Cuba’s new president

Fidel Castro addresses a crowd in front of the presidential palace in Havana, January 1959

By Jane West

For nearly 60 years the Cuban revolution has been a beacon for all those struggling for liberation and progress, especially in the developing world. Not only has tiny Cuba, located 90 miles off the coast of the USA, held out as a redoubt of socialism and independence against all the odds and despite every effort of its superpower neighbour to overturn it, but in that time it has supported every other significant anti-imperialist struggle across the world, whether politically or directly materially.

Cuba’s refusal to bend to almost 60 years of US blockade, invasion, dirty tricks and destabilisation has given hope and inspiration to all those facing US aggression. Cuba’s socialist leadership particularly nurtured the left in Latin America, from Allende in Chile in the early 1970s, through the revolutions in Nicaragua and Grenada in 1979, to the Chavez’s 21st century socialism in Venezuela and the rise of the left across Latin America in the first decade of this century. But its influence has been felt far beyond Latin America, from its moral and political support for Vietnam in the 1960s, directly fighting apartheid and colonialism in southern Africa in the 1970s and 1980s, its political support for Iraq, Libya and Syria against US intervention and sending thousands of doctors and other medical support to poor countries across the global South.

Throughout its 59 year history of solidarity, perseverance and fearless independence, Cuba has always been led by a Castro; first the towering figure of one of the truly great revolutionary leaders in history – Fidel Castro. It was above all Fidel Castro who led and determined the course Cuba has pursued since 1959. He was succeeded in the last decade by Raul, his brother and comrade in arms from the earliest moments of the struggle in Cuba, who pursued the same type of policies as Fidel both internationally and domestically. In popular consciousness worldwide the name Castro and the Cuban revolution have become virtually synonymous.

Last week however that began to change, when on Thursday 19 April, Raul stepped down as President of Cuba’s Council of State at the end of his second five-year term and handed over to the successor elected by the National Assembly, the then vice-president, Miguel Diaz-Canal.

The mainstream media worldwide has declared this the end of a ‘dynasty’. It is stretching the usual understanding of dynastic politics to suggest this was ever likely in Cuba simply because Fidel was succeeded by the next most authoritative surviving leader of the Cuban revolution, who happened to have the same surname. But although a ‘dynasty’ was never on the cards, and never explained why Raul succeeded Fidel, the change in presidency to Diaz-Canal, underlines this self-evident fact.

In fact the selection of this new leadership in Cuba was through a very similar process to that introduced in China after the death of Mao. The presidential succession was clearly discussed and agreed by the (currently) 17-strong politburo of the Cuban Communist Party, of which Raul Castro and Miguel Diaz-Canal are both members. Its decision would then have been discussed more widely in the Communist Party leadership and Diaz-Canal was subsequently put forward for election by the National Assembly. Formally, as in China, alternative candidates could be put forward at any point – and possibly were – but this would only become an issue of public dispute or contested election if very deep differences were emerging internally, which could not be resolved by political debate and discussion. That is clearly not the case in Cuba today.

The other topic of speculation by the mainstream media is whether Diaz-Canal will pursue a change of policy by Cuba either internationally or domestically. This is unlikely for a number of reasons.

Firstly, it misunderstands the structure of the Cuban state. The most senior position in the Cuban political system is not the President – who is formally not President of Cuba but President of the Council of State – but the First Secretary and Chair of the Communist Party. The Cuban constitution designates the Cuban Communist Party as the ‘leading force of society and the state’. Raul Castro will remain the First Secretary of the Communist Party until 2021, when the next election is scheduled.

Secondly, the direction Cuba takes is not determined by one person, but by the leadership of the Cuban Communist Party. Even Fidel, who had great personal authority, did not just pursue an individual policy; his approach to the issues of the day and to domestic policy were the collective positions of the Communist Party, although he had huge influence over what these positions were because of his towering authority. Fidel’s degree of authority – and the lesser but similar personal authority of Raul – were the outcome of their role in the revolutionary struggle, their personal and political courage, their record of taking the right decisions on the different issues confronting the revolution over decades and an irreplaceable direct experience.

But despite the great personal authority of Fidel and Raul Castro, the Cuban revolution could not have remained on course for the last 60 years without the existence of the Cuban Communist Party.

Fidel Castro understood the necessity for a disciplined, cadre organisation from the outset; his organisation prior to the revolution, the July 26 Movement, although not formally ‘communist’ nor a ‘party’, was a highly organised grouping led by a small National Directorate of which he was the leader.

Castro did not set up a Communist Party in the 1950s for two key reasons. Firstly, and most importantly, although both he and Raul were known to be committed Marxist-Leninists, Fidel believed that in the struggle against Batista wider forces could be won to a party espousing national liberation than would be attracted to an explicitly Communist Party. Secondly, the pre-existing Cuban Communist Party – known legally as the Popular Socialist Party (PSP) – was opposed to the armed struggle against Batista and had condemned Castro’s attempted assault on the Moncada barracks in 1953 as ‘putschist’. Although later in the 50s the party began to reorient towards supporting Castro and the July 26 Movement, it was only after the 1959 revolution that its leader, Blas Roca, thoroughly reorganised the party, bringing it under the leadership of Castro.

Castro immediately responded by organising to unify the July 26 movement and the now pro-Castro PSP, eventually forming the Cuban Communist Party in 1965 from the merger of the two organisations. The Communist Party’s role expanded as the post-1959 Cuban state took shape and its institutions developed, playing the key guiding role in Cuba at every level.

It is this development and institutionalisation of a revolutionary, cadre organisation to first make the revolution, then stabilise it and then institutionalise it that has been crucial to the success and the survival not just of Cuba, but also of China and Vietnam. And such a party was the backbone of the former USSR; the forced suicide of the Soviet Communist Party by Gorbachev was the death-knell of the Soviet Union. A Communist Party cannot ensure survival against all odds, but it both minimises mistakes and allows their rapid correction and therefore gives less space for the enemy to intervene and undermine. This has been especially crucial for Cuba, located so close to the USA and in such an unfavourable relationship of forces, both militarily and economically, with the most powerful state on earth.

The continuing leadership role of the Cuban Communist Party is the real meaning to be drawn from the elevation of Diaz-Canal to the presidency; he will pursue the direction decided by the Communist Party.

It is important to note about Diaz-Canal that he is the first President to be born after the 1959 revolution itself. This marks a significant and positive generational transition; taking steps that can ensure carrying the revolution into the future. Of course, the mainstream media has also made much of the fact that three members of the politburo, including Raul Castro, are already in their 80s. All three, alongside two others in their 70s, are veterans of the struggle in the Sierra Maestra; to make an issue of this is to suggest that junking the experience of those that lived through and made the revolution is of some intrinsic value just because they are older. On the contrary, keeping the experience of this generation for as long as possible is a huge benefit to those having to take the reins today.

A huge weakness of the USSR was that Stalin’s purges eliminated a large majority of the generation who had made the revolution in 1917, meaning it had very narrow experience to draw on in developing a new generation of leaders. A great benefit of Mao’s approach to leadership was that although – especially during the Cultural Revolution – many leaders of the Chinese Communist Party were stripped of their positions, exiled and imprisoned, very few were actually deliberately killed. This allowed Mao to ‘recall’ Deng Xiaoping for example in the 1970s, to the great benefit of the survival of the Chinese revolution – under Stalin’s approach to dealing with internal differences he would have been killed.

Diaz-Canal becoming the President of the Council of State does mark the beginnings of a new generation taking the reins in Cuba. But it does not mark a change in the fundamental course of Cuba, as it does not change the role or composition of the Cuban Communist Party. In many ways, as this new generation of leaders cannot possibly have the authority that Raul, let alone Fidel, had – at least for the time being – then in reality the leadership of the Cuban revolution will have to become even more collective in order to arrive at the right solutions and for its positions to command authority.

The new leadership in Cuba faces some exceedingly difficult problems that would test anyone who took on the challenge.

Top of the agenda is that of relations with the US. It is not just there is a direct economic impact of Trump’s roll-back on trade and travel liberalisations introduced by Obama – the ban on individual travel from the US impacts tourism in particular – but Trump’s new aggressive foreign policy is seeking to once more isolate Cuba in Latin America.

Secondly there are a nexus of problems confronting the economy, primarily due to the long-term impact of the US trade blockade. And these have been exacerbated recently by the problems in Venezuela, which had been providing Cuba with oil in return for conventional exports, but also for Cuban expertise, especially medical.

One of Cuba’s biggest problems, especially in the context of the on-going US trade blockade, is its lack of oil or any other traditional energy source. Cuba is seeking to respond to this by a shift to renewable energy, setting the formidable goal of meeting its entire energy demand from renewable sources by 2050, from its current roughly 5 per cent. This will require attracting high levels of FDI. China is playing a crucial role – two Chinese companies are building a vast wind farm in the middle of the country. But this will need to be repeated.

And if FDI is going to keep flowing in then the economy as a whole has to be kept relatively dynamic to attract investment. Previously agreed ‘market reforms’ have boosted productivity in agriculture and tourism in particular; but the economy remains in a difficult transition, which poses particular problems of management for a country so close to the US, where any and every mistake will be exploited to destabilise the country politically, if possible.

For example, this makes it even harder to resolve the problem of having two differently valued currencies in regular use – the Cuban peso, used by the local population, and the Convertible Peso or CUC pegged to the dollar and used for international trade and by visitors. Growing problems, including a certain level of corruption based on different forms of arbitrage between the two currencies, had already led Raul Castro to pledge to end the system. But this will be very hard to achieve without a period of quite sharp inflation in Cuba; and the US would be quick to exploit the negative consequences of that politically. Hence why nothing has been done so far.

The skill with which Cuba has negotiated such reefs in the past is one measure of the experience and effectiveness of its leadership. If Cuba’s revolution is to survive it will need to make a transition to a new generation who are able to similarly confront the challenges of the present and the future. The changes made last week suggest that this is now in train.