For the first time in nearly sixty years, Cuba’s head of state is not a Castro family member, as 58-year-old Miguel Díaz-Canel was elected President of the Council of State and the Council of Ministers on 18 April 2018, therefore becoming the first President born after the 1959 Cuban Revolution. However, M. Díaz-Canel’s results are not surprising: in what is considered today one of the last communist-run states in the world, candidates for the highest government functions in Cuba are designated by the National Assembly and voted by the deputies.
Cubans who expect to see a wind of change blow on the island will be disappointed because the Castro era is not over yet. Raúl Castro will in fact remain at any practical end the First Secretary of the Communist Party of Cuba until 2021 and de facto the most influential man of the island. Instead, Cubans should expect the upkeep of a political hardline considering Díaz-Canel announced that he planned to defend the achievements of the Revolution and to gradually modernize the country’s stagnant state-run economy.
“The mandate given by the people to this house is to give continuity to the Cuban revolution in a crucial historic moment,” Díaz-Canel told the National Assembly in his inaugural speech.
Raúl Castro’s re-engagement with the United States and the wave of American tourists that followed announced better days for the Caribbean country. When U.S. President Barack Obama visited Havana in 2016, there were grounds for optimism that the United States embargo against Cuba inherited from the Cold War would eventually come to an end, but the arrival of Donald Trump quickly caused a turnaround. In fact, the President restrained flights to Cuba for American citizens and broke up almost all diplomatic relations between the two states.
With the Trump administration’s policy reversals and the economic status quo of Raúl Castro’s government, Díaz-Canel will not have the luxury of being lax in the economy since he does not have the revolutionary legitimacy of the Castro brothers. To maintain the confidence of both Communist Party elites and ordinary Cubans, he will have to deliver results.
In this regard, Cubans suffer from great poverty, as their country’s GDP only grew 1.6 percent in 2017 and is projected to grow only 2 percent in 2018, far from the minimum of 5 percent growth necessary to move along the path of sustainable development. Its old friend Venezuela, who is now in worse shape than Cuba, has dramatically reduced Cuba’s much-needed oil exports. Furthermore, Cuba’s agricultural sector is completely disorganized considering the country used to be world-class producer of sugar, tobacco and citrus back in the days, but now has to import approximately 80% of its food. The only exception to this gloomy economic situation is the boom in the tourism sector. Indeed, international tourism arrivals in Cuba exploded from 2.2 million in 2006 to 4.7 million in 2017.
But the most powerful explanation of this economic stagnation lies in the fact that Cuba remains a hyper-centralized state where all power concentrates at the very top of the decisionmaking pyramid, and don’t think this will change anytime soon with the arrival of Díaz-Canel, who himself worked his way up the Communist Party’s ranks for over thirty years. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the transition to a market economy in Russia frightened communist elites in Cuba who would not let such a thing happen at home. During their days at the head of the Cuban state, both Fidel Castro and brother Raúl acted in an anxious, conservative and cautious manner, which caused great harm to the national economy.
Therefore, it seems safe to admit that Miguel Díaz-Canel’s rise to power it not going to transform the political landscape of the country. Communism in Cuba is not at a crossroads, but rather well cemented. The new leadership in Havana is seen as symbolic, but despite ending decades of Castro rule, it should not translate into real and concrete actions for the lives of the Cuban people. To help the economy get back on track, Díaz-Canel must, among other things, increase foreign investment inflows, upgrade the quality of tourism infrastructure, unify the two currencies of the country – the Cuban Peso (CUP) and the Cuban Convertible Currency (CUC) – and unleash the private economy, but with the old communist guard still in place, these challenges will be difficult to achieve.