Cuba prepares for life after the Castros

Cuba will cease to be ruled by a Castro this week for the first time in almost half a century, as the Caribbean island begins a new chapter in its turbulent history.

President Raul Castro, 86, will step down after a decade in power in a parliamentary session which begins on Wednesday – completing a decision he announced in 2013. In a significant generational shift he is expected to hand over to Miguel Diaz-Canel – who was not even born when the Revolution begun.

A jeans-wearing former electrical engineer who bears a passing resemblance to Richard Gere, Mr Diaz-Canel, 57, is distinguished from many of the senior Communist Party officials by his youth and vigour.

A self-professed Beatles fan, he was wide-eyed with excitement to see the preparations for Cuba’s first ever major rock gig – The Rolling Stones performed in March 2016.

He will not, strictly speaking, be the first non-Castro to rule Cuba since the Revolution – Manuel Urrutia was president for the first six months of the Revolution, and Osvaldo Dorticos then ruled for 17 years, until 1976.

But even when someone else was nominally ruling, a Castro was always known to be effectively in charge.

“This is important symbolically because it’s the passing of the baton from the historic figures led by the Castros to the next generation,” said Ted Piccone, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

Despite a series of reforms under Raul Castro, Cuba remains locked in grinding economic stagnation

Despite a series of reforms under Raul Castro, Cuba remains locked in grinding economic stagnation

Credit:
Ramon Espinosa/AP

“The big caveat is that it will be gradual change because Raul will still be secretary of the Communist party.”

Continuing the gradual opening-up of Cuba

Mr Castro hands over a country significantly more open than it was when he took over.

In 2008 he scrapped a policy which banned local Cubans from entering tourist hotels or interacting with foreign visitors, and the number of tourists arriving each year has jumped from 2.3 million in 2008 to almost four million in 2016.

Internet was all but impossible for ordinary Cubans to access when Mr Castro came to power; now, thanks largely to his agreement with Barack Obama to restore diplomatic relations, communications companies are working to connect one of the most hermetically-sealed countries in the world.

Liberalising the economy

Furthermore, Mr Castro began a slow series of reforms to liberalise parts of the economy and relax state control, stating in 2010: “Either we change course or we sink.”

These new reforms included more support for self-employed workers and private enterprises, allowing citizens to buy and sell housing, legalising ownership of mobile phones, and creating a special economic zone in the port city of Mariel. Cuba’s GDP jumped from $42.6 billion in 2005 to $87 billion in 2015, and GDP per capita doubled from $3,779 to $7,602.

A rocky road ahead

Yet Mr Diaz-Canel also inherits some significant challenges – not least a deeply hostile government 90 miles away, in the United States.

Direct democracy is as distant a dream as ever; the pace of economic reform has been slower than promised; and Venezuela’s struggles have hit Cuba hard. Cuban trade with its socialist ally has fallen 70 per cent since 2014 due to the South American oil producer’s inability to meet delivery contracts and purchase goods, as it struggles with low oil prices and a resulting economic meltdown.

2011: Fidel Castro, left, raises his brother's Raul's hand, as they sing the anthem of international socialism during the 6th Communist Party Congress in Havana

2011: Fidel Castro, left, raises his brother’s Raul’s hand, as they sing the anthem of international socialism during the 6th Communist Party Congress in Havana

Credit:
Javier Galeano/ AP

Alana Tummino, head of the Americas Society/Council of the Americas’ Cuba Working Group, said he was also hampered by not having the “street cred” of being a Castro.

“He’ll need to work to build his legitimacy,” she said. “But this will not be a leader coming in to enact a new agenda. There’s no sea change expected.”

Manuel Barcia Paz, a Cuban academic at the University of Leeds, said he expected to see “change within the existing parameters”.

“Some of his ideas are definitely very positive, for example expanding the provision of English language, and focusing on improving public health. But I am not sure to what extent he will be able to implement his own ideas.”

Keeping the focus on healthcare

Cuba is known for its national healthcare system, something Mr Diaz-Canel is considered likely to consolidate. It was an important part of Fidel Castro’s national policy while he was in power, and this approach appears to have continued under Raul.

The system – founded in 1960 by Fidel Castro – means that there is a high number of doctors in the island nation. In 2013, there were 7.4 doctors per 1,000 population in Cuba – compared with 2.6 in the US and 2.8 in the UK.

The Cuban health system, in which there are no private hospitals or clinics, results in the country spending 10.6 per cent of its annual GDP on healthcare. This is higher than both the US (8.3 per cent) and the UK (7.6 percent).

Increasing internet penetration?

Mr Diaz-Canel’s own views are little known, but he is an outspoken supporter of wider internet access and a more vibrant media.

Only around five per cent of Cuban homes have access to the internet, according to the UN in a 2016 report, and Mr Diaz-Canel says that trying to stop the internet’s spread is futile.

“Prohibiting it would be an almost impossible delusion that doesn’t make sense,” he told reporters shortly after becoming first vice-president, in February 2013.

“Society is demanding more,” he said.

Yet in August 2017, a video from February of that year surfaced in which Mr Diaz-Canel expressed stridently conservative views at a private meeting of the party, arguing that the process of normalisation of relations initiated by former Mr Obama was just a different way of attempting “the destruction of the revolution.”

Cynics saw the leaking of the video as a deliberate ploy to reassure hardliners.

But in fact there is little in Mr Diaz-Canel’s background to suggest he will rock Raul’s boat.

‘Enigmatic’ – but a safe pair of hands

His has been a classic case of rising through the Party ranks – first in his hometown of Villa Clara, then in Holguin. He was promoted to the 14-member Politburo, the highest leadership of the Communist Party, and in 2009 summoned to Havana to serve as minister for higher education. In 2013 the national assembly promoted him to first vice-president, a significant generational shift.

A father of two children from his first marriage, he met his second wife, Liz Cuesta Peraza, while in Holguin, where she was director of the provincial literary institute.

She is now a high ranking official in the ministry of culture and, in another change for Cuba, seems set to play an active role as first lady – photographed in March voting alongside her husband, accompanying him to North Korea, in 2015, to meet Kim Jong-un, and in June 2016 hosted by the wife of Shinzo Abe, Japan’s prime minister.

Mr Diaz-Canel is frequently described as “enigmatic”.  Even diplomats from China, one of Cuba’s closest allies, are unsure of where he stands, said Ricardo Barrios, of The Inter-American Dialogue.

“There are lots of moving pieces with this transition,” said Mr Barrios. “Things are only beginning.”

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