Buffeted by tectonic political shifts both at home and abroad, 2016 saw Cuba experience its most tumultuous year since the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s.
The year began, almost surreally, with the image of the US’s then-president Barack Obama strolling through the streets of La Habana Vieja to the cheers of residents anxious to catch a glimpse of the first serving US leader to visit the island since 1928. Re-opening the US embassy in Havana, attending a baseball game with Cuban President Raúl Castro and continuing to loosen trade barriers with Cuba (many via executive order), Obama continued the expansion of relations between the two countries that began in earnest in 2014.
Then, late on the evening on 25 November, a grim faced Raúl Castro took to the island’s state television network and announced the death of his brother Fidel, for nearly nearly six decades the country’s undisputed leader, who stepped down a decade ago due to an unspecified illness and handed power to Raúl. Even out of power, Fidel Castro remained omnipresent on both sides of the Straits of Florida and his passing, as much as any one event, is indicative of the demise of the old guard that took power in Cuba’s 1959 revolution, to make room for what no one is yet sure.
The hoped-for economic change from warmer relations with the US have been slow to materialise. In 2016, for the first time in a quarter-century, Cuba’s economy shrank, with the island’s GDP falling nearly 1% from the previous year amid ancillary troubles from the collapse of Venezuela’s economy (a major supplier of oil to Cuba) and a marked drop in the price of Cuba’s relative handful of exports, such as petrol, sugar and nickel.
One bright spot, however, was tourism, with Cuba’s ministry of tourism reporting four million visitors to the island, an increase of 13% on the previous year and a one-year record for the nation. Though the statutory prohibition on tourism remains in place for US citizens, the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) of the Treasury Department currently issues 12 “self-certifying” general licences within 12 categories of authorised travel which bypass the previous long-winded application process.
With the 85-year-old Raúl Castro and Cuba’s revolutionary generation now facing the future without their iconic leader, whether or not Cuba will be wiling to open itself still further to a liberalised economy – and what approach the administration of incoming US president Donald Trump will take to the country – remains to be seen.