Last Thursday, in Havana, there was a ceremony that could signal important changes in the future of the government and the people of Cuba.
The 86 year old Cuban President Raul Castro relinquished his post and passed it on to his designated successor and loyal vice-president, 57 year old Miguel Diaz-Canel. In almost every formal sense, this change is as historic as it is obviously generational. After almost 60 years of leadership by the Castro brothers…Fidel from 1959 to 2006, kid brother Raul since then, Diaz-Canel inherits an island of desperate poverty and persistent political oppression.
Although Diaz-Canel’s name is well-known, his most recognized characteristic seems to be discretion. If he has plans for Cuba’s future, he’s kept them, and most of his political opinions beyond loyalty to the Revolution according to the Castros, to himself. Some analysts say it is this inoffensive quietness that propelled him to the Presidency, after more assertive associates of the Castro regime like the longtime UN Ambassador and sometime Foreign Minister Ricardo Alarcon, former Vice President Carlos Lage and former Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque all rose under Fidel and fell under Raul.
Diaz-Canel’s other boost to power may have been his age, almost 30 years younger than Raul Castro. This makes him a member of what is often called Cuba’s “lost generation,” although, of course, he appears to have been less lost than Cuban politicians of what I guess we could call “the skipped-over generation,” the one that separates the Revolutionary cadres of 80-somethings from Diaz-Canels’ cohort of 50-somethings.
Of course, all this emphasis on a shift from a family dynasty to a new younger generation may be no more than a show. Although Raul Castro is no longer Cuba’s President, he is still keeping his job as first secretary of the Cuban Communist Party, which the Cuban constitution calls the country’s “highest guiding force.”
So the reality may be, that Raul Castro is giving up the Presidency but not the power to run Cuba. And, although the new President is not from the family, Raul Castro’s 52-year-old son, Alejandro, will remain a powerful figure in the Interior Ministry which controls internal security, and his former son-in-law, Gen. Luis Alberto Rodriguez Lopez-Callejas seems likely to stay in charge of the business affairs of Cuba’s military, which has a considerable leg up on dominance of several big chunks of the domestic economy.
So, it remains to be seen if real power in Cuba has shifted as much as last week’s pageantry suggested.
Certainly, beyond these questions of political power and leadership personnel, much of what defines daily life in Cuba remains the same. The country still has a suffocating, inefficient command economy, and an equally smothering system of state surveillance, creaky and closely controlled news media, and drastically confined internet access. And after a brief 2-year interlude of warmer relations with the United States under President Barack Obama, things are back in a deep freeze of hostility and economic embargo enforced by President Donald Trump.
Vicki Huddleston served under Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush as Chief of the US Interests Section in Havana, and earlier under President George H.W. Bush was in charge of US policy toward Cuba at the State Department. She also served as and was the principal adviser on Africa to the Secretary of Defense. She is co-author of a report for the Brookings Institution that was a blueprint for President Obama’s diplomatic opening with Raúl Castro in 2014. She has written opinion pieces in The New York Times, The Miami Herald, and The Washington Post. Her memoir OUR WOMAN IN HAVANA: A DIPLOMAT’S CHRONICLE OF AMERICA’S LONG STRUGGLE WITH CASTRO’S CUBA is published by The Overlook Press. Ambassador Huddleston lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico.