Cuban leadership changes, but that's all for now

Havana (AFP) –


Cuba's president may no longer be named Castro, but the communist system that Fidel and Raul cemented over the course of decades is not going anywhere, at least not soon.

Raul Castro, 86, and his new successor as president, Miguel Diaz-Canel, 57, will ensure that it survives even if more pro-market reforms are badly needed.

Indeed, his relinquishing the presidency after 60 years of Castro rule, while important, is not expected to shake up Cuba in any major way, at least over the short term.

In a historic changing of the guard on Thursday, both the old president and the new one insisted the regime will live on, with Castro retaining the key position of head of the all-powerful communist party until 2021.

In his first speech as president, Diaz-Canel, a career party loyalist, said Castro "will still preside over decisions of major importance for the present and future of the nation."

"There is no room for a transition that ignores the legacy of so many years of struggle," said Diaz-Canel.

The Council of State, the supreme executive body that he oversees, got some new faces at Thursday's meeting of the National Assembly.

But some representatives of the old guard retained their seats. They include Salvador Valdes Mesa, 72, Leopoldo Cintra Frias, 76, or Ramiro Valdes, 85.

So "it is hard to imagine suddenly change and reform will occur at an accelerated pace," said Peter Hakim of a Washington-based think tank called the Inter-American Dialogue.

If the communist system is here to stay for now, changes in Cuba -- where people make an average of $30 a month -- are necessary and some are already in place.

Castro used his farewell speech to announce constitutional reforms to adapt the charter to "political, economic and social transformations" that have taken place in Cuba.

These changes, which could include the creation of the job of prime minister, will be submitted to a referendum. But Castro did not go into detail, and he insisted in any case that Cuban socialism is "irrevocable" and the role of the communist party will not change.

- Capitalism in Cuba? -

Diaz-Canel is an electrical engineer by training and is no specialist in economics. But his main task will be to press ahead with reforms that have introduced at least a taste of market-style economic life in a system where the state calls all the shots and people live on next to nothing.

These timid changes ushered in by Raul Castro must go even further to shore up an economy that is stagnant -- it grew only 1.6 percent in 2017 -- and heavily dependent on imports and aid from ally Venezuela, which now has huge economic woes of its own.

The most urgent tasks are to unify the currency system -- Cuba has two kinds of peso -- and decentralize the economy and political system, said Arturo Lopez-Levy, a Cuba expert at the University of Texas, Rio Grande Valley.

"The hardest part will be to confront the political consequences of those reforms and the pressure these might trigger for yet another wave of change," he added.

As to the dual-currency system, unique in the world and a source of distortion in the economy, Castro admittted it has given Cuban leaders "serious headaches" for years.

To those who think Cuba might follow the paths of former strictly communist countries like Viet Nam or China, Diaz-Canel warned there is no chance of capitalism being restored in Cuba.

"This legislature will defend the revolution and work toward perfecting it," he said.

"It is not going to happen overnight," Cuban political scientist Esteban Morales said of the idea of more reform.

As Cubans wait to see the makeup of the next cabinet of ministers, a decision that has been put off until July, many are watching for the kind of relationship that develops between Castro and Diaz-Canel.

For the first time in decades, the president of the Council of State and the Council of Ministers will not also head the communist party.

"Obviously Raul's behavior will be viewed closely but if he undermines Diaz-Canel that will be seen as Raul admitting having made the wrong choice. And also suggest the very idea of a smooth transition was being challenged," said Paul Webster Hare, a professor of international relations at Boston University and former British ambassador to Cuba.

"So Raul has invested a lot in Diaz-Canel and needs him to survive."