World

Not Quite a Cuba Libre?

Miguel Díaz-Canel, a Non-Castro

First Secretary of Cuba's Communist Party and now former president Raul Castro (R) holds the arm of new president Miguel Diaz-Canel (L) in Havana, Cuba, 19 April 2018. Roque / POOL

Cuba now has a new leader who is, after nearly six decades, not a Castro brother. But the question is: will he lead – or can he lead – real change in his island nation?

For decades, well virtually six of them to be precise, Cuba, like North Korea, was one of the weirdest forms of government on the planet – a family-owned communist dictatorship, dedicated to keeping the local government as a unique kind of family business. (Well, okay, some cynics might choose this moment to point to the US and the Bush family and their multigenerational holds on the American presidency, but there, at least, the Bushes had the decency to stand for actual elections, rather than simply gain the job because of genetics. Moreover, sometimes, other candidates defeated the Bushes as well, either at the national general election level, or in the primary campaigns.)

Now, however, North Korea gets to stand alone in the world in this regard, what with Kim Jong-un, the grandson of the founder of the country’s dynasty, now the third generation to control the northern branch of the hermit kingdom. And as for the island of Cuba, well, for the first time since 1959, putatively there will not be a Castro at the head of things in the Caribbean nation.

Up until recently, there had been some speculation that a son of Raúl Castro – the brother of Fidel – was about to gain the centre ring. Raúl’s only son, Col Alejandro Castro Espín, 52, who now heads intelligence and domestic security for the army and interior ministry or Raúl’s son-in-law, Gen Luis Alberto Rodríguez López-Callejas, married to (though long separated from) Raúl’s eldest child, Deborah, might have been chosen and the vote would not have been close. But, in the end, it was not so.

For the purposes of full and total clarity, Miguel Díaz-Canel is not – precisely speaking – the first non-Castro president in Cuba since 1959. Between 1959 to 1976, Osvaldo Dorticos Torrado actually held that titular title, but the presidency is a rather powerless job – when whoever holds it doesn’t also exercise control over the party and the military. So for simplicity’s sake, let’s just stick with the formulation that the Castro brothers have been in large and in charge since the beginning of the country’s post-revolutionary period.

Accordingly, on 19 April, Miguel Díaz-Canel became the island nation’s new president when the entire national assembly followed their instructions and then voted for him without so much as a single, symbolic naysayer.

Díaz-Canel, in contrast to his two predecessors, the brothers Castro, is still a mere stripling at 57, virtually a callow youth. But that also means, of course, that his entire existence on the planet has played out while the Castros ruled the roost and set his world view in concrete.

During his mandatory military service, Díaz-Canel was a part of the Castros’ security detachment, and then was Cuba’s Communist Party liaison to Nicaragua, then an ally of Cuba and the then-Soviet Union. Subsequently, he has taken various positions within the party and government, including a stint as minister of education, with, apparently, never making a false step.

His loyalty to the brothers Castro has now paid off. In 2013, he became First Vice President. Then, on 18 April 2018, the single-party National Assembly elected him president – unaimously. This was not a difficult choice for the Assembly as Díaz-Canel was Raúl Castro’s hand-picked successor.

Affable and deferential, Díaz-Canel had, as noted above, formerly served as Raúl’s bodyguard, apparently cementing a trusted relationship with both brothers. A former minister of higher education who diligently ascended through the party ranks, he favours casual dress and bicycling, and has supported gay rights. He has some attraction to some by virtue of his bicycle-riding habit and his push for liberalising – ever so slightly – internet access for Cubans.

Still, Raúl Castro has not entirely been put out to pasture to wile away his remaining days, sitting on one of those big-backed rattan chairs, under the palm trees, enjoying one of those first-class Cuban cigars and a perfectly mixed Cuba Libre brought to his lips. He still has something of a grip on the Communist Party and the armed forces and so Díaz-Canel must tread carefully so as not to disturb the balance of things, at least not yet, anyway, until Díaz-Canel can cement his hold over government, party and the military all.

This matters because the Cuban constitution sets out the nexus of power in the state, saying:

The Marxist-Leninist Communist Party of Cuba … is the leading force of society and of the State.”

And Raúl Castro has headed Cuba’s revolution-guarding military ever since 1959 – when Fulgencio Batista was chased into an ignominious exile. (Anybody who has seen the relevant portion of The Godfather trilogy knows exactly how that played out.)

Watch a CNBC clip:

Watch a scene from The Godfather II:

A very short primer of Cuban history would include the Spanish conquest and colonisation of the island for around 500 years (including the devastation of the indigenous population and the importation of many thousands of African slaves to tend the plantations or be exported illegally to the American South). Then there was the liberation of the island from Spanish rule; Cuba’s movement into a kind of quasi-protectorate status by the US for four decades after 1898; and then a gradual wave of American business investment there, especially including the hospitality industry, tobacco and sugar cane plantations, and – inevitably, perhaps – an invasion by various arms of the Mafia.

All of that led to a symbiotic relationship between the island’s kleptocratic governments and those external interests. That prevailed until a small group of left-wing students – including at least one bitterly disappointed baseball player and medical student who couldn’t throw a good enough curve ball to earn a real try-out from a US major league team (Fidel) – went up into the mountains and then came back down a few years later to drive out Batista’s corrupt regime.

Thereafter, the increasingly leftward tilt of the Castro government led to growing political and economic pressure by America on Cuba during the Cold War, an alliance with the then-Soviet Union by the new Cuban regime; the unsuccessful Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuban émigrés sponsored by the US; and the installation of Russian ICBMs as an attempt to fundamentally alter the strategic nuclear balance between the US and the USSR.

The ensuing crisis in 1962 was the closest the two nuclear powers ever came to an actual shooting war and a run up the escalatory ladder to an actual thermonuclear war. Along the way there were several waves of immigration from Cuba to the US, giving rise to a strongly Republican voting block largely in South Florida and deeply antithetical to engaging with Cuba, except via the sharp stick.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the end of cheap fuel and financial subsidies by Russia led to a near financial collapse in its Cuban acolyte. Eventually, in recent years, the regime on the island has loosened its orthodox economic strictures, and allowed a privately owned, small business sector to grow – but under watchful eyes.

Still, as Ana Quintana, writing in The Atlantic just after the transfer of power to the new president in the place, has said:

While regime apologists insisted Raul would open Cuba to the world, he was busy making other plans. Under his leadership, control of Cuba’s state-run economy was slowly transferred to Raul loyalists. His ex-son-in-law, General Luis Alberto Lopez-Callejas, took over GAESA, the Armed Forces Business Enterprises Group. GAESA is run as a state-owned-and-operated holding company of over 50 business entities, from airlines to currency exchange services.”

Meanwhile, the continuing US restrictions on trade have largely forced Cubans to be ridiculously ingenious in keeping 1958 Chevys, Dodges, and Oldsmobiles running forever, using home-machined spares. Then in the final year of the Obama administration, the first real break in three generations came with the resumption of US-Cuban relations.

Much of the pressure, besides the obvious need to address a strange historical anomaly of virtually no connections between the two geographic neighbours, came from US business circles increasingly eager to invest in tourism infrastructure and tourism, and to provide agricultural and consumer goods exports to a market located just 150 kilometres away – and hungry for such things. And, of course, the antagonism of the Cuban-American electorate that deeply despised the Castros was dying off, and their children and grandchildren were increasingly eager to re-engage with an ancestral homeland – so close and yet so far – for personal as well as business opportunities.

The Trump administration, however, has sharply applied the brakes on this new relationship – perhaps in response to what it sees as a powerful Cuban-American electorate still reluctant to reward the island – as the price for their continued Republican support in US elections. As a result, those modest bilateral ties are failing to grow in any meaningful way, despite the hopes of many on both sides of the Florida Straits.

Nevertheless, Quintana poured some cold water on those hoping for a quick sea change in Cuban governmental policy as a result of the generational shift. As she wrote,

Immediately after assuming office, Díaz-Canel ended speculation that he would be an agent of change. ‘I affirm to this assembly that comrade Raul will head the decisions for the present and the future of the nation,’ he announced. ‘Raul remains at the front of the political vanguard.’ Díaz-Canel also vowed to prevent the restoration of capitalism.” Quintana added that in terms of domestic political control, “The regime arrested nearly 10,000 dissidents in 2016 alone, 498 of them during President Obama’s three-day trip to the island. Cuba’s long, sad history of repression will apparently continue under Díaz-Canel. He has lashed out against Cuba’s dissidents and the countries that support them, and he appears to be perfectly fine with censorship.”

Even if growing economic pressures – or the temptations of opportunities dangling just out of reach – begin to push for further shifts in domestic policy and renewed efforts at a rapprochement between the two neighbours, at least for the next several years, as long as Donald Trump is in office up north, no one should realistically expect the US to reciprocate in any meaningful way to almost any overtures emanating from Havana northwards.

At the most recent biannual Western Hemisphere-wide leaders’ summit, there was little indication of a thaw to come. As the Economist reported this week:

The last time the leaders of 30-odd countries from the Americas met, in Panama in 2015, the presidents of the United States and Cuba, long-time enemies, shook hands. When the group reconvened in Lima this month, the bonhomie was gone. Raúl Castro, who is due to step down as Cuba’s president on April 19th, did not come. His foreign minister, Bruno Rodríguez, attended in his stead and lambasted ‘United States imperialism’. Donald Trump, who ended the detente with Cuba, stayed home too. He sent his vice-president, Mike Pence, to denounce Cuba’s ‘despotic regime’. The stand-ins blasted each other with quotations from Latin America’s liberator, Simón Bolívar. Mr Pence: ‘A people that loves freedom will in the end be free.’ Mr Rodríguez: ‘The United States seems destined by Providence to plague America with torments in the name of freedom.’ ”

Still, the Trump administration has gone from threatening fire and brimstone and the bouncing of the resulting nuclear rubble in what was once Pyongyang to rubbing its metaphorical hands with glee over the possibility of a mind-bending breakthrough in US-North Korean relations in the next month or so.

The tantalising challenge of yet another Nixon-goes-to-China moment teases Republican presidents, and maybe with the new president in Havana, there just may be such an opportunity down the road. Maybe. In that way, Donald Trump would be able to crow about redoing the US-Cuban relationship in a “great deal”, as a result of his world-straddling negotiating skills, those skills already on display in what just may be transpiring in the Northern Pacific. DM

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