Communist Cuba has been synonymous with the Castros for over sixty long years – first led by Fidel Castro and then by his younger brother Raul Castro. Change beckoned on April 16, when Raul announced he was stepping down as head of Cuba’s Communist Party and Miguel Diaz-Canel, the new leader tweeted: “April 19, an historic day.”
The transfer of power to the country’s first-ever civilian leader, Diaz-Canel, 60, marked the end of not just a revolutionary era but also meant that for the first time in more than six decades a Castro would not be formally guiding the affairs of Cubans. Raul (89) made the announcement in a speech at the opening of the eighth congress of the ruling party.
“Nothing, nothing, nothing is forcing me to make this decision,” said Castro. “As long as I live I will be ready with my foot in the stirrup to defend the homeland, the revolution and socialism with more force than ever.” But his decision marks a watershed for the country of 11.2 million people, many of whom have known no leader other than a Castro.
The reins of the all-powerful position of first secretary of the Communist Party of Cuba is now in the hands of Diaz-Canel, who’s already Cuba’s president since 2018. Diaz-Canel and some other members of the new PCC executive were born after the revolution led by the Castro siblings in the 1950s, leading in 1959 to the overthrow of dictator Fulgencio Batista.
In the same year, Fidel Castro took over as the Prime Minister of Cuba and declared Cuba a socialist state, setting up decades of conflict with the United States, which has had sanctions against Cuba since 1962. 2021 also marks six decades of the failed Bay of Pigs invasion by anti-revolutionary Cuban exiles, backed by the US government, that aimed to overthrow Fidel Castro.
The leadership change comes as Cuba battles its worst economic crisis in 30 years, sky-high inflation, biting food shortages, long lines for basic necessities and growing disgruntlement over limited freedoms. Cuba, one of just five communist countries along with China, Vietnam, Laos and North Korea, imports 80% of what it consumes owing to lack of sufficient local production.
“Since I was born, I have only known one party,” said Miguel Gainza, a 58-year-old in Havana. “And no one dies of hunger, it’s true,” he adds. But today, “we are a little stuck, and it’s a shame that Fidel is dead because he solved all our problems”.
The coronavirus pandemic, painful financial reforms and restrictions imposed by the Trump administration have battered Cuba’s economy, which shrank 11% last year as a result of a collapse in tourism and remittances. Long food lines and shortages have brought back echoes of the “special period” that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s.
Much of the debate inside Cuba is focused on the pace of reform, with many complaining that the so-called “historic generation” represented by Castro has been too slow to open the economy.
In January, Díaz-Canel finally pulled the trigger on a plan approved two congresses ago to unify the island’s dual currency system, giving rise to fears of inflation. He also threw the doors open to a broader range of private enterprise — a category long banned or tightly restricted — permitting Cubans to legally operate many sorts of self-run businesses from their homes.
The Internet, which arrived on the island in 2018, has been an engine of social change, even used to organise protest, previously unheard of in the country. Young Cubans, many of whom go overseas each year for lack of opportunities at home, are increasingly venting their frustrations on social media. The growing inequality has led to dozens of protests against the government being posted on social media platforms daily by youngsters, who now compare their lives to those of youths in other countries.
Speaking at the congress, Castro slammed social networks for “subversion” and what he called fake news, Castro said the platforms spread “a virtual image of Cuba as a dying society with no future, on the point of collapse, giving out under a social explosion.” So the congress also pledged to tackle the issue of online “political and ideological subversion”.
But at the same time he also stressed, “We have to eliminate the tired illusion … that Cuba is the only country where you can live without working.” He advised the state media not to obscure the country’s problems with “triumphalism and superficiality” and called for a new generation of leaders to emerge.
Troubled US Ties
Raul had reached accords with President Barack Obama in 2014 that created the most extensive US opening for Cuba since the early 1960s — creating a surge in contacts with the United States. But after this historic but temporary easing of tensions, ties worsened under Donald Trump, who reinforced sanctions.
White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki has said the United States under Biden was not planning any immediate change in its policy toward Cuba. “Support for democracy and human rights will be at the core of our efforts,” she said.
Joseph J Gonzalez, Associate Professor, Global Studies, Appalachian State University, in The Conversation, writes that Fidel Castro’s Cuba supported leftist insurgencies and Soviet allies across Latin America and the world, from Nicaragua to Angola. In 1962, Castro permitted Soviet missiles to be set up in Cuba and aimed at the US, about 100 miles away, leading the US and Soviet Union to the brink of nuclear war.
“Today Cuba is still communist and it remains on the State Department’s list of countries that support terrorism, alongside Iran and North Korea. But bereft of patrons like the Soviets, it presents no danger to the US mainland or its allies. Cuba can do little more than irritate US presidents by supporting Latin American leaders who resist American power, like Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro and Bolivia’s ousted former leader Evo Morales,” he points out.
The change at the top is not expected to yield any major policy shifts, say experts. Diaz-Canel, a suit-and-tie wearing, tech-savvy Beatles fan, remains a staunch party disciple. And a new constitution passed in May 2019 made it clear that the country’s commitment to socialism was “irrevocable.”
In his final address to the party, Castro stressed the country would not renounce “the principles of the revolution and socialism” as he urged the new generation to “zealously protect” the one-party dogma. “There are limits that cannot be crossed,” warned Castro, who wore a military uniform.
Besides Díaz-Canel was never a guerrilla fighter and was for only a few years, like all Cubans of his generation, a soldier. He rose peacefully and diligently through the approved channels. Born a year after the revolution in the west-central city of Santa Clara, he reportedly dabbled as a youth in minor unconformities — wearing long hair and following The Beatles.
In 2009, a year after Raul formally replaced Fidel as Cuba’s president, Díaz-Canel became minister of higher education. In 2012, he rose to one of Cuba’s vice presidencies and soon thereafter was named first vice president. Taking over from Raul as president in 2018, he nudged the reforms forward – allowing more small private businesses and making life easier for small-scale entrepreneurs.
Yoani Sánchez, a Cuban independent journalist who was the first Distinguished Presidential Fellow at the University of Miami, wrote that when the national press covered Castro’s retirement and predicted a new future for the country, they were being short-sighted. “Castrismo is more than one man and his cronies. It is a way to handle the politics, of controlling the press, allowing the military to manage the economy, controlling what one studies, carrying out international relations, and framing ideological propaganda.”
Will it be a case of more the things change, the more they stay the same or have the wheels of change started rolling?
– With inputs from AP
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