista, Castro established a socialist state in the island nation, later nationalizing foreign assets in the country throughout 1960. By 1961 the United States broke all diplomatic and commercial relations, imposing its first trade embargo. Consequently, in 1961 Washington sent CIA-sponsored Cuban exiles to overthrow Castro. The so-called Bay of Pigs invasion failed and Castro would hold onto power for the next five decades.
Castro eventually stepped out of the Cuban presidency, first temporarily in 2006 amid health concerns and then permanently in 2008 when he retired, yielding the position to his brother and current president, Raul Castro. Unlike his brother, Raul liberalized the economy through reform measures in 2011, which encouraged foreign investment, limited the presidential mandate, reduced state spending and revamped agrarian laws. More important, efforts by President Barack Obama's administration and Havana in 2014 enabled Cuba to re-establish ties with the United States, including a gradual reduction on specific sanctions on Cuba. The reduction, which depended on the White House as opposed to Congress, has primarily benefited Cuba's tourism sector and U.S. telecommunication companies. While Fidel criticized such reforms, including the recent state visit by Obama, Raul has continued the island's liberalization process, even confirming his own departure from the presidency to allow a new civilian government under Vice President Miguel Diaz-Canel to replace him in 2018.
In spite of the many condolences that Cuba has and will receive by global leaders, Castro's death is an event the country has long been prepared for. Moreover, it changes little for the challenges the country will face without him. For example, Cuba will remain hampered by the Helms-Burton Act. This key U.S. law upholds the embargo on Cuba and will stay intact in the years to come, even if Diaz-Canel assumes office in 2018. For while Havana has made efforts to reform its economy and government, the 1996 legislation still stipulates that the Cuban government must disband several intelligence and security institutions, establish an independent judiciary and hold competitive elections while making greater overtures to respect Cubans' human rights and civilian liberties. Currently, Cuba's military apparatus trumps its civilian counterpart, making it unlikely for the Diaz-Canel administration to abide by the U.S. law anytime soon, and thus remove the embargo altogether.
Furthermore, the island's economy is being threatened by chaos in another Latin American country: Venezuela. Cuba depends on Venezuelan subsidized oil for cheap energy. But because of the nearby country's political and economic crises, the flow of oil to Cuba has been cut nearly in half from around 100,000 barrels per day in 2012 to less than 60,000 bpd in 2016. Regardless of Castro's passing, Havana will have to contend with Venezuela's upheaval and the dire effects it could have on the island's prospects for economic stability and growth, as well as the other changes taking place in the country.