Countdown begins for Raúl Castro's retirement next year
BY MIMI WHITEFIELD AND NORA GÁMEZ TORRES
A year from now — on February 24 — something is expected to occur in
Cuba that hasn't happened in more than 40 years: a non-Castro will
occupy the presidency.
The coming year will be one of definitions in Cuba. But right now there
is only uncertainty — not only about how the transition will proceed but
also about the future of Cuba's relationship with the United States with
President Donald Trump at the helm.
In 2013, Raúl Castro told Cuba's National Assembly of People's Power,
the parliament, that he planned to retire from the presidency of the
Council of State and the Council of Ministers on Feb. 24, 2018. His heir
apparent became Miguel Díaz-Canel, a party stalwart who at the time was
promoted to first vice president of both councils.
When Castro retires as president, the Cuban Constitution also calls for
him to relinquish his post of commander in chief of Cuba's armed forces.
A Cuba without a khaki-clad Castro commanding the Revolutionary Armed
Forces is something many younger Cubans have never experienced.
Díaz-Canel's ascension next Feb. 24 — a date that has long had resonance
in Cuba history — is not assured, but most observers believe that a new
National Assembly that will be seated then will rubber stamp him as
Cuba's next president and he will replace the 85-year-old Castro.
Even with a successor, Castro is still expected to retain consider
clout. He has said nothing about stepping down as chief of Cuba's
powerful Communist Party and Cuba's military leaders are solid Raúlistas.
The power-behind-the-throne is not an unknown formula in Cuba. From 1959
to 1976, Osvaldo Dorticós formally served as president of the republic,
even though the true power was wielded by the late Fidel Castro, who was
then prime minister. From 1976, the posts associated with the presidency
have been occupied first by Fidel and then by Raúl Castro, who took over
on a provisional basis in 2006 when Fidel fell ill and then officially
Díaz-Canel represents a break from the revolutionary old guard and the
passing of the torch to a new generation of leaders. At age 56, he
wasn't even born when the revolution triumphed.
But there is also a school of thought that if Cuba's relationship with
the Trump administration goes badly, or if Trump yanks back most or all
of the changes under the Obama administration, it will provide a reason
for Castro to extend his tenure as president or at least to hang on to
his post as head of Cuba's Communist Party indefinitely.
"A lot of people in Havana are saying that if Mr. Trump and company
return to confrontational policies, backtracking on everything that was
done by Obama or most of it, the situation in Cuba would be to say,
'Let's circle the wagons,'" said Domingo Amuchastegui, a former Cuban
intelligence analyst who now lives in Miami.
"In the middle and older generations there was the feeling that Raúl
should not step down until the new administration comes to terms with
the normalization process or that if he steps down, he should stay as
first secretary of the party," said Amuchastegui, who spent the month of
December in Cuba. "What I found every day I was there were conversations
about what the new president [Trump] is going to do, will he be moving
back or going forward on normalization."
Cuba's Communist Party generally convenes a Congress every five years,
meaning it could be 2021 before a new party chieftain is named —
although a change could occur at any time if Castro decides to retire
from his party post.
At last year's party congress, Díaz-Canel wasn't promoted to second
secretary as some had anticipated. Instead, Castro's second in command
remained octogenarian, José Ramón Machado Ventura. If he succeeds Castro
as party chieftain, it wouldn't do much to promote the idea that space
is opening for new Cuban leaders or that, in Castro's words, a
"rejuvenation" is taking place. The 86-year-old Machado Ventura. joined
the revolutionary movement in 1952 when he was still a medical student
and fought alongside the Castros in the Sierra Maestra.
"If Cubans believe that [Castro] and his aging cohort of 1960s
revolutionaries remain the real power behind the throne, that would
suffocate and delegitimize the emerging, younger generation of leaders,"
said Richard Feinberg, a professor of international political economy at
the University of California, San Diego.
But Antonio Rodiles, a member of the opposition movement, fears that is
exactly what will happen.
"Power is going to continue as it is now in the hands of the military
and the heir clearly is Alejandro Castro Espín (son of Raúl Castro, a
colonel in the Interior Ministry, and a national security adviser),"
Rodiles said, "No doubt about it, Díaz-Canel would fulfill a function
similar to that carried out by Osvaldo Dorticós."
Feinberg said that managing U.S.-Cuba relations, once the White House
sets its course, will be less important in the next year "than managing
the historic transition to a post-Castro era on the island."
Rodiles, on the other hand, thinks the Trump presidency could
significantly alter succession plans on the island, especially if the
intention is to have Castro Espín as "the person behind the scenes who
is at the controls."
At this point, Díaz-Canel is still in the shadow of Raúl Castro.
"Cuba is a country that has been governed by a strong-man system," said
Arturo López-Levy, a lecturer at the University of Texas Rio Grande
Valley, former analyst with Cuban intelligence and cousin of a Castro
son-in-law in charge of military-owned companies on the island. "At
least I would have expected Raúl to give him more authority by now."
A review of Díaz-Canel's recent appearances on the front page of Granma,
the official newspaper of Cuba's Communist Party, shows him taking part
in local education, literacy and journalism events while Castro has
received a delegation from Iran and the president of Ireland. And it was
Machado Ventura who recently welcomed a communist leader from Vietnam.
Still, López-Levy said Díaz-Canel appears to be "the right candidate for
the job. He's well-traveled, experienced in leadership in the party, has
been a provincial leader, has good connections with the military. He
sounds good on paper, but at this point he looks too weak to be taking
on such an important role."
It is still Castro who makes the major pronouncements, including
recently extending an olive branch to the Trump administration, saying
he wants to pursue a "respectful dialogue."
The official media also is treading lightly when it comes to Trump. "You
have to notice how cautious and how much discretion the Cuban media is
taking when dealing with the new administration," said Amuchastegui.
Key to watch in the coming year is whether Díaz-Canel begins to play
more of a role in the relationship with Cuba's benefactor Venezuela and
in U.S.-Cuba relations once Trump policy toward the island is defined.
Some observers say in his last year in the presidency, they expect
Castro to concentrate on two things: taking further steps to unify
Cuba's unwieldy dual currency system and managing the relationship with
the U.S. The other pending reforms he will leave to Díaz-Canel.
"Raúl will have to concentrate on managing an economic recession at a
delicate moment of rising expectations, and most importantly, preparing
the terrain for the post-Castro era and a new generation of younger
leaders," said Feinberg. He "will struggle to maintain some degree of
systemic unity within the increasingly fractious ruling Communist Party
while allowing the new leadership sufficient room for maneuver, to set a
clearer vision for Cuba's future — a new more defined economic model, a
new social contract that preserves" revolutionary gains but allows "new,
more decentralized political arrangements."
There are several important economic challenges beyond uniting the
currency: trying to raise salaries, stimulating growth, managing the
relationship with Venezuela, which is in a financial free fall, and
trying to boost foreign investment.
Most are inter-related and may be difficult for Castro to take on over
the next year because of the complexity of Cuba's current economic
problems, said Carmelo Mesa-Lago, professor emeritus of economics at the
University of Pittsburgh.
While Castro has more political clout to undertake tough economic
reforms than a successor, "the timing is not good," he said.
"This is a very complicated moment in Cuba," said Enrique López Oliva, a
retired University of Havana professor. "People are disoriented. They
aren't sure what they should do. There's lack of clarity on what the
transition will bring as well as what the ongoing relationship with the
United States will be.
"If Trump tries to bring change in Cuba by pressure or by forcing it,"
said López Oliva, "all it does is reinforce the intransigent sectors
that don't want change."
Mimi Whitefield on Twitter: @HeraldMimi
CUBA PRESIDENTS SINCE 1955
2008-present: Raúl Castro (acting president 2006-2008)
1976-2008: Fidel Castro
1959-1976: Osvaldo Dorticós
1959-1959: Manuel Urrutia
1955-1959: Fulgencio Batista
FEBRUARY 24 IN CUBAN HISTORY
▪ Feb. 24, 2013: Cuba's National Assembly elected Raúl Castro to his
second term as president of Cuba.
▪ Feb. 24, 2008: Fidel Castro officially retired as president, although
illness prompted him to cede power to his brother Raúl in 2006.
▪ Feb. 24, 1996: Two U.S. civilian aircraft were shot down by aircraft
operated by the Cuban armed forces. Four South Florida men were killed.
▪ Feb. 24, 1976: The Republic of Cuba adopted its constitution.
▪ Feb. 24, 1895: The beginning of Cuba's War of Independence.
SOURCE: U.S.-CUBA TRADE AND ECONOMIC COUNCIL
Source: Countdown begins a year out from Raúl Castro's retirement |
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