The post-Cas­tro era

Cubans ready to turn the page as pres­i­dent pre­pares to step down

Global Times - - World -

Cuban Pres­i­dent Raul Cas­tro steps down Thurs­day, pass­ing the ba­ton to a new gen­er­a­tion in a tran­si­tion that brings to a close the Cas­tro brothers’ six-decade grip on power.

“We have come a long way... so that our chil­dren, those of the present and those of the fu­ture, will be happy,” Cas­tro said in one of his last speeches as leader last month.

The 86-year-old has been in power since 2006, when he took over af­ter ill­ness side­lined his brother Fidel, who seized power in the 1959 revo­lu­tion.

Be­tween them, fa­ther of the na­tion Fidel and younger brother Raul ruled Cuba for nearly 60 years, mak­ing the Caribbean is­land a key player in the Cold War and help­ing keep com­mu­nism afloat de­spite the col­lapse of the Soviet Union.

On Thurs­day, that chap­ter of his­tory will come to a close when the Na­tional Assem­bly elects a new pres­i­dent of the Coun­cil of State, cat­a­pult­ing the is­land into the post-Cas­tro era.

The cho­sen one

The assem­bly will be­gin gath­er­ing on Wed­nes­day, al­though the vote it­self will only take place on Thurs­day, with mem­bers widely ex­pected to se­lect cur­rent First Vice Pres­i­dent Miguel Diaz-Canel, a gray-haired 57-year-old who has climbed the party ranks and has been Raul Cas­tro’s right-hand man since 2013.

“There will be a sense of re­newal, and there will be a sense of con­ti­nu­ity,” said For­eign Min­is­ter Bruno Ro­driguez.

The out­go­ing pres­i­dent will re­main at the head of the Com­mu­nist Party un­til its next congress in 2021 – when he turns 90 – enough time to en­sure a con­trolled tran­si­tion and to watch over his pro­tégé when, in­evitably, old-guard com­mu­nists chal­lenge his re­forms.

Cuban po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist Este­ban Mo­rales said the two would likely work in tan­dem, with Cas­tro con­tin­u­ing to act as the ide­o­log­i­cal fig­ure­head, while Diaz-Canel con­cen­trates on the “very com­plex and dif­fi­cult” task of run­ning the gov­ern­ment.

The heir to the Cas­tros will be faced with mod­ern­iz­ing the econ­omy at a time when Cuba’s key re­gional ally Venezuela, its source of cheap oil, is stum­bling through an acute eco­nomic cri­sis, and amid a resur­gence of the US em­bargo un­der Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump.

Low-key han­dover

On the is­land, the tran­si­tion is fu­el­ing a mod­er­ate de­bate be­tween fer­vent Cas­tro-ites and their crit­ics, who ex­pect few changes to take place af­ter the elec­tion, in which they have no di­rect par­tic­i­pa­tion.

Cubans last month elected a new Na­tional Assem­bly, whose 605 mem­bers are tasked with vot­ing in the new pres­i­dent.

“They are chang­ing the gov­ern­ment, but it’s still the same kind, it’s al­ways go­ing to be in­flu­enced by the Cas­tros. Even if it’s an­other man, it’s al­ways go­ing to be a Cas­tro gov­ern­ment,” said Ariel Or­tiz, an un­em­ployed 24-year-old in Ha­vana.

Re­tiree Raul Gar­cia, 79, said: “They say that Raul is leav­ing the pres­i­dency, and that an­other, younger, man will come. That’s log­i­cal. But Raul is not leav­ing, Raul will al­ways be with us, like Fidel.”

As if to un­der­score a sense of con­ti­nu­ity, the au­thor­i­ties are not plan­ning a spe­cial cer­e­mony for the assem­bly vote. And for­eign jour­nal­ists, anxious for an early look at the new pres­i­dent, have not been in­vited.

“We will con­tinue... the path of the revo­lu­tion. The tri­umphant march of the revo­lu­tion will con­tinue,” said Diaz-Canel af­ter vot­ing in last month’s assem­bly elec­tions.

How­ever, de­spite striv­ing for a lowkey tran­si­tion, there’s no get­ting away from the fact that this rep­re­sents a mon­u­men­tal change in Cuba.

A new gen­er­a­tion

It will be the first time in al­most six decades that the Cuban pres­i­dent will not be sur­named Cas­tro, will not be part of the “his­toric” gen­er­a­tion of 1959, will not wear mil­i­tary uni­form and will not be the head of the Com­mu­nist Party.

If elected, Diaz-Canel is ex­pected to be able to make up for his lack of rev­o­lu­tion­ary pedi­gree with the sup­port of Cas­tro watch­ing benev­o­lently from his perch atop the all-pow­er­ful Com­mu­nist Party.

The level of re­spon­si­bil­ity given to the old guard in the new gov­ern­ment will be closely watched as a mea­sure of how quickly change can be wrought by Diaz-Canel.

He will be ex­pected to build on the re­forms in­tro­duced by Cas­tro in re­cent years, par­tic­u­larly those giv­ing greater lat­i­tude to the is­land’s tourism in­dus­try and small busi­ness sec­tor.

The date of the his­toric vote is heavy with sym­bol­ism.

It falls on the 57th an­niver­sary of the Bay of Pigs in­va­sion, when the CIA tried to over­throw Cas­tro in 1961, an episode Ha­vana has long pro­claimed as Amer­i­can im­pe­ri­al­ism’s first great de­feat in Latin Amer­ica.

Photo: VCG

Cuban Pres­i­dent Raul Cas­tro (Left) casts his vote at a polling sta­tion in San­ti­ago de Cuba Prov­ince dur­ing an elec­tion to rat­ify a new Na­tional Assem­bly on March 11, 2018, a key step to­ward the elec­tion of the first Cuban pres­i­dent out­side the Cas­tro...

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