The word “transition” is usually associated with democracy, but in practice this isn’t always the case. The transition of power that began in Cuba in 2011—when Fidel Castro, for health reasons, stepped down—appears to have been completed on October 10, with the “election” of Miguel Díaz-Canel as president of the island.
Once Fidel Castro stepped down from power, it appeared his brother, Raúl Castro—the eternal number two of the Cuban regime—would take over as the perpetual leader. However, that wasn’t the case. As the head of state between 2011 and 2018, Raúl Castro was the architect of the transition which passed the baton to Díaz-Canel last October 10.
The strategy of the youngest Castro brother was based on a fundamental reason: the biological lifespan of the Castro legacy. Approaching 90 years of age—which he will turn in 2021—and the political inability that any of his or Fidel’s children could serve as a broker in any kind of dynastic succession, a transition needed to be built with a president who would perpetuate Castroism during his tenure.
At age 59, and with a bureaucratic record dating back to 1994, when he was appointed general secretary of the Communist Party in the province of Villa Clara, Díaz-Canel comes to break some paradigms on the island’s revolutionary mythology.
Can a revolution succeed itself?
Lacking the mythical aura of having been in the mountains in the 50’s—a story that Fidel and Raúl, along with many of those who were a part of that generation, exploited shamelessly—Díaz-Canel was indoctrinated as a “freely elected” president through an ad-hoc, indirect process officially certified on October 10. But in reality, Díaz-Canel will be the visible head of a dictatorial structure with 60 years in power.
The Castro narrative stressed that the second-degree election, carried out by deputies of the National Assembly, was “free, equal, direct and secret,” appropriating the characteristics of democratic elections, which this was not. There was no election. The 579 deputies (except for one) who cast their ballots for Díaz-Canel simply endorsed what the power had already dictated.
Raúl Castro had already made that decision in April last year, when he appointed Díaz-Canel as the head of the State Council and the Council of Ministers. And that won’t change, not even with any pretenses of an election such as was orchestrated by the regime on October 10.
With Díaz-Canel reaffirmed to power, a new period will begin where he will come under scrutiny about his ability to continue Castrismo and perpetuate himself in power. It is no longer only about the absence of charisma and revolutionary myth, but the capacity that appointed president of Cuba from now on.
Cuba faces a severe economic crisis, similar to that of the special period of the 1990’s, when the island lost economic support from the then-Soviet Union and the Socialist bloc of Eastern Europe.
The island now depends on Venezuela, and it’s not just economic—which is undoubtedly vital to Castrismo—but it is becoming increasingly clear that Venezuela’s future is tied to Cuba. This is to say, the return of democracy in Venezuela is intimately tied to the island.
The United States under President Donald Trump has focused on sanctions as a measure of pressure, similar to that of a billiards game: pressuring Havana to make changes in Caracas. On the other hand, in many countries of the region, it is clear that the full democratization of Venezuela means that Cuba is the target of a broader geopolitical struggle.
In this environment, Díaz-Canel begins his presidency, in the midst of an acute economic crisis—which is not a temporary problem but rather a structural consequence of the ancient Cuban model—and, in the sights of the international community, having a Trump in Washington who has promised greater pressure on the island, which will undoubtedly be part of Trump’s re-election campaign.
It’s not a rhetorical question: Has Castrismo guaranteed its perpetuation to power with Díaz-Canel? It is still too early to know. But it’s certainly a tough environment.