Cuba will remain a one-party authoritarian state, with or without a Castro at the helm.
On April 19 Raúl Castro will step down as Cuba’s president, ending almost six decades of his family’s rule of the Caribbean island. Contrary to some expectations, however, Havana will not embark on an extensive process of political transition. Even though the country faces a significant generational shift in power — most of the regime’s 80 and 90-year-old historicos (Raúl is 85) are also set to retire — the chances of systemic transformation remain very low. Seasoned analysts and Cuba watchers instead see a continuation of the status quo: a non-Castro in charge, but no transition to a more liberal regime.
There are several reasons why Cuba will remain in Castro’s grip for the foreseeable future. To begin, Raúl’s most likely successor, Miguel Díaz-Canel, is considered the Castro brothers’ star pupil. Widely regarded as a non-charismatic but experienced manager, the 58-year-old vice president has risen sharply through government departments and Communist Party of Cuba (PCC) ranks. In 2003 he became a member of the PCC’s principal policymaking committee, the Politburo, followed by education minister in 2009 and vice president of the six-member Council of State in 2013.
Díaz-Canel has also held top positions in the provinces of Villa Clara and Holguín. Both are centers of Cuba’s booming tourism industry and burgeoning private sector, regularly highlighted as success stories underpinning Raúl’s ambitious economic reforms. The vice president’s “good relations’’ with the Cuban military are also significant. Despite stepping down from the presidency, Raúl will remain both first secretary of the PCC until 2021 and the unofficial chief of the armed forces.
There is no other person on the island who knows the military better than the outgoing president. Before replacing Fidel as head of state in 2008, Raúl served as defence minister from the beginning of the Cuban Revolution in 1959. Indeed, the Cuban army has played an increasingly important role in government over the past decade, with several military officers and Raúl’s confidants serving as ministers. This has undoubtedly helped the army to consolidate its grip on Cuba’s economy. Through its conglomerate Gaesa, it owns the vast swathes of Cuba’s hotels, foreign exchange houses and ports. According to some economists, the army accounts for approximately 40-60% of the country’s foreign exchange earnings.
Consequently, it remains highly unlikely that the Cuban army will put political reform ahead of profits. Put simply, it has done very well out of economic reforms, which over the past decade have facilitated self-employment activities, tax cuts for companies and increased foreign investment. The army’s position is likely to be emboldened by the fact that despite improved diplomatic ties with the United States since 2014 and signing of the Political Dialogue and Cooperation Agreement with the European Union in 2017, neither resulted in a loosening of Raúl’s grip on the country’s political system.
According to the Freedom House Index 2017, Cuba was the least free country in Latin America and the wider Caribbean region. Internet censorship and severe restrictions on the press, freedom of expression and assembly remain part and parcel of everyday life on the island. In addition, the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, an independent nongovernmental organization, found that in 2016 Cuban authorities detained a record number of 9,940 individuals.
Thanks to Fidel and Raúl Castro, Cuba has been relatively successful in isolating itself from an increasingly interconnected world. However, given Venezuela’s parlous economic conditions, which for years deeply subsidized oil supplies in return for doctors, teachers, sports trainers and military advisors, it will be hard for Havana to stay isolated for too long. Cuba is also facing major economic challenges that will be hard to solve within the existing model. These include weak GDP growth despite surging tourism (0.9% in 2016, as compared to the average of 2.8% between 2013-2015), damage caused by the destructive Hurricane Irma, and a dual-currency system that masks state inefficiencies.
Raúl’s successor must also consider the needs of an aging population (25% of Cubans are over 55 years old) and a Cuban youth that equates political change with greater opportunity. For its part, the government has responded by beginning to consolidate its two currencies, despite fears that it will negatively impact the economy. It’s also likely that the appointment of a “young” non-Castro as Cuba’s new leader will be portrayed as a breath of political fresh air. But these changes are hardly Havana taking its first steps toward a bright democratic future.
By appointing an heir instead of a reformist, Cuba is signaling to the world that it only wants to open and modernize on its own terms. Yet, there is another way. Former authoritarians remaining prominent actors in the new political set up of a country is nothing new: Myanmar, Mexico, Poland, Spain or Tunisia are just a few examples. Indeed, history shows that authoritarian successor parties are quite often freely and fairly reelected to office. But this will not be the case of Cuba in 2018. Instead, an island located a mere 165 kilometers from the world’s leading democracy will remain a one-party authoritarian state, with or without a Castro at the helm.
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