Latin America Advisor

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Will the End of the Castro Era Mean Change in Cuba?

Raúl Castro (R) ceded the leadership of the Cuban Communist Party to Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel (L) at the party’s recent congress. Photo: Estudios Revolución via Granma.

The Castro era came to an end this month in Cuba as Raúl Castro, at age 89, stepped down as the head of Cuba’s Communist Party. As expected, Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel succeeded him in the post. What will change in Cuba with Raúl Castro’s departure from the party’s leadership? To what extent will the younger generation of Cuba’s leaders be willing to make further market-style reforms to the country’s economy? To what extent will the Covid-19 pandemic accelerate political or economic changes in Cuba?

William M. LeoGrande, professor of government in the School of Public Affairs at American University: “Raúl Castro’s departure from the leadership of the Cuban Communist Party represents the final stage of the transition from the ‘historic’ generation that founded the revolutionary regime to a successor generation born after the triumph of the 1959 revolution. Miguel Díaz-Canel, who took Castro’s place as president in 2018 and now assumes the mantle of party leader, has been a firm supporter of Raúl Castro’s policies—first and foremost the economic reform program launched in 2011, which aims to replace Soviet-style central planning with a market-socialist model. His favorite hashtag is ‘We Are Continuity,’ and the just-concluded party congress was billed as the ‘Congress of Continuity.’ The party congress unveiled no dramatic new policies, but in his farewell speech, Castro underscored the need to move full speed ahead on economic reforms, which have lagged as a result of bureaucratic resistance. Whether Díaz-Canel will have any better luck bringing the bureaucracy to heel, only time will tell. The Covid-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc on the Cuban economy. GDP fell 11 percent last year, resulting in shortages of basic goods, including food. Ironically, the crisis also accelerated the pace of change. Already this year, the government has undertaken two long-awaited reforms—a vast expansion of the scope of allowable private business and the unification of Cuba’s dual currency and exchange rates. Still, much more remains to be done. The legitimacy of Cuba’s new leaders will depend on their ability to deliver the goods—literally—to a population tired of perpetual austerity.”

Otto Reich, president of Otto Reich Associates LLC and former assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs: “ ‘Cuba to be led by someone not named Castro for the first time in six decades,’ breathlessly proclaim many news headlines. That is also what they said three years ago, when Miguel Díaz-Canel replaced Raúl Castro as ‘president.’ Nothing changed in Cuba in the intervening three years, except that political repression and economic stagnation increased, and shortages of food and of every other basic human need intensified. This past weekend, the world media repeated those headlines. Their memories are short. Cuba remains a totalitarian dictatorship that forcibly stifles dissent and individual initiative in the name of ‘socialism’; the succession remains meaningless. By brute force, Fidel Castro tried to build a communist society in the mold of the former Soviet Union. The Cuban Communist Party’s designation of Díaz-Canel as Raúl’s successor in the most important post in the land, secretary general of the Communist Party, is as inconsequential as the Soviet Communist Party’s designation of General Secretaries Andropov and Chernenko to replace Leonid Brezhnev in the early 1980s. Not until Mikhail Gorbachev arrived to ‘save Communism,’ which the Russian said was his objective, did any real changes begin in the USSR. But Castro, Inc. knows that was the beginning of the end of the USSR, because communism cannot be reformed, only replaced, which is why Fidel, while he lived, prohibited talk of Glasnost, Perestroika or any such ‘nonsense.’ Díaz-Canel is no Gorbachev, but there is hope despite him: Cubans are losing fear of the secret police and challenging the party’s iron rule; they are aware of the fact that Cuba was not ‘a poor country’ before Castro, contrary to what Raúl repeated at the party congress; that their brethren who have escaped or managed to reach free, capitalist societies have thrived and that ‘with a little more sacrifice everything will be better soon’ is a worn-out communist lie.”

Camila Piñeiro Harnecker, professor and researcher on the social solidarity economy and enterprise sector in Cuba: “Just as with expectations about ‘Cuba after Fidel,’ the ‘Cuba after Raúl’ will likely not change in the way some in Miami and Washington would hope. Younger generations of Cuban leaders, whose main source of legitimacy is their ability to deliver on the promises for a ‘prosperous and sustainable socialism’—as established in the Guidelines, Conceptualization, 2030 Plan and the new constitution—have no choice but to accelerate the reform process that Raúl started. Cuba is facing an economic crisis resulting both from structural deficiencies of the still-dominant statist model and the U.S. embargo, which was exacerbated by the Trump administration’s efforts to strangle Cuba and the devastating effects of a global pandemic. President Díaz-Canel has shown determination to continue with the reforms nonetheless, even if it initially creates some pain for Cubans. The greatest obstacle to deeper economic and political reform in Cuba continues to be the hostility of ‘regime change’ policy that U.S. administrations have pursued for more than 60 years. The economic, financial and commercial sanctions that have been maintained—sometimes relaxed, sometimes toughened—coupled with incitement of social unrest, have produced a siege mentality among officials and everyday citizens. With tourism halted by the pandemic, Cuba desperately needs foreign investment and for the first time has called for Cuban-Americans to invest. The Biden administration has a great opportunity to restore the Obama administration’s normalization path and bolster Cuban leaders who would advance reforms in favor of a greater role for the cooperative and private sectors, while undermining hardliners in both countries and benefiting all Cubans.” ​

Lenier González, resident fellow at the Inter-American Dialogue and co-founder of Cuba Posible: “The legitimacy of Cuba’s ‘historic generation’ emanated from an insurrectionary epic that destroyed the institutional order of the second republic, radically transformed the life of the country and managed to involve politically several generations of Cubans in that transformation. The legitimacy of the new generation of leaders will strictly depend on the degree of material prosperity that they are capable of providing the Cuban people. In order to achieve this, the government has begun the monetary and exchange unification, it has announced that it will expand the scope of activity by the private sector, and it will possibly open the doors to small and medium-sized private companies. However, tensions emerged in the eighth congress that the new generation of leaders must resolve. On the one hand, a greater ‘role of the market’ was announced, while at the same time ‘red lines’ that must not be crossed were drawn. These red lines refer to the market itself and to the possibility of privatizing sectors of the economy. If leaders decide to move toward a mixed economic model, with greater private-sector participation, the middle class will expand, and the autonomy quotas of broad social sectors would also be expanded. On the other hand, with the departure of Raúl Castro as first secretary of the Cuban Communist Party, there is a transition from strong leadership to a more collegiate power structure, with distributed political functions and a rotation in the exercise of power, although still without allowing the direct election of the main political posts. In parallel, and thanks to the island’s connection to the Internet, the existence of a plurality of voices in Cuban society with real capacity to present agendas that challenge the party’s main postulates, as well as to advocate for greater civil liberties, is more evident by the day. This entire universe of realities challenges the party, the new leadership and the political system as a whole.”

Ricardo Herrero, executive director of the Cuba Study Group: “There is little doubt that last weekend’s party congress constituted a seismic shift in the leadership and direction of the Cuban government. Where the country ends up remains an open question, but the intended destination is clearly economic transformation. Most notable is the generational transition within the politburo. The old guard is bowing out, with Raúl Castro and José Machado Ventura retiring from their respective posts as first and second secretaries. Other historic revolutionaries departing this powerful committee: Ramiro Valdés, who retains his role as a vice prime minister, and Leopoldo Cintra-Frías, who was ‘term limited’ (a precedent-setting exit) as minister of the revolutionary armed forces. The secretariat’s new makeup suggests a prioritization of the economy above other activities, as do the inductions of Luis Alberto López-Callejas, who runs a powerful conglomerate of military-run companies, and former tourism minister-turned-prime minister Manuel Marrero, to the politburo. Throughout the proceedings, the party reaffirmed its commitment to expanding the role of the private sector, legalizing small and medium enterprises, decentralizing decision-making in productive sectors such as agriculture and liberalizing foreign investment, even if many of these are still pending. In his swan song as party leader, Raúl Castro warned against ‘structural reforms’ that could imperil socialism. But aside from cautioning against the unraveling of universal health care and education, or insisting on a government role in nonstate imports, he was vague on specific limits, leaving the space open for future debate. It’s hard to imagine that the crisis posed by the Covid-19 pandemic did not accelerate these changes.”

Sarah Coker, development and communications coordinator at the Center for Democracy in the Americas: “The lack of a Castro in the top echelons of Cuba’s leadership is unlikely to usher in sudden or dramatic change at the structural level. Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel, who assumes the position of first secretary of Cuba’s Communist Party, has already demonstrated a clear commitment to continuity and loyalty to Cuba’s old guard, even as that generation fades from the picture and new leaders are ushered in. The transition may, however, be a catalyst for slower, structural change in the long term, especially given the changes already in motion on the island over the last decade. It may also open up space for Díaz-Canel to more quickly implement reforms dragging along in the pipeline, and to introduce further market reforms. The Covid-19 pandemic and lingering impact of Trump sanctions have the country in a crunch. Facing its worst economic crisis since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Cuba has responded by expanding the number of professions in which private businesses may participate from 127 to more than 2,000, reforming foreign investment rules and making overtures to Cuban investors living abroad; it has begun a series of monetary reforms, including the unification of the country’s dual currency system and the introduction of dollars back into the economy. Time will tell if Díaz-Canel is willing to go further and faster on the economy, which could also create space for better relations with Cubans off the island and the Biden administration.”

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