What can we expect from Cuba's first post-Castro President?
Since the revolution in 1959, Cuba has only known leadership from a Castro. This week, that will change. All indications point to it being somebody from the 'lost generation' – those who were born in the decades following Fidel Castro's takeover. Having only carried out orders from ageing revolutionaries, the world will eagerly watch what they now do with power.
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On 18 April, for the first time in nearly 60 years, Cuba will have a leader whose surname is not Castro. The National Assembly meets on Wednesday to select his replacement. Current President Raul Castro will step down – as promised – after two terms in power. Vice-President Miguel Diaz-Canel is his expected successor.
Despite the largely symbolic role of the presidency, it is nevertheless important. In a state so entwined with the fervour and charisma of Fidel Castro, the shift to a leader without root in the revolutionary crop naturally brings some – if limited – expectations that a new direction shall emerge.
Improving the economy will be the heir apparent’s top priority, in spite of his limited control over its design
Raul Castro will likely remain the head of the Communist Party, a position both he and his late brother held simultaneously with the presidency. According to the constitution, this is the "highest guiding force” in the island state with responsibility for all essential social, foreign and economic decisions. Furthermore, the president is constitutionally bound to implement them. Change (if it is to come) will therefore begin slowly.
Improving the economy will be the heir apparent’s top priority, in spite of his limited control over its design. Raul Castro will be a powerful ally inside the policy circles, who has implemented some mild yet important precedent-setting reforms. Within Cuba, it is now widely acknowledged that the private sector should play a larger role in the soviet-style model. Gains in education and social services – amongst the cardinal achievements of Fidel’s era – have unravelled due to poor economic performance. Diaz-Canel will therefore be allowed some room for market liberalisation.
Beyond this, others expect social and political reforms. There is little space for dissidence or political disagreement on the Caribbean island. Those with opinions outside the orthodoxy tend to end up in prison or exile. Freedom of speech and association remains limited. And there is only one route to democratic participation: through the Communist Party of Cuba – the only legally recognised party in the nation.
But just how quickly he can go remains to be seen. Little was known of the 57-year-old before he was promoted to Raul’s number two. However, he seems intent on projecting a sense of managerial and technocratic nous. This is understandable, given the tension between the reformist and ideologically traditional wings of the party.
There is, however, little doubt he leans toward the former. But where he lacks the revolutionary credentials of the older generation, his career as a committed communist will endear him to the other side. At 43, he became the youngest-ever member of the Politburo – the highest decision-making body – having ascended the rungs of the party from the bottom. Raul has commended his “ideological firmness”.
Yet his liberal side can be glimpsed in his past. Throughout his rise, he has consistently supported LGBT rights and has backed anti-discriminatory legislation from his position in the National Assembly. Yet how far this tolerance extends is debatable. He has spoken of the need for a freer press and greater access to the internet. However, leaked footage of him castigating dissidents and independent media seemingly betrays his inclination to Cuba’s traditional methods of control.
The revolutionary veterans know change must happen, but will probably not welcome it
Whatever the extent of his reforms – social, economic or democratic – they will weaken the parties grip on the state. The revolutionary veterans know change must happen, but will probably not welcome it. He therefore must ensure he does move too quickly and anger those on the left of the party. At the same time, he must demonstrate liberal gains to the reformers.
It is a narrow path to walk. But if he navigates it successfully, he could – slowly – usher in meaningful transformation in Cuba. The question is whether the rest of the party, 60 years since the revolution, will tolerate it.