Generational shift

Print edition : May 25, 2018

Raul Castro with newly elected President Miguel Diaz-Canel at a meeting of the National Assembly at the Convention Palace in Havana on April 19. Photo: Getty Images

March 14, 1957: Fidel Castro with his brother Raul Castro (left) and Camilo Cienfuegos while operating in the mountains of eastern Cuba. Photo: AP

Miguel Diaz-Canel, the first Cuban President to be born after the Cuban revolution, takes over the reins of power from Raul Castro, marking the end of an era.

Cuba elected Miguel Diaz-Canel Bermudez, 57, as its new President on April 17. It was a milestone in the country’s modern history. The formal handover of power by President Raul Castro to Diaz-Canel marked the beginning of a power shift from the older generation of revolutionaries to a generation of people who, like the new President, were born after the Cuban revolution of 1959. “The events were as transcendental as they were natural,” an editorial in Granma, the official newspaper of the Cuban Communist Party, noted. In his speech to the National Assembly after handing over the presidency, Raul Castro pointed out that more than 87 per cent of the members of the National Assembly were born after the revolution.

Cuba’s National Assembly overwhelmingly voted to confirm Diaz-Canel as the new President. Only one vote was cast against his candidature. Diaz-Canel was warmly embraced by the 86-year-old Raul Castro after the vote. To the cheers of the legislators, Raul Castro raised the new President’s arm to signal his ascendance to the highest seat of power in Cuba.

For the first time in Cuba’s post-revolutionary history there will no longer be a Castro at the helm of affairs. Fidel Castro had handed power over to Raul in 2006 after he was suddenly incapacitated by a serious disease (“Living legend”, Frontline, March 14, 2008). His younger brother had been the designated number two in the Cuban government since the time of the revolution. Raul, along with Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos, was among the closest comrades of Fidel Castro during the fight against the brutal United States-backed dictatorship in Cuba.

Under Raul Castro, Cuba witnessed substantial reforms that included the gradual reduction of the bloated government workforce and a limited opening up of the economy. After Fidel Castro relinquished power and his younger brother took over, the private sector expanded rapidly in a few areas, especially the tourism sector, bringing in its wake new and varied social problems.

Raul Castro’s key behind-the-scenes role was crucial in the restoration of full diplomatic relations with the U.S. The dramatic thaw in U.S.-Cuba relations temporarily boosted the Cuban economy as hordes of U.S. tourists visited the country. But relations with Washington soon went downhill after Donald Trump entered the White House in 2016. Trump seems intent on dumping diplomacy once again and returning to the old days that were characterised by economic blockade and Cold War rhetoric.

Raul Castro will remain as the head of the Cuban Communist Party and the Army for some more time. Raul Castro said that he envisaged the new President serving two consecutive five-year terms and taking over as the Communist Party chief in 2021. Raul Castro plans to give up the post by then. He said that Diaz-Canel’s career graph showed that he had the necessary expertise to take up his new task. Raul Castro spoke highly of Diaz-Canel’s performance as Education Minister and First Vice President for the last five years.

The party chose Diaz-Canel as Raul Castro’s successor after he was named as first Vice President in 2013. The new President had risen steadily through the party ranks and had earned the reputation of being a good administrator. Cubans from all walks of life talk about his humble demeanour when he was in charge of the provinces of Villa Clara and Holguin.

Diaz-Canel’s credentials

Born to a schoolteacher and a factory worker, he grew up in the central province of Villa Clara. He joined the Union of Young Communists at an early age and was for some time a personal bodyguard of Raul Castro. Diaz-Canel is a trained civil engineer who served three years in the Cuban armed forces. After his stints at the helm of affairs in the two provinces, he joined the central government as Education Minister.

Unlike some others in his age group who were initially chosen for leadership positions, Diaz-Canel never had any doubts about the goals and the tactics adopted by revolutionary leaders like the Castro brothers, Che Guevara and others. He was among the first Communist party leaders to defend the rights of gays and transsexuals. As Education Minister, he was a patient listener when teachers complained about some of the shortcomings in the system. The Cuban education and health systems remain the best in the continent and is a shining example to its neighbours and the world. Diaz-Canel was among the top leaders who pushed for giving more Internet access to the Cuban populace. Today, there are public Internet hotspots all over Havana where people can freely access the Internet.

Speaking to the National Assembly after his election, Diaz-Canel praised the role his immediate predecessor played in shaping the course of the revolution. He described Raul Castro as a statesman whose leadership was crucial in “the development of the national consensus on the updating process underway in the country”. Raul Castro, he said, was a participant in the epochal events that shaped Cuba’s modern history, including the attack on the Moncada barracks and the Granma expedition. Raul Castro, he said, was an exceptional guerilla leader, military commander and political leader who has left an indelible mark on Cuba’s foreign policy.

“I confirm that Cuba’s foreign policy will remain unchanged. Cuba will not accept conditions. The changes that are necessary will continue to be made by the Cuban people,” Diaz-Canel said. “I am not here to promise anything as the revolution never did over all these years. I’m here to offer commitment.” He referred to the “dark forces” out to “destroy” the revolution. “I assume this responsibility with the conviction that all we revolutionaries, from any trench, will be faithful to Fidel and Raul, the current leader of the revolutionary process,” he said. “The people have given this assembly the mandate to provide continuity to the Cuban revolution during a crucial historic moment that will be defined by all that we achieve in the advance of the modernisation of our social and economic model,” he said.

Challenges ahead

Cuba faces myriad challenges under the new leadership. With the Trump administration dominated by anti-Cuba hawks, the U.S. is once again shifting towards open hostility towards Cuba. On the campaign trail, Trump had promised to roll back the diplomatic deals made by the Barack Obama administration with Cuba. He even pledged to ban the import of Cuban rum and the cigars that tourists were allowed to bring back from the island.

Last year saw the withdrawal of most of the U.S. diplomats who were posted in the U.S. Embassy in Havana. The number of tourists footfalls from the U.S. also witnessed a steep decline. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, tourism has been one of the major sources of foreign currency for the Cuban economy, which was struggling under the U.S.’ economic blockade. The political turmoil in Venezuela has also impacted the Cuban economy. Venezuela has not been able to meet its export commitments of oil to Cuba because of the economic constraints it is facing.

Diaz-Canel said that Cuba was ready to keep the dialogue process going with the U.S. but would not allow it to dictate policy. The Trump administration has been loudly demanding that Cuba immediately introduce Western-style democracy and make radical changes to its domestic policies. Last year, Trump said that the U.S. would not lift its draconian sanctions on Cuba unless all political prisoners were released and multiparty elections held. Raul Castro said in his speech that after Trump assumed office “the economic blockade has been tightened, financial persecutions reinforced” and “programmes of political subversion are funded with millions of dollars by the American government”.

The new President in his speech reiterated that the state would retain control over important sectors of the economy while continuing to encourage moderate growth of the private sector.

An immediate challenge for the Cuban government is to solve the problems resulting from the dual currency system. To keep the economy afloat after the collapse of the Soviet bloc, the government had introduced the convertible Cuban peso (CUC). This was done to help the tourism industry. This currency was only available to those operating in the tourism sector and to those Cubans getting remittances from abroad in hard currency.

The vast majority of Cubans do not have access to the CUC. The Cuban government seems to be working overtime to abolish the dual currency system. In the last two decades, this has resulted in a minority of Cubans enjoying undue benefits because of the distortions caused in the economy by the dual currency system. Most of the Cubans employed in the tourism sector are “white”. The majority of Cubans who get dollar remittances from their relatives in the U.S. are also white Cubans. Afro-Cubans are at a disadvantage. One of the greatest achievements of the revolution was to construct a level playing field for all Cubans, irrespective of their colour. Cuba, before the revolution, had one of the most racist societies in the Caribbean and Latin American region.

The Communist Party is aware of the potential pitfalls it faces. Raul Castro in his speech to the National Assembly said that more representation should be given to blacks and mixed-race Cubans in all walks of life. He said that though much progress had been made since the revolution, much more needed to be done. He, however, noted that in the current National Assembly, black and mixed-race Cubans constituted more than 40 per cent of the membership, and 53.22 per cent were women. Half of the six Vice Presidents of the ruling Council of State were black, including the First Vice President. Black Cubans were the “backbone” of the Cuban revolution. By the early 1980s, the life expectancy gap between whites and blacks in Cuba was much better than in countries such as the U.S. and Brazil. The proportion of black Cubans with college degrees is the same as that of white Cubans. This is not the case in the rest of the Americas. Only 10 per cent of Cuba’s population identifies itself as “black”. In reality, the population of blacks and mixed-race Cubans is significantly higher.