Changing of the Guard, Cuban-Style

By William M. LeoGrande

Cuba Coat of Arms | Wikipedia Commons

Cuban Coat of Arms | Wikipedia Commons

In his speech to the closing session of Cuba’s National Assembly on February 24, Raúl Castro formally announced that he would retire at the end of his current presidential term in 2018. Even now, only a handful of “los históricios” – the founders of the revolutionary regime – remain in office, though they still dominate the Communist Party’s Political Bureau. Raúl also announced the immediate retirement of several elderly comrades-in-arms, including First Vice-President José Machado Ventura. In his place, the Assembly elected 52-year-old, Miguel Díaz-Canel, putting a leader born after the triumph of the revolution in the direct line of political succession for the first time.

But Díaz-Canel is not the first presumptive heir to appear on the Cuban political scene. He is preceded by several others, all of whom came to a bad end, falling into disgrace and obscurity as quickly as they rose. The first was “Landy” – Luis Orlando Domínguez, a rising star in his forties whose power derived from his leadership of the Grupo de Apoyo, Fidel’s personal staff. He was arrested in 1987 for embezzlement and sentenced to 20 years in prison. The next was Roberto Robaina, the charismatic pony-tailed head of the Young Communist League. In 1993, Fidel appointed “Robertico” foreign minister at the age of 36, then sacked him six years later for disloyalty. Robaina, it turned out, was a little too friendly with foreign businessmen and officials.  Next came Felipe Pérez-Roque and Carlos Lage. Pérez-Roque served as Fidel’s personal assistant for a decade before being appointed, at age 34, to succeed Robaina at the Foreign Ministry. Announcing his appointment, Granma explained that he was qualified for the job despite his age because, “He is familiar, as very few others are, with Fidel’s ideas and thoughts.” Lage served as Fidel’s economic adviser during the Special Period, becoming one of the vice-presidents of the Council of State and executive secretary to the Council of Ministers – the closest thing Cuba had to a prime minister. Pérez-Roque and Lage were both removed by Raúl in 2009 for criticizing los históricos behind their backs and being too eager to push the older generation off stage. They were, as Fidel wrote, “seduced by the honey of power.”

All these early heirs owed their ascent to their personal relationships with Fidel.  Before his illness, the elder Castro was, as we social scientists say, a “minimum winning coalition” all by himself. If Fidel decided on a policy, the rest of the leadership dutifully fell into line. Political power, then, was directly correlated with proximity to Fidel. It was no accident that the principal path to power for an aspiring young politician led through Castro’s personal staff. But the meteoric rise of Domínguez et al., denied them the political savvy only experience can provide, and imbued them with the hubris of Icarus.

Díaz-Canel appears to be an heir of a different order. An electrical engineer by training, he has spent his career rising through the ranks of the Communist Party, building a reputation for competent, pragmatic management. He served as Party first secretary in Villa Clara and Holguín provinces before moving to the national stage, becoming Minister of Higher Education and a vice-president of the Council of State. In public, his austere demeanor suggests the archetypical apparatchik, but in person he is said to be warm, personable, and modest – disdaining the prerogatives of office. While serving as first secretary in Villa Clara, he visited far-flung towns and villages by bicycle.

Díaz-Canel seems to be as different from the earlier heirs as Raúl is from Fidel. Fidel was always suspicious of institutions that might constrain his freedom of action, and never hesitated to circumvent them when it suited his purposes. Raúl, on the other hand, has been the quintessential organization man, valuing careful management, sound administrative processes, and institution-building. His proposal for term limits for all senior government and party officials represents the final institutionalization of the revolution, elevating the system over the pretensions of individuals. In 1973, Granma ran a headline, “Men Die, but the Party is Immortal.” Now, as los históricos are dying, the future of the revolution is finally being vested in the institutions they built and the successors those institutions have produced.

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