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What Will a New Generation of Leadership Mean for Cuba?

By Peter Hakim, Stephen Wilkinson, Kirby Jones
Latin America Advisor, March 6, 2013

Originally published in the Dialogue's daily Latin America Advisor.

Q: Cuban President Raúl Castro announced last month that he will retire in 2018, putting an end to the Castro era after more than a half century of leadership by him or his brother Fidel. Cuba's parliament also approved Miguel Díaz-Canel, 52, as Cuba's first vice president, putting him in position to succeed Castro when he leaves office. What will having Díaz-Canel as vice president and possible successor to Castro mean for Cuba? Could he make significant political and economic changes in Cuba? What would having Díaz-Canel as Cuba's president mean for relations with other countries, including the United States? 

 

A: Peter Hakim, member of the Advisor board and president emeritus of the Inter-American Dialogue: "It is a fool's errand to try decipher what Cuba's leadership had in mind when they appointed a 52-year-old communist party stalwart as the country's vice president and apparent heir to Raúl Castro, who now promises to retire within the next five years. Havana's message is ambiguous. On one hand, the choice of a relatively youthful successor, regarded as a highly competent technocrat and manager, suggests that Cuba's rulers know the country must be remade, that its current economic and political arrangements are anachronistic and unsustainable. With all 34 other nations in the Americas led by elected governments, the Cuban hierarchy must be aware--and should have been reminded by the Arab Spring--that coercion and control are not smart ways to govern these days. They must also appreciate that Cuba cannot, ad infinitum, subsist on the benevolence of others. Although burdened by Washington's self-defeating embargo and multiple other U.S. restrictions, Cuba, like other nations, has to find the way to stand on its own. They must, in addition, surely realize that young Cubans today see only a very limited future for themselves on the island, and many (perhaps most) are searching for ways to emigrate. On the other hand, if they grasp all this, why have Raúl Castro and his associates moved at a snail's pace to introduce the needed changes? What purpose do they have for holding on to power for five more years? Raul's praise for the 'ideological firmness' of the new vice president suggests not change, but continuity--which will hardly satisfy the needs or aspirations of the Cuban people. Meanwhile, hidebound U.S. policies remain largely irrelevant to Cuba's future."    

A: Stephen Wilkinson, chairman of the International Institute for the Study of Cuba: "This is a very challenging question to answer for any Cuba watcher because I think it is fair to say that the appointment of Miguel Díaz-Canel came as a surprise. He is not a person who was hitherto well-known. He traveled abroad very rarely and has had very little contact with the United States or foreign affairs. This means that it is almost impossible to predict what his appointment will mean. It is evident that he is the first person to hold the post of first vice-president who was born after the revolution. He is therefore a member of the generation that benefitted the most from the social advances that it made. He comes from a relatively modest background, and he is not a member of any of the prominent families that fought the revolution, nor is he a military figure. This might suggest that he has been carefully selected because in him it is very difficult to accuse the Cuban leadership of being nepotistic or dynastic, or of being militarized. His lack of prior contact with the United States is also important to consider. As an unknown quantity, he will be harder to influence or predict. He has an impeccable record as a party member, appears to be modest and is obviously extremely hard-working. I feel therefore that he will represent continuity rather than change. I believe talk of a significant generational switch is somewhat exaggerated. Even if he obtains the highest office, Díaz-Canel will still be surrounded for years by members of the generation that fought the revolution, many of whom are not as old as the Castros. Esteban Lazo Hernández for example, who has just taken over the presidency of the National Assembly, is 68 and fought in the revolution as boy. Even under the new two-term rule, he could still be in office in 2022! If anything, the lesson I would draw from this for the policymakers in Washington is to wake up to the fact that waiting for the Castros to die is a waste of time."

A: Kirby Jones, president of Alamar Associates in Bethesda, Md.: "It is impossible to know what Miguel Díaz-Canel would do as president of Cuba. Too little is known about him and no crystal ball can possibly be that clear all the way to 2018. Too many unknown changes will happen between now and then. One only needs to look at the last five years. Who would have predicted in 2008 that there would be the economic and personnel changes that we now can see in 2013? Rather the importance of this election of Díaz-Canel as first vice president is what it says about the current government. Not only is Díaz-Canel the first post-revolution person to hold that post, but so too are the majorities of the National Assembly and the Council of Ministers stocked with this new generation. A new governing era has really taken hold. This is not to say that Raúl and the previous leaders will not still set the tone and management of the reform process for the next several years. They will. But the orderly transition to a country not led by a Castro is set. This can only mean increased changes and new developments. And where is the United States? On the sidelines, as usual. Other countries will make contact with this new generation and will have the ability to conduct their affairs to their advantage as they experience and understand the new political landscape. The hardliners in Miami will move the goalposts once again seemingly in concert with U.S. policy, which is so abysmally out of touch with reality."