Old Rhetoric for a New Generation

In Old Havana in March 2017, a pair reads an edition of Cuban newspaper Granma that honors the death of the late Fidel Castro, the former leader of Cuba who ruled for nearly 50 years before handing over power to his younger brother, Raul Castro. Photo by Jessica M. Castillo/UM News
By Michael Touchton

In Old Havana in March 2017, a pair reads an edition of Cuban newspaper Granma that honors the death of the late Fidel Castro, the former leader of Cuba who ruled for nearly 50 years before handing over power to his younger brother, Raul Castro. Photo by Jessica M. Castillo/UM News

Old Rhetoric for a New Generation

By Michael Touchton
A University of Miami political scientist explores what a transition of power in Cuba means for its future.

Power Transfer is Imminent in Cuba, but any Changes will be Slow

Raul Castro, Cuba’s 86-year old president, is set to step down as president of Cuba in mid-April and transfer the presidency to Miguel Diaz-Canel, the 58-year-old First Vice President. This managed transition has high symbolic value: someone other than Fidel or Raul Castro will officially lead the country for the first time since 1959. However, what this transition means in practice and how much power Diaz-Canel will actually have is unclear. For example, Raul Castro has already declared that he will remain the head of the Cuban Communist Party, where he can oversee the change in power and maintain a role in government affairs. Castro also delayed the presidential transition earlier this year to ensure a slow, smooth turnover in the midst of deteriorating relations with the United States, new investment deals with Russia and China, and uncertainty surrounding Cuba’s political and economic stability.

Old Wine in New Bottles?

Miguel Diaz-Canel represents the next generation of leaders in Cuba’s Communist Party. A former Minister of Education and an engineer by training, Diaz-Canel has lived his entire life with Fidel or Raul Castro as president. Diaz-Canel projected himself as a moderate reformer earlier in his career, but has taken a hard line on the relationship with the United States and economic reforms in Cuba in his more recent role as First Vice President. This traditional position may be designed to demonstrate continuity with Raul Castro’s administration: the Castro regime is built on Fidel’s charismatic personality and Raul’s personal connections to power. It is notoriously difficult to replace leaders in such regimes, because the new generation does not have the same credibility or claim to legitimacy.

Rare Uncertainty in Cuba

Cuba’s presidential transition occurs at a rare time of uncertainty in Cuban politics and economics. A planned shift to a single, convertible currency on the island has been slow and the country’s political future with the United States is cloudy. The Castro regime is averse to risk and risk is everywhere in the current political and economic climate. Trump’s election surprised many around the world and, in this case, came with an unexpected departure from the Obama administration’s easing of sanctions and reopening of formal diplomatic relations. Additional disengagement is likely because hardliners on Cuba are common throughout Trump’s administration and they may advocate for a return to much stricter sanctions. Moreover, the Trump administration recently announced several new initiatives, including the Cuba Internet Task Force, to promote broad access to information on the island. Such initiatives raise the Castro administration’s concerns that Trump will take advantage of Cuba’s presidential transition to promote civil society and civil liberties to undermine the communist regime.

Ultimately, it is difficult to predict what Cuba’s presidential transition will mean for the country or for its relations with the United State. Still, a new president does not necessarily mean new policies or a new era of reform in Cuba.

Michael Touchton is an assistant professor in the University of Miami Department of Political Science. He studies the political economy of development and underdevelopment in a comparative setting.

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