A program of economic liberalization initiated by President Raúl Castro with the aim of establishing a solid foundation for long-term economic stability ahead of a planned transfer of power to a younger generation of leaders in 2018 has made substantial, if uneven, progress in recent years, reinforced by a significant normalization of diplomatic and economic ties with the US. However, the overall economy is faltering, the victim of an economic meltdown in Venezuela that has led to a steep reduction in economic assistance from Cuba’s crucial benefactor, and forced the country to cut back sharply on its energy consumption, to the detriment of broader economic activity.

The ruling PCC held its five-year congress in mid-April, the last before the planned political transition. The key question heading into the congress was whether, with time running out before the handover and the economy faltering, the PCC would respond by stepping up the pace and expanding the scope of the reform agenda presented in 2011, or by retreating into the comfort zone of central planning and tight restrictions on private-sector activity.

Somewhat surprisingly, particularly given the dim prospects for continued assistance from Venezuela, the party leaders opted to steer a steady course. To the extent that the strategy has been revised, the changes suggest the adoption of a more cautious approach to reform.

The air of caution surrounding the liberalization agenda was also apparent with regard to the leadership elections. Under the constitution, the PCC is the “leading force” in the political structure. As such, it is assumed that whoever is ultimately chosen to succeed Castro will replace José Ramon Machado Ventura as second party secretary before 2018.

The April congress provided a perfect opportunity for Castro to formally anoint his successor. However, both Castro and Ventura were re-elected to their party posts through 2021. In fact, all but two of the 14 incumbent members of the Politburo were re-elected. President Castro announced that a mandatory retirement age of 70 will be introduced, but indicated that it will only come into effect in 2021.

Whether the retention of the old guard is evidence that Castro has not yet decided on a successor is not clear. However, it does seem to suggest that whoever becomes president in 2018 will settle into the job under the close supervision of Castro and Machado, who will likely act in the role of mentors, providing the new head of state with built-in legitimacy and ensuring that experienced hands are prepared to intervene if the new leader runs into serious difficulties.

Although such a strategy is defensible in terms of limiting the risk of political instability, advocates of reform are likely to view it as an obstacle to the type of bold action required to reduce Cuba’s dependence on unreliable sources of external support. In that regard, officials in Washington have made clear that a complete normalization of bilateral ties, including the full lifting of an embargo that has been in place since the early 1960s, will not be feasible as long as a Castro remains in charge in Cuba.