Note: This interview was originally published by the Council on Foreign Relations on April 18, 2018.
The departure of Raul Castro this month as president of Cuba will mark the first time in sixty years that the country will not be ruled by someone with the surname Castro. While Raul carried out some incremental reforms, the legacy of Raul and his brother Fidel is one of a long-repressed, economically stunted nation, says Christopher Sabatini, lecturer of international relations at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs and executive director of Global Americans. Though Castroism is expected to continue under apparent successor First Vice President Miguel Diaz-Canel, he represents generational change and is likely to have more contact with Cubans as well as foreign leaders, says Sabatini.
How will Raul’s presidency be remembered?
Raul will be seen as a continuation of the Fidel Castro government; with Fidel or Raul having governed since 1959, it’s clearly a family affair. But his time in power will also be remembered as one of marginal, incremental reforms.
When Raul took power, he said that the Cuban economy was a failure—something you never would have heard the infamously obstreperous Fidel say. Raul implemented a series of reforms intended to create market incentives in the Cuban economy: he allowed some measures of private enterprise, rewrote the laws for investment, welcomed Brazilian investment in the Mariel Port, and even allowed some forms of private farming to address national food shortages. His saying was: “Without pause, but without haste.” In other words, he would move the country forward but at his own pace.
But Cuba under the Castros—Fidel and Raul—was still a dictatorship. It’s been a totalitarian state since 1959. There are no democratic elections. Cubans are not allowed to congregate freely and are limited in their freedom of expression and access to information. There’s only one official newspaper run by the Communist Party, and it consists almost entirely of propaganda to support the party and its policies. The result is that Cubans have become atomized.
Explain how the upcoming selection of new leaders will work.
It’s a parliamentary style system. The first round of elections was held in October, when delegates were elected to local councils. Local delegates, together with some national figures and associations such as the ruling Communist Party, then selected provincial delegates from their own ranks. From these were chosen delegates to the National Assembly. All that is left is for the National Assembly to select a Committee of Candidates, from which the next president, the first and second vice presidents, and the Council of State—the group of politicians who meet weekly to review national policy orientation and implementation—will be chosen come April 19.
But the process isn’t democratic. Only members of the Communist Party are allowed to run. People are only voting from an official, pre-approved slate of candidates. There’s choice, but only within the system. And during the first round of elections at the level of local council, voting was held in the open, with no secret ballot process.
All signs point to Diaz-Canel being sworn in as president. What do we know about him?
Diaz-Canel is fifty-seven—relatively young to those who govern today. The average age of the Council of State is now well over sixty years old. He’s the only candidate who was not born during the [Cuban] Revolution. He’s truly a new generation. He’s known to like rock and roll, and is also known to be modest. He used to ride his bicycle to work, and even in these recent elections he waited in line to cast his ballot just like everyone else. He’s kept his head low.
Diaz-Canel rose through the party itself; he started as a provincial secretary in Santa Clara. He’s been groomed from the beginning. If you speak to the average Cuban, they’ll try to tell you that the election is uncertain and that someone other than Diaz-Canel could be elected, but this is meant to build a facade of a more democratic process rather than a coronation, which is effectively what this election is. Choosing someone else would be more than just breaking with the name of the Castros. It would be an apparent break with the will of the Castros. I don’t expect that to happen.
What might this regime change mean for the average Cuban?
There’s a fair amount of expectation. Most Cubans have waited for a long time for some sort of response to their demands for an end to the Castros. By virtue of his age and provincial background, Diaz-Canel is very aware of these frustrations and will likely be much more in contact with the people.
But Diaz-Canel will also continue to be surrounded by people who are very committed to Castroism. Raul Castro is going to continue as the secretary-general of the Communist Party and will remain the de facto head of the armed forces. His son, Alejandro, will remain the de facto liaison between the military, intelligence, and civilian sectors. The thing to keep an eye on is how many of the older generation—the former revolutionaries—get elected to the Council of State. Diaz-Canel will have a little more of a free hand if people of his generation and people of his choosing dominate that council.
Having said that, Diaz-Canel is faced with some very serious challenges. The first is currency unification. There are two currencies in Cuba, which create huge distortions in the economy and act as disincentives to foreign investment. [The Cuban convertible peso (CUC), pegged to the U.S. dollar and used in the tourism industry and to price consumer goods, is worth twenty-five times more than the Cuban peso (CUP), used largely by locals.] Unification could be a very wrenching process, and could even risk inflation and a higher cost of living. The second is, of course, finding ways to generate hard currency. The third is tax collection, and the large number of cuentapropistas [self-employed persons] who make up the informal sector and evade taxation. Diaz-Canel will have to show very strong leadership, but always in the context of the revolution.
How might the upcoming political turnover affect U.S.-Cuba relations?
I do not expect any changes under the Trump administration, whose policy toward Cuba is being guided by a desire to isolate and coerce changes from the government. The Cuban government does not take kindly to coercion.
I don’t think the passing of the baton from the Castros to Diaz-Canel, or someone else of that ilk, will represent a sufficient change for a shift in U.S. policy. The Helms-Burton Act of 1996, which is still in effect, states that the president can only ask to have the U.S. embargo on Cuba lifted if certain conditions are met, including the release of all political prisoners, respect for freedom of expression, respect for freedom of association, and credible steps toward free and fair elections. As long as policy is driven largely by [Florida Senator] Marco Rubio and other hard-liners, the embargo won’t be lifted no matter who’s in power.
How might this change affect Cuba’s broader foreign policy?
Diaz-Canel will be limited by the old-timers. He won’t be embracing the United States for historical reasons. And the relationship with traditional allies will certainly not diminish. Venezuela, for example, has been a political ally and regional banker for a long time; they need each other.
But just by virtue of being of a younger generation, Diaz-Canel is likely to be more of a world figure. He’s traveled more than either of the Castro brothers did. There will be issues that will require Diaz-Canel to reach out; he’ll likely extend a hand to the European Union, which, with Mexico, has recognized the transfer of power as a potential opening in which, through respectful dialogue, the process of change in Cuba can be positively shaped. We’ll see how that process of engagement shakes out.
This interview has been edited and condensed.