For Raul Castro, the uncertainties of uncorking the genie's bottle of reform in Cuba are greater than keeping the lid on and moving cautiously. For the past 52 years, political considerations have always dictated economic policies. He had been the longest serving Minister of Defense (47 years). He presided over the worst period of political repression and economic centralization in Cuba and is responsible for numerous executions after he and his brother assumed power, and some while in Mexico and the Sierra Maestra before reaching power.
During his speech to Parliament, Raul Castro scoffed at any idea that the country would soon abandon socialism and embrace profound economic changes. "I was not chosen to be president to restore capitalism to Cuba," he emphasized. "I was elected to defend, maintain and continue to perfect socialism and not to destroy it."
General Castro faces significant challenges in his second term. A non-productive and highly dependent economy on Venezuela and other foreign sources, popular unhappiness, the need to maintain order and discipline among the population and the need to increase productivity. Raul is critically dependent on the military. Lacking the charisma of his brother, he still needs the support of key party leaders and technocrats within the government bureaucracy.
The critical challenge for Raul Castro will be to balance the need to improve the economy and satisfy the needs of the population with maintaining political control. Too rapid economic reforms may lead to an unraveling of political control, a fact feared by Raul, the military, and other allies keen on remaining in power. A partial solution may be to provide more consumer goods to the population, including food, but without any structural economic changes.
Similarly, any serious overtures to the U.S. do not seem likely in the near future. It would mean the rejection of one of Fidel Castro's main legacies: anti-Americanism. It may create uncertainty within the government, leading to frictions and factionalism. It would require the weakening of Cuba's anti-American alliance with radical regimes in Latin America and elsewhere.
Raul is unwilling to renounce the support and close collaboration of countries like Venezuela, China, Iran and Russia in exchange for an uncertain relationship with the United States. At a time that anti-Americanism is strong in Latin America and the Middle East, Raul's policies are more likely to remain closer to regimes that are not particularly friendly to the United States and that demand little from Cuba in return for generous aid.
Raul does not seem ready to provide meaningful and irreversible concessions for a U.S. - Cuba normalization. Like his brother in the past, public statements and speeches are politically motivated and directed at audiences in Cuba, the United States and Europe. Serious negotiations on important issues are not carried out in speeches from the plaza. They are usually carried out through the normal diplomatic avenues open to the Cubans in Havana, Washington and the United Nations or other countries, if they wish. These avenues have never been closed as evidenced by the migration accord and the anti-hijacking agreement between the United States and Cuba.
Raul remains a loyal follower and cheerleader of Fidel's anti-American policies.
The issue between Cuba and the U.S. is not about negotiations or talking. These are not sufficient. There has to be a willingness on the part of the Cuban leadership to offer real concessions - in the area of human rights and political and economic openings as well as cooperation on anti-terrorism and drug interdiction - for the United States to change it policies.