A Castro in all but name?
Cuba’s new president inherits an island stuck in limbo. He’ll need to finish what his predecessor started.
Brian Latell, in Politico
This is still Cuba—so the only candidate on the ballot to assume the presidency as Raúl Castro leaves power is a 57-year-old Communist Party operative who looks to be straight out of revolutionary Cuban central casting. With a shock of silver hair and a calm, agreeable manner, Miguel Diaz-Canel looks nothing like the bespectacled Raúl or his fatigues-wearing late brother, Fidel. An electrical engineer by training, Diaz-Canel looks like a business executive on vacation and is known to regularly use an iPad and iPhone. But make no mistake: He’s very much a part of the Castro brothers’ regime. No important national service in Cuba of recent decades is missing from his résumé.
Diaz-Canel has revealed little publicly about his policy views or intentions, but his political and survival skills speak for themselves. During his long emergence to the top, he has performed with knowing skill. He has delivered relatively few speeches, traveled abroad infrequently (he is not known to have visited the United States), and received only limited attention in the Cuban media. To appear presumptuous as a successor to the Castros, he clearly understood, would be damning.
So, what should the U.S. expect from Cuba’s first post-Castro president? Initially, Diaz-Canel’s regime probably won’t seem much different from the previous 10 years, in which Raúl gently nudged his island nation away from a crushing, centralized bureaucracy. Any reform efforts will proceed slowly—a still powerful old guard will see to that. But over time, Diaz-Canel will have to allow greater economic freedoms—the country’s economic stagnation demands it.
How quickly he can make the transition from Castro protégé to president in his own right remains to be seen. But his survival skills are impressive, suggesting he has the political wherewithal to negotiate the passage to a fully post-Castro Cuba, as a brief tour of his career shows.
For three years, Diaz-Canel served as a military officer in missile air defense. He performed important “internationalist” service in revolutionary Nicaragua in the 1980s and later taught at a regional university. His political career began in 1987 in the Young Communists organization, where he impressed party elders. Two years later he was rewarded with a seat on the party’s central committee, the large political proving ground from which the powerful Politburo is chosen.
In 1994, Diaz-Canel began an extended tour as party secretary in Villa Clara, his home province in the center of the island. It was during a draconian period of economic and social stress, when, according to Nikolai Leonov, Raúl Castro’s Russian friend and biographer, “the capacity of leaders was put to the test.” Diaz-Canel’s style is said to have been casual and unpretentious.
In 2003 he moved to the larger, economically more important eastern province of Holguin, again as party secretary. He was also elevated that year to the party Politburo as its youngest member. In a speech introducing Diaz-Canel, Raúl Castro praised him “for his tenacious and systematic work, his critical spirit, and constant connection with the masses … and solid ideological firmness.”
Adding government experience to his impressive party profile, Diaz-Canel served concurrently as minister of higher education from 2009 to 2012. And in that latter year he was brought into the regime’s inner sanctum as a vice president. Just a year later he was elevated again, to first vice president under Raúl, becoming his presumed heir.
Clearly, for about three decades, Diaz-Canel was measured and tested by the national leadership, including Fidel Castro, still at the height of his power in the early 2000s. His legitimacy as president, and his chances of consolidating power in his own right, derive from the repeated blessings of the Castro brothers. He could not have been named to the top party posts without Fidel Castro’s imprimatur. Yet, by all appearances, he is Raúl Castro’s protégé.
With Raúl’s robust backing, Diaz-Canel will be safe for the time being from regime-threatening intrigue by potential rivals. His military and “internationalist” experiences will help immunize him from attacks by cynical veterans of the old guard. He may well prove to be an adept national administrator and decisive judge of others. His apparently unblemished record suggests that he is adroit at balancing competing interest groups and leaders.
Yet, Cuba’s constitution dictates that ultimate authority rests with the party central committee and 17-member Politburo. Raúl who will be 87 in June, remains the party’s first secretary. His longtime crony, 87-year-old Jose Ramon Machado Ventura, is second secretary. Diaz-Canel is third in that hierarchy and there are no indications that it will be rejuvenated any time soon. So, in the short term at least, he will need to please the old guard and maintain their support.
Barring a destabilizing shock such as Raúl’s sudden death or the termination of Venezuelan economic support, Diaz-Canel will probably enjoy a honeymoon period with the relatively united backing of Cuban elites.
He knows he must soon begin to show results, especially for Cuba’s restive younger generations who are resistant to the regime’s incessant glorification of its hoary revolutionary past. He could win a measure of their good will by allowing greater access to the Internet and more freedom of artistic expression. He will likely depend on a new caste of younger officials, groomed like him in recent years for greater responsibility. But any hopes that he will reform the one-party political system in the foreseeable future are surely unrealistic.
Cuban foreign policy objectives and strategies will change little, if at all. Maintaining the mutually beneficial relationship with Venezuela will remain a compelling priority. Nonetheless, Diaz-Canel may want to wean Cuba from Caracas’ energy and financial benevolence, fearing that the unpopular regime of president Nicolás Maduro could collapse at any time.
Most likely, Diaz-Canel was kept informed of the progress in the secret negotiations with the Obama administration that resulted in temporarily improved relations. He will probably approach the now strained relationship with President Donald Trump pragmatically, with little of the ideological baggage that regime elders bear. Still, he can be expected to adhere to traditional tenets of Cuban nationalism, for example, by denouncing the U.S. economic embargo.
The greatest challenges will be in forcing modernizing economic change. Diaz-Canel has inherited an array of intractable problems and must also deal with a leadership class riven by disputes between economic reformers and old guard Marxist intransigents. The most divisive issues relate to how much wealth private sector Cubans should be allowed to accumulate.
Nearly 600,000 small service business people were licensed during Raúl’s 10-year presidency. They opened barber shops, ran small appliance services and set up street-side shopping stalls, many becoming successful entrepreneurs. The emergence of this new class of relatively wealthy Cubans has divided the leadership. Which side Diaz-Canel is on is almost impossible to know given how circumspect he has been so far.
Raúl’s reforms also boosted the booming tourist sector. Private restaurants have sprouted, especially in Havana, and private residences can now be rented online by foreign tourists. As a result, some Cubans have accumulated so much capital that they are said to be sending millions of dollars abroad.
But the national economy is stagnant and financially bereft, impaired by inefficiencies, low productivity and corruption. The agricultural sector has withered and export revenues are minimal. Even sugar sales, historically the largest source of hard currency, have fallen to negligible levels. Standards of living for Cubans working in the public sector have declined and disparities of wealth and income have worsened. More are living in poverty.
Public expenditures for health and education have been declining for several years. By 2012 the health sector had endured millions of dollars in budget cuts and tens of thousands of layoffs. University enrollments have fallen by almost 50 percent. Afro-Cubans are often the most affected by poverty and lack of opportunity, especially since they are the least likely to receive remittances from Cubans abroad. What’s driving all this economic distress? The simple answer is the inflexibility of central planning.
Demographic realities are equally dire. The population is aging and shrinking in absolute terms. Between 2001 and 2011, 327,000 Cubans obtained permanent residence in the United States. Most were young.
“We must be perfectly clear that the aging of the population no longer has a solution … society must prepare,” Cuba’s then-economic czar Marino Murillo told leaders in July 2012. The number of seniors is projected to nearly double to 3.6 million, or a third of the population, by 2035. The costs of caring for large cohorts of elderly are already becoming onerous.
To confront the economic malaise, Murillo and Raúl Castro pushed for a number of promising economic reforms. After assuming power from his brother in July 2006, Raúl began to speak of the urgent need for agricultural reform. Yet he was either too cautious or constrained by hard-line opponents (possibly including Fidel, then in retirement), so only limited changes occurred.
Raúl and Murillo also spoke of the need for the “gigantic paternalistic state” to shrink because cradle-to-grave benefits were no longer affordable. Social services and investment were cut drastically, but the bloated military and security services were not. Raúl committed to removing 50 percent of public sector workers but here, too, the results have been mixed. Much smaller numbers were laid off.
For several years, Cuban leaders have spoken of the need to attract at least $2 billion of foreign investment annually. Yet that objective has been met only rarely because of bureaucratic intransigence and the fears of public sector workers and enterprise managers that they will lose their livelihoods to foreign competition.
In a speech last December, Raúl spoke yet again about the need to eliminate Cuba’s unpopular two-currency system. State workers are paid in pesos, but many goods and services are paid for with “convertible pesos” that are pegged to the dollar. He raised expectations; yet, as before, he was indecisive and has bequeathed this and the other unfinished business to his successor.
Diaz-Canel surely recognizes that above all, his mandate is to generate economic growth and diversification. A cautiously executed reform agenda that enjoyed Raúl’s conspicuous support could begin to nudge the economy out of its doldrums. Confronting those who oppose further opening and who fear foreign investment will likely cause some tumult that could even result in intermittent displays of dissent. But with the support of the party and uniformed services, Diaz-Canel will likely prove to be a reliable choice as successor to the nearly 60-year reign of the Castros. But anyone looking for a revolution to shake up the status quo will likely be disappointed—at least for the foreseeable future.
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