Cuba: Sticking to the Plan

By Fulton Armstrong

Miguel Diaz Canel

Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel. / Irene Pérez / Cubadebate / Flickr / Creative Commons

As Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel passed the six-month mark in office this month, his administration – not surprisingly – continued to produce no surprises.  His rhetoric and policies, similar to the package of constitutional reforms now undergoing consulta popular and scheduled to be approved by referendum next February, are an extension of Raúl Castro’s tightrope walk between continuity and gradual change.

  • Speaking at the UN General Assembly in September, Díaz-Canel condemned the “selfishness and exclusion” of capitalism as the cause of poverty, instability, climate change, and other ills. He also proclaimed, “The generational change in [Cuba’s] government should not deceive the enemies of the revolution; we are continuity, not rupture.”  He welcomed the almost-friendless Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro to join one of his biggest public appearances.  Showing his pragmatic side, however, Díaz-Canel also met in New York with U.S. technology companies and icons of U.S. capitalism – Google, Bloomberg, Microsoft, Twitter, and others – declared his hope to “computerize [Cuban] society,” and welcomed the announcement of the first U.S.-Cuban biotech joint venture.  Upon his return to Havana, he launched his own Twitter account.
  • On economic reform, Díaz-Canel has continued the same halting approach toward market socialism as did Raúl. New regulations announced in July, to be implemented in December, seemed designed to restrain the growth of the private sector rather than accelerate the reform program.  New mechanisms to ensure that cuentapropistas pay more taxes and operate within the law will dampen their growth in the short term and aggravate contradictions in current policies – for example, curbing black-market purchases of supplies without creating wholesale markets for them.

Ongoing national discussions on constitutional reforms, launched by the National Assembly in July, are compatible with Díaz-Canel’s approach to change.

  • The new document reaffirms two tenets of the Communist Party’s revolutionary platform – the party’s continued leading role as sole political representative of the Cuban nation, and a commitment to a socialist system in which state property predominates and universal social services remain free. But, importantly, the draft omits the goal in the 1976 constitution of “building a Communist society,” signaling the leadership’s recognition that private property and markets will be a permanent feature of the new Cuban model.  It reconfigures policymaking processes to increase efficiency (such as by formalizing the position of Prime Minister), increases the autonomy of local government, and separates more clearly executive and legislative functions.  An amendment allowing same-sex marriage has sparked heated public debate and given rise to an unprecedented political organizing drive by churches opposed to it.
  • The amended constitution does not significantly expand the space for private enterprise, but it provides a stronger legal foundation for the reforms that have already been implemented in various waves since 1992. The draft also strengthens protections of Cuban and foreign-owned private property and investment, providing guarantees against future expropriation.

When introducing changes over the years, the government has routinely, if not obsessively, emphasized continuity – and Díaz-Canel’s administration is proving to be no different.  The signs of change are often nuanced, whereas hardline positions, which tamp down progressives’ expectations and assuage conservatives’ anxieties, are unmistakable.  Díaz-Canel’s adherence to Raúl’s program gives him both essential political cover emphasizing continuity as well as a platform for continuing gradual change.  That formula doesn’t help him with some major challenges, such as the need to unify the country’s two currencies, that have loomed large for several years.  But Díaz-Canel’s gradualist approach – particularly if enshrined in a new constitution next year – is compatible with the view held by many Cubans that change should be evolutionary, not disruptive, even if they wish it went faster.  Washington’s curtailment of bilateral normalization is depriving the private sector of much-needed resources to drive change, but the country’s continued international outreach and expansion of internet access have given entrepreneurs a moral, if not economic, lifeline.  Cubans have often said they’ll do change “their own way,” and Díaz-Canel, with his abundance of caution, may be leading that process. 

October 31, 2018

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.