•Non-Castro family member emerges new President with task of revamping ailing economy
By Emma Emeozor, [email protected]
Cuba, the bastion of Communism in Latin America, on Thursday drew the curtain on the Castro dynasty after Raul Castro, 86, stepped down as President and handed power over to a non-family member, 58-year-old Miguel Diaz-Canel. Until becoming president, Canel was Raul’s vice president but speculations were rife that he might not succeed Raul.
Raul became the Caribbean island’s president on July 31, 2006, after his elder brother, Fidel, voluntarily retired into private life at the age of 80. While Raul ruled for 12 years, Fidel who was the leader of the 1959 revolution that saw former dictator Fulgencio Batista fleeing to the Dominican Republic on exile, ruled for 47 years. Raul was a top member of the revolutionary team but his successor was born after the revolution on April 20, 1960. The shift in power from the Castro family to a non-family member, though still under the same communist party, shows an open acknowledgement that power is not static and should rotate in the interest of the people and good governance.
But more importantly, it signals the beginning of a new era in the political history of Cuba as no one family will henceforth monopolise the throne. Expectedly, expectations are high as Canel takes over the affairs of a controversial presidency that is isolated by the United States and some countries within the Latin American sub-region, Volleys of questions have since been thrown up: Will Cuba remain the same, ruled with an iron fist as was the case with the Castros? Will there be a tunnel to allow some elements of capitalism to buoy the economy, which is at its ebb? Will the new government work to further improve relations with the US and Cubans in exile? These and more questions are begging for answers.
In his first speech after assuming office on Thursday, Canel said he had the mandate to defend the 1959 revolution just as he hinted on economic reform. He said: “The mandate given by the people to this legislature is to continue the Cuban revolution at this crucial historic moment, which will be marked by what we must do to implement the economic model” put in place by his predecessor.
After he took over from his brother, Raul introduced economic reforms to alleviate the suffering of the people. For example, under his Economic Modernization Plan of 2010, opportunities were given to low-income earners, particularly the informal sector, to operate small private businesses, including family-run restaurants (paladares) and home hotels (casas particulars). Farmers were reportedly given more autonomy and price incentives to produce more food. Also, “the government eased overseas travel restrictions, loosened pay ceilings, ended controls on car sales and tied up with overseas partners to build a new free-trade zone.” These measures were never allowed under Fidel’s rule.
Canel has said his period of administration would be marked by “modernisation of the economic and social model.” Though details were not given, it is believed that he meant he would not only continue with Raul’s reform model but would fine-tune the plan for the purpose of optimisation.
It is instructive that the legislative session, where the baton of power changed hands, held on the 57th anniversary of Cuba’s 1961 defeat of a CIA-backed Cuban exile invasion at the Bay of Pigs. Over the years, the government had always “celebrated the victory as a symbol of its resistance to imperialist pressure for change from Washington.”
Analysts believe Canel’s inauguration was deliberately held to coincide with the anniversary to reinforce the spirit of the revolution in the new administration. Whatever is the motive for choosing that date, what bothers Cubans and indeed the international community is the future of Cuba.
The revolution that brought Fidel to power in 1959 was inspired by the desire of the people to escape from the dictatorship of Batista and have freedom of expression, association as well as infrastructure. Also, the revolution aimed to halt the exploitation of the economy by foreign interests, particularly Latin America’s Big Brother, the US.
The revolution improved the socio-economic status of Cubans. Education was made available to all. Life expectancy improved following the introduction of free health care. Cuba became a major player in the improvement of medical services in many developing nations, including Africa. Trained Cuban doctors were deployed overseas, where they rendered quality service. Students from developing countries, particularly in Latin America and Africa, were offered scholarships to study in Cuban institutions. Castro became a household name not only in Cuba but in other parts of the world.
Also, Cuba was a major voice in international power play, propagating Communism with the support of Russia (former Soviet Union). It deployed its party officials and in some cases, soldiers to give technical support to governments and political groups that embraced Communism but were facing either resistance or fierce opposition backed by the US and its allies. But absolute power corrupts absolutely. The zeal of the Castro family to promote communism and scorn Washington became a hindrance to his government’s progress. Many Cubans fled the country to the US state of Florida on exile, accusing the government of tyranny. Till date, the Cuban exile group, Brothers to the Rescue, remains a formidable force campaigning for the overthrow of the communist government.
After efforts to sack Fidel’s government failed, Washington slapped sanctions on it. Washington’s isolationist policy became catastrophic on Castro after the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Many of Cuba’s allies were fazed and consequently embraced or shifted a little to capitalism just as they abandoned Havana. As if to compound the problems of Cuba, the economy eventually nose-dived.
Yet, Fidel remained undaunted, relying on support from Russia and regional friends, particularly Venezuela. Currently, in Latin America, Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia are strong allies of Cuba. By the time Raul took over from his brother, the shops in Cuba were almost dried up and the young generation was already clamoring for change. The situation was further worsening by the plunge in Venezuela’s oil economy, coupled with political crisis allegedly backed by the US, which wants the socialist regime in Caracas removed. Other allies like Algeria and Angola had their economic woes to contend with.
Besides Raul’s effort at economic reform, he made big strides on the international front. He was able to restore diplomatic ties with the Vatican and Washington, respectively. In 2016, Barack Obama became the first sitting US President to visit Cuba since 1928. At the time, Obama said since isolation of Havana had not yielded the expected result, there was need to take to the policy of engagement.
The exit of Fidel Castro did open a window of change for Cuba as evidenced in some of the cautious reform measures introduced by Raul. If Raul, one of the masterminds of the revolution, could initiate measures to relax market restrictions, why not Canel, who Western media have described as a great admirer of The Beatles “whose penchant for wearing jeans has set him apart in Havana’s corridors of power”?
This is an inference indicating that the president has some admiration for Western pattern of life, which communist countries abhor. The ideas of such a man would certainly differ from that of his mentors, Fidel and Raul.
Yet analysts are divided on the new President’s potential to effect drastic changes. Some have argued that he would be guided by Raul who remains party chairman. Agence France-Presse reported that Canel “advocated fewer restriction on the press and a greater openness to the Internet,” but “he also has a ruthless streak, with harsh words for Cuba’s dissidents and the United States.”
He was also quoted as saying that he would press for increased use of technology as the country seeks to modernise its infrastructure. This implies that Canel is prepared to stand up to the challenges facing his country. But he must also be prepared to face the realities on hand with the mindset of a progressive leader.
He cannot but be mindful of the increased isolation the two great allies of Cuba, Russia and Venezuela, are currently facing. While Russia’s diplomatic relations with the West is frosty and there is palpable fear of armed conflict between the two blocs, Venezuela’s opposition has held the government by the jugular with bloody protests almost daily.
Even with China’s assistance and support, it is imperative for the new administration to go back to the drawing board with a view to identifying areas needing policy overhaul. The revolution cannot be defended without enhancing the condition of the people who are living in squalor. Cubans don’t need handouts anymore.
Cubans celebrated when Washington and Havana renewed diplomatic ties. That was because friendly relations with US would reduce their economic crises, especially in the areas of trade, technology and tourism. But that friendly act by Obama failed to receive the blessings of incumbent President Donald Trump who has upturned some of the clauses in the secret agreement that culminated in the resumption of diplomatic ties. During the inauguration of Canel, Raul, in his speech, lashed at the Trump administration saying: “Since the current president arrived in office, there has been a deliberate reversal in the relations between Cuba and the United States, and an aggressive and threatening tone prevails.”
He reportedly criticised US foreign, trade and immigration policy under Trump. It is clear that Trump wants to force Cuba to its knees, a herculean task though.
How Canel plays his cards would determine the future of post-Castro Cuba.