Most news stories about Cuba mentioned that after 60 years of presidential regime by one of the Castro brothers a new, civilian one was appointed. That is not completely true.
At present, post-1959 Cuba has its fifth successive president. Between 1959 and 1976 Presidents Urrutia and Dorticós were head of state while Fidel Castro was Prime Minister, and in that final year Fidel Castro assumed the presidency after constitutional change. He left the government in 2006 to his brother Raúl who himself retired as president in April 2018 when Miguel Díaz-Canel took over.
Until 2013, Díaz-Canel had been a relatively anonymous but capable technocrat who was in charge of the ministry of higher education. Then he was selected and trained by Raúl to be his successor, assuming the vice-presidency. The old party and military revolutionary aristocracy had led the country from 1959 on and it was time for a generational change. While president, Raúl Castro had regulated a limit of ten years for party and government functions for the new generation, insisting that the military men of his generation should spend more time with their grand and great-grandchildren.
Currently, Cuba has a new president, a new government team, a new constitution and a new parliament. Prudence and prevention have always been key terms in Cuba’s internal affairs so one will not be completely surprised to know that Raúl Castro, and his long-time friend and colleague general Machado, are still the first and second secretary of the Party, constitutionally the vanguard of Cuba’s society and political system of a ‘sovereign, independent, democratic, socialist, prosperous and sustainable country’.
One can then expect the same cautious, step-by-step policy with respect to the management of Cuba’s long-term economic problems and social reforms. Cuba’s modernization during the Raúl Castro years has been deliberately slow-paced and protracted, inter alia in order to avoid completely sacrificing one, two or three generations of citizens as happened in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. Nonetheless, the following urgent need to be resolved in the foreseeable future.
The equilibrium between the Party’s orthodox and the reformist factions
Currently, party membership is no longer required for positions within the civil service and the (largely state-controlled) economy, but all functions of thrust within the government, the mass media, the management of the economy and the educational system are occupied by party members. The same applies to similar functions at the regional and municipal levels.
There has always been a tension between an orthodox wing and a modernising faction that wants an accelerated transformation and more far-going reforms. During his vice-presidential term, Díaz-Canel was occupied with ideological affairs, and his first discourses as president are of a devoted orthodoxy, probably to demonstrate his credentials to the old guard where the veteran military are overrepresented. But he has to take initiatives to resolve the stagnant economy and the lacklustre political enthusiasm within the Party.
The undefined economic model
Entrepreneurship is only supported in the case of self and family employment, small scale enterprises and cooperatives. What should be done with the state and mixed enterprises and the management of the strategic establishments, traditionally managed by trusted officials and military officers with business training?
It is expected that the social protection model of free public health, free education and violence-free public security will be guaranteed by the State, but how should it be financed given the demographic shift towards growing numbers in retirement and a social and economic climate where entrepreneurial capacity is not encouraged? The deficiency of sustained economic growth and full employment, especially for the younger generations, is a sword of Damocles in the long run.
The dual currency’s ‘unpeaceful co-existence’
Salaries and pensions are being paid in Cuban pesos but the ‘real economy’ of consumer goods and services is effectively run in CUC, the Cuban equivalent of the dollar (one CUC is 24 Cuban pesos).
State salaries average between 30 and 60 dollars; the pensions are lower. The growing weight of the third-age segment of the population make the pension and food provision system increasingly more difficult.
That, plus the largely unregistered informal economy is a horror scenario for economic planners of whatever ideological conviction.
The vegetating public debate about the future and the slow rejuvenation of the party structure
Fidel Castro was the iconic father of the fatherland. Raúl was his institutional successor, having been awarded his ‘birth right’ because of his revolutionary past during the guerrilla force in the 1950s and his decades-long status as deputy and legal successor to his brother. But the new president and many of his generation, the younger ministers, vice-ministers and provincial and city authorities are competent but uncharismatic. The government and party functionaries are unobtrusive officials rather than of fascinating politicians.
The still ongoing outmigration of the younger and educated population segment
Cuba with its aging population of eleven million has a diaspora of nearly two million, particularly living in the United States. There are only a few Cuban families without relatives (brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, cousins and nephews, children and grandchildren) living abroad. With the exception of the old anti-Castroist migration wave in the 1960s, most members of the diaspora are economic migrants who cherish their family ties and dutifully send their dollar remittances to their folks at home. The outmigration is softened by the recent trend of return migration of Americanised and now retired Cubans whose dollar pensions are an influx to the Cuban economy.
The end of the Pink Tide governments and the disintegration of the ALBA, UNASUR and CELAC system
Until recently, Cuba could count on the support of sympathizing presidents of Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Peru, Paraguay, Uruguay and Venezuela. In the recent past, former guerrilla leaders were elected as president or vice-president of Bolivia, Brazil, Cuba, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Uruguay. The Colombian government was grateful because of Cuba’s support to the large and complicated peace negotiations with the FARC.
But at present, most Latin American governments are headed by the Right or Centre Right with strong preferences for neo-liberalism. Venezuela’s government faces galloping hyperinflation and a dramatic outmigration which affects most other Latin American countries. Nicaragua’s repressive government also created a political instead of an economic outmigration. Recently, Ecuador announced its exit from the ALBA treaty on regional economic integration.
The consequences of the ongoing US embargo
In 2015, Cuba’s pariah status in the Western Hemisphere vanished after its renewed membership of the Organization of American States and the normalisation of diplomatic relations with the United States. President Obama halted some of the economic sanctions against Cuba imposed by his predecessors, but the new Trump administration is not exactly Cuba’s friend with a reversal of some of the new business and travel ties.
Most of Raúl Castro’s reforms were initiated in a period in which the external political context was favourable for Cuba: the Obama government and the normalisation of bilateral relations, the improved relation with the European Union, the sympathy of the governments of Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Central America, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, Uruguay and especially Venezuela.
The external political situation after 2015, however, is less favourable for Cuba: the Trump administration, the disappearance of the Pink Tide governments, the stagnation or downfall of the ALBA system are not advantageous for the government of Díaz-Canel. But the basic problems are not conjunctural. They are rooted in two themes: how to fix the economy and how to fix the political participation?
Cuba has always overcome immense challenges and it still lives with the consequences of the implosion of the Soviet Union. The reforms have been gradual and sometimes back and forth. By one way or another, one might expect the development of more continuous liberalisation. In Vietnam, for instance, the socialist government maintains an overall umbrella on public education, public health and public security, and an economy of state owned enterprises as explicitly accompanied by incentives for small-scale business and popular entrepreneurship.
In Cuba, there still exist a certain ingrained distrust with respect to self-employment, family business and private salaried labour. Cuba has expanded and, with success, so has academic training by using a system of municipal universities across the entire island. But there are no courses offered for business plans for micro-entrepreneurs or credit systems for smallholders. How strong will be the voice of the economic reformists?
The other necessity is of a political nature: liberalisation of the public debate and the relation of the functionaries of the one-party system with the apparent disinterest of the remaining population. What to do? The population is literate enough, educated enough, and comparable with the percentages of the countries with the world’s highest development indexes. But the country needs to enhance the enthusiasm of the younger generation which, in private conversation with the same functionaries, is considered disoriented and lost.
Dirk Kruijt is the author of Cuba and Revolutionary Latin America, published by Zed Books.