Cuba's Presidential Transition: Continuity with Change?

As First Vice President, Miguel Diaz-Canel (left) sits with Russian President Vladamir Putin discussing bilateral trade and economic cooperation.

As First Vice President, Miguel Diaz-Canel (left) sits with Russian President Vladamir Putin discussing bilateral trade and economic cooperation.

By Andrew Hyman, Class of 2019

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On April 19th, the Cuban National Assembly voted 603-1 to confirm Miguel Diaz-Canel as the new President of Cuba, replacing Raul Castro who has ruled in that position since 2008. Diaz-Canel was the sole candidate to replace Castro, who is expected to remain the head of the Communist Party in Cuba until 2021. This transition marks the first time in 60 years that the presidency of Cuba has been held by someone without the last name ‘Castro’. Prior to Raul’s accession in 2008, the Cuban presidency was held by Fidel Castro, who led the coup overthrowing US-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959.

Diaz-Canel was born in 1960, shortly after Castro’s revolution, to a schoolteacher and mechanical plant worker. After graduating as an electronics engineer, he joined the army where he served for 3 years before becoming a professor at his alma mater. He began his career in politics in 1987, serving as a liaison to Nicaragua, and started working his way up the party. His ascension is unlikely to herald any major changes for Cuba’s economic policy or political culture. He is viewed as an incrementalist “consensus-builder” who wants to bring “continuity to the Cuban revolution.” This is echoed by people on the street in Havana, who tell reporters “a new president isn’t going to change anything so it isn’t important to me.” Although he has in the past been more supportive of gay rights than most of Cuba’s political establishment, and at one point supported a blog (known as La Joven Cuba) critical of Cuba’s Communist Party, his views may have hardened of late. Last year, he threatened to block a website for being counterrevolutionary, and in his accession speech he proclaimed “there is no room for those who aspire to a capitalist restoration.” And while his new leadership team includes numerous firsts - such as the first black Cuban First Vice President, and three female VPs - they are all staunch party loyalists unlikely to promote any radical changes.

Yet if the quality of life for people on the island is to improve, the economic situation in Cuba demands change. Cuba’s GDP growth was only 0.5% in 2016 and has averaged just under 3% for the previous ten-year period - and that assumes we can trust the official statistics. Venezuelan support has been cut back ever since the collapse in oil prices in 2014. The value of imports has fallen by 1/3rd since 2008, and fuel shortages are leading to blackouts around the country. Cuba ran a budget deficit of 12% of GDP last year, although cleanup from the damage caused by Hurricane Irma was a major contributing factor. Cuba also manages multiple exchange rates, providing privileged rates to state-sponsored companies while disadvantaging less well-connected people. However, there are some hints of reform; in December, Raul Castro said currency reform “cannot be delayed any longer”, and Cuba is speaking informally to the German government, which has experience unifying currencies during the reunification of East and West Germany. Diaz-Canel may seek to boost his own personal popularity before engaging in any economic reforms, which will slow the already meager pace of change. While Raul Castro had implemented some liberalization of the economy in recent years, the government stopped issuing licenses to restaurants and other hospitality organizations in August, an effort, they claimed, to fight tax evasion.

The diplomatic situation is no less complicated. Although diplomatic relations were officially re-established under President Obama in 2015, there have been reports of strange, possibly sonic attacks on North American diplomats in 2017. Twenty-four Americans and eight Canadians reported hearing high-pitched noises from an undetermined source, and the perpetrators of these attacks have not yet been caught. Adding to the intrigue, the first four Americans afflicted were all CIA officers operating under diplomatic cover. The individuals have experienced a wide range of symptoms, including headaches, nausea, and hearing loss, although there is significant variation from person to person. The FBI and the CIA have not yet come to an agreement about the nature or motive for these attacks, and the State Department has withdrawn half of their staff from the Havana embassy as a result. Tensions linger as the mystery remains unsolved.

The handover in presidential authority has prompted a wide range of reactions. There is a hope that he will more aggressively pursue reform given that he didn’t live through the revolution. The president of Engage Cuba, an advocacy organization focused on improving and opening up relations between the US and Cuba, says “The ascension of President Diaz-Canel marks a historic generational change in Cuba… we now have an opportunity to reimagine our policy for the 21st century.” Other groups are far less sanguine. The president of Solidarity without Borders, a group assisting defected Cuban doctors, declared the transition “…a farce, like those the Cuban government has long perpetrated.” The leader of another Cuban exile group, Vigilia Mambisa, says “Today is a day when the Castro dynasty is appointing a new monarch to commit even more crimes. The future ahead for the Cuban people is tragic and pathetic while Castro is still in power.”

As the new president consolidates power and begins to make policy, there are reasons for both optimism and pessimism. The US will need to watch closely to judge how to react. Should the odd ailments afflicting diplomats turn out to have been carried out or supported by the Cuban state, the United States may respond forcefully. Or the party apparatchik turned President may surprise everyone and, once in full control of the levers of power, embark on a program of extensive economic liberalization in the manner of Deng Xiaopeng. For now, we simply have to wait and see.