Updating the Party: Cuba’s new (and not so new) leaders
William M. LeoGrande,
Professor at American University in Washington, D.C.
Alluding to his own
mortality, Fidel Castro told the delegates to the Seventh Congress of
the Communist Party he founded that this would probably be his last
speech to such a gathering. When the members of the new Central
Committee were announced the following day, Fidel was not among them.
Generational succession is high on the agenda of Cuba’s leadership,
still dominated at the highest level by “los historicos“ — the
generation that fought together against the Batista dictatorship and
founded the revolutionary regime. At the previous Party Congress in
2011, Raúl Castro emphasized the need to build a contingent of
experienced young men and women for the inevitable succession. To ease
out the old guard, he introduced term limits for top government and
party positions -no more than two five-year terms- and pledged to
abide by the limit himself by stepping down as president in 2018.
At the Congress this month, Raúl reiterated the importance of
rejuvenating the party. An aged leadership was “never positive,” he
said, reminding listeners that three leaders of the Soviet Communist
Party died within months of one another a few years before it
collapsed. Henceforth, Castro proposed, 60 would be the maximum age
for admission to the Central Committee, and 70 would be the maximum
age for assuming any leadership position.
Nevertheless, renovating the leadership will involve a “five-year
period of transition to avoid doing things in haste,” Castro explained,
echoing his watchword for updating the economy: “without haste, but
without pause.” The blend of old and young was visible in the new
Political Bureau. Only two of the fourteen members in the old body
were dropped — General Abelardo Colomé Ibarra, who retired as minister
of the Interior in October 2015 because of ill-health, and Adel
Yzquierdo Rodríguez, who was removed as Minister of Economy and
Planning in 2014.
José Ramón Machado Ventura, the architect of the party apparatus over
preceding decades, retained his post as second secretary despite the
fact that he is widely seen as a conservative, skeptical of economic
reform. In 2013, Machado stepped down as first vice-president of the
Council of State, replaced by heir apparent Miguel Díaz-Canel.
Machado’s retention as party second secretary suggests that Raúl
Castro is intent on maintaining unity at the top — despite differences
in opinion — as the party navigates the politically treacherous waters
of economic change.
Five new young members were added and their professions signal the
issues the leadership sees as critical going forward. Three are
technocrats: one is minister of Health, one works in biotechnology,
and one works in information technology — all high value-added fields
that Cuba hopes will form the foundation for its 21st Century economy.
The other two new members are the leaders of the trade union
federation and the women’s federation, organizations that, between
them, comprise almost all Cuban adults. The inclusion of these two
leaders speaks to the party’s need to keep ears to the ground for
early warning signs of grassroots discontent unleashed by the economic
The composition of the new Central Committee also suggests how the
leadership is preparing its team for the future. Twenty-five percent
of the old committee was dropped, but the membership was expanded from
116 to 142 to accommodate the addition of 55 younger members, all
below the age of 60, bringing the average age of the body down to 54.5
— younger than the committee elected in 2011. The new committee is
also 44.4% women, up from 41.7% in 2011 and just 13.3% in 1997; and
35.9% Afro-Cuba, up from 31.3% in 2011 and just 10.0% in 1997.
The Central Committee of the party represents an extended leadership
group, the members of which typically hold other important posts in
various state institutions. The relative bureaucratic influence of
those institutions can be seen in the Central Committee’s changing
The biggest increase in representation in the new committee is for
government officials working in economic and scientific fields (Table
1). They represent 23.2% of the new Central Committee, up from just
19.8% in the 2011 committee. Presumably, these people are more
technocratically minded, and more likely to support economic reform.
Representation of the party apparatus increased only slightly, to
32.4% of the committee, up from 31.0% in 2011.
Contrary to pundits
who insist that the Cuban regime is really run by the military, the
armed forces and police were the big losers in the renovation of the
Central Committee. Even though the committee expanded from 116 to 142
members, the number of military and security officials fell in
absolute terms. They comprise just 9.2% of the membership, down from
13.8% in 2011. Moreover, the long term trend in the number of active
duty military and security officials in the Central Committee has been
downward ever since 1965 (Figure).
Fidel Castro wasn’t the only prominent Castro not included in the new
Central Committee. Neither Raúl’s son, Col. Alejandro Castro, who
negotiated the December 17 agreement to normalize relations with the
United States, nor Raúl’s daughter, LGBT activist Mariela Castro, were
included. Their absence was, no doubt, a disappointment to opponents
of the U.S. opening to Cuba who have been predicting that Alejandro
would succeed his father, thereby consolidating a Castro family
dynasty - North Korea in the Caribbean.
The new Central
Committee of the Cuban Communist Party reflects the priorities and
style of its First Secretary. The party itself maintains the leading
role, but the committee has a more technocratic tilt, positioning it
for the complex economic tasks ahead. It combines a large new cohort
of younger members, while retaining a core of experienced elders to
smooth the generational transition. The increased representation of
women and Afro-Cubans reflects their important role in society and
politics, connecting the party to these key constituencies. In short,
the new leadership exemplifies a party updating itself for the future
without renouncing its past.