Editor’s Note: Frida Ghitis, a former CNN producer and correspondent, is a world affairs columnist. She is a frequent opinion contributor to CNN and The Washington Post and a columnist for World Politics Review. The opinions expressed in this commentary are her own.
Do not believe all those headlines claiming that Cuba is beginning a “new era.” Yes, it’s true that, as of Thursday, Cuba has a new President and that, for the first time in decades, his name is not Castro. For now, however, not much more than the presidential letterhead is changing.
The new President, who took office a day after his “election” – he won with 99.83% of the vote – by the Cuban National Assembly, is Miguel Diaz-Canel, a 57-year-old bureaucrat who was born after the 1959 revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power.
Diaz-Canel has spent his political career playing it safe. The hand-picked successor to Raul Castro – Fidel’s brother, who stepped down this week – Diaz-Canel has distinguished himself by fading into the background, not rocking the revolutionary boat, and proving himself a loyal, nonthreatening acolyte to the Castro brothers.
His time-tested approach won’t suddenly change now that he is President; at least, not any time soon. He’s not about to start transforming Cuba. Sadly for the Cuban people, the country is likely to remain a time-traveler’s vision: a relic of Cold War communism, complete with 1959 Chevys, a cripplingly centralized economy, and a repressive political system.
Even if he wanted to bring radical change, Diaz-Canel is hardly in a position to do it. That’s because no matter who is President, the Cuban Communist Party controls the country and Raul Castro, 86, remains the party’s first secretary, its top boss.
In his speech after becoming President, Diaz-Canel declared, “We will remain faithful to the legacy of Fidel Castro … and the example, bravery and teachings of Raul Castro, the current leader of the revolutionary process.”
Despite the changing of the guard, he made it clear that Raul Castro “will take the lead on the country’s most important decisions,” and will do so for “the present and the future of the nation.” Raul Castro will remain head of the military, which controls not only the country’s armed forces but also much of its economy.
He is handing Diaz-Canel an economy still in crisis. The outgoing President attempted some reforms. He engaged with Washington and relaxed some economic restrictions, allowing Cubans greater freedom to travel and work independently.
About 600,000 Cubans – in a country of 11 million – now work in the private sector, but three-quarters of the work force is employed by the state. With the economy struggling, salaries are dismal, averaging $30 per month.
Indeed, ever since Fidel Castro and his band of ragged revolutionaries took power in 1959, the Cuban economy has struggled. For years the Soviet Union provided a lifeline. More recently, Venezuela – its own economy in deep crisis – became a patron. It is only economic hardship that has forced the revolution’s leaders to deviate from communist orthodoxy.
Years ago, I was in Havana as a reporter at a time when other communist countries were collapsing. A high-ranking government official told me Cuba would follow the Chinese model, opening up the economy but maintaining political control.
Since then, the regime has made timid attempts at economic reform while keeping a tight squeeze on political freedom.
As human rights watchers have noticed, Cuba remains one of the world’s most oppressive, government-dominated regimes. The nonpartisan Freedom House ranks it “Not Free,” without a free press, economic, or political freedoms. Those who challenge the status quo or try to set up civil society organizations outside Communist Party control have endured harassment, arrests, disappearances, and mysterious accidents.
When then-President Barack Obama restored relations with Havana, such repression eased minimally. Human Rights Watch said the number of arbitrary arrests of independent journalists and human rights activists decreased in 2017, but were still intolerably high, with thousands of activists and journalists detained. The rights organization said the Cuban government “continues to repress and punish dissent and criticism,” not only through arrests, but through “beatings, public shaming, travel restrictions, and termination of employment.”
Diaz-Canel appears to support the party line. In a leaked video of a Communist Party meeting, he criticizes the new ties with Washington, calls for crushing the tiny sprouts of independent media, casts doubt on the wisdom of allowing private businesses, and describes European embassies as sources of foreign subversion.
Back in 2006, when Fidel handed him the reins, Raul dramatically declared, “Fidel’s replacement can only be the Communist Party of Cuba.” For the foreseeable future, Raul is the party leader. And in case anyone suspected Diaz-Canel planned to take the country in a new direction, the brand-new President has made it clear that he, like the entire political class, remains subservient to a very-much-alive Raul Castro.
Still, he will want to earn some popular support. He may try to relax access to the internet and expand private sector reforms that Raul started and then partially reversed.
The new President lacks the charisma of Fidel and the relative legitimacy that Raul earned by having fought in the revolution and, yes, by being named Castro. In contrast, Diaz-Canel was selected in a sham pro forma vote, where he was the only candidate, and even the people voting, members of the National Assembly, were chosen by undemocratic means.
However the Cuban people feel about living in one of the world’s last communist countries, they have not chosen their current leaders.
Above all, this transfer of power, such as it was, amounted to an effort by Castro and the Communist Party to maintain control, to preserve the system in the face of an aging leadership and monumental economic challenges.
Much has to happen before Cuba undergoes real change. What occurred this week undoubtedly has symbolic significance – Cuba and Castro were part of a single brand – but this is far from the “new era” the headlines proclaim.
And yet, Cuba’s system is such an anachronism, its economic system has been so thoroughly proven to be unworkable, a political and economic transformation is inevitable. Whether Miguel Diaz-Canel will preside over it is far from assured.