Cuba: If you liked Fidel you’ll like Raul
There is no greater example of Washington’s failed Cuba policy than the well-executed changing of the guard that took place in Havana last Sunday.
Political analysts at home and Cuba watchers abroad are still digesting the fact that Fidel Castro —who decided not to run for reelection— and the Communist Party of Cuba have pulled off a smooth transfer of power. The event has left Washington dumbfounded and the hard-core Miami lobby dejected.
Nobody dreams of filling Fidel Castro’s shoes as a statesman, but newly chosen President Raul Castro will certainly continue on the course that Cuba’s historic leader and his close associates have carefully set out. This includes a promise of policy reforms and administrative streamlining.
In the days leading up to the National Assembly’s vote to elect a new president, the mainstream US and European media rushed to paint a picture of Cuba as a fragile house of cards ready to fall apart with the first light breeze. Most now grudgingly admit that their dire predictions were wrong.
Already adjusted to Raul’s style of government after 19 months as interim president, most Cubans are now waiting —patiently or skeptically— for the promised changes to make the country’s socialist system work better. The streets are calm and life goes on normally.
WHAT TO EXPECT
In his acceptance speech on Sunday, February 24, as in his address to the final session of the outgoing parliament on December 28, 2007, Raul referred to progressive changes in several areas of the Cuban economic and social life. Issues on the table include reforming the nightmarish bureaucracy, eliminating stifling rules and regulations, improving an economy marked by low productivity and poor administration and raising peoples’ low purchasing power.
One of the greatest achievements of the Cuban revolution was surviving the collapse of the Soviet Union and the subsequent crisis that peaked in the summer of 1994. Difficult decisions were made during this period. Once again the doomsday forecasters were proven wrong, but as Raul Castro said “many changes were undertaken with the rush imposed to quickly adapt to a radically different, very hostile and extremely dangerous scenario.”
He went on to note that in the last 14 years the panorama has changed dramatically. “Today a more compact and operational structure is required, with a lower number of institutions under the central administration of the State and a better distribution of their functions. This will enable us to reduce the enormous quantity of meetings, coordination, permissions, conciliations, provisions, rules and regulations etc.”
President Raul Castro made it clear that some issues would be addressed more quickly, like lifting certain long-standing prohibitions and authorizing greater autonomy in local decision-making. He said other more complicated economic issues, including the dual currency system, would be addressed after careful study.
THE YOUNGER GENERATION WATCHES AND WAITS
One of the most important questions for the future of the 50-year revolution is whether the promised reforms can inspire new energy among Cuba’s youth. At present, a considerable segment of the younger generation have fallen into apathy and disaffection, claiming to see no future for themselves in their underdeveloped country and longing to immigrate to where the grass appears to be greener.
When push comes to shove, many of those youth will admit that what they really want is the best of two worlds: the advantages of their country’s admired social system combined with a modestly better material living standard. Due to the US blockade, the difficulties faced by the entire region and Cuba’s own deficiencies, the latter has proven unobtainable on the island for nearly two decades.
The Cuban media and educational system puts great emphasis on the heroic deeds of Cuban students in the 1950s who fought the Batista dictatorship. While the history is an important part of the cultural and national identity, it is clearly not enough to motivate young people. Unlike survivors of the heroic revolutionary generation and the first generation after them, many of today’s youth see the glass as half empty, while the older generation sees it as half full.
Cuban analysts have meticulously studied the fall of the Soviet Union, East Germany and the rest of the Socialist Bloc. Much of the government’s seemingly slow maneuvering comes from the desire to avoid abrupt changes. Such changes, they fear, could give their enemies in Washington a wedge to break the country’s overwhelming unity on national sovereignty and self-determination.
WHO IS ON BOARD
The new first vice president, Raul’s previous post, is Jose Ramon Machado Ventura. A doctor and former minister of public health, Machado has served for several years in the key post as organizational chief of the Communist Party Central Committee.
“I met Machado more than 50 years ago in the Sierra Maestra Mountains; the two of us were in the same column as the Commander in Chief [Fidel],” said Raul. “In case of any accident, attack or whatever,” Machado as first vice president is a guarantee that the revolution will continue “without interruption.”
The new defense minister is Julio Casas Regueiro, who was vice-minister under Raul Castro at the Ministry of the Revolutionary Armed Forces. Casas is widely known for his business expertise and for being thrifty and even a bit of a “tightwad” as Raul stated in an intervention at the National Assembly before he was reelected.
Castro noted that Casas brings with him a lot of experience and that one of his greatest virtues is his reputation among all the generals as a careful spender; “to such an extreme that he was the only person I gave the authority to veto my economic decisions [at the defense ministry],” said the president.
On the new Council of State, now headed by Raul and Machado, the other five vice presidents are: Juan Almeida Bosque, Juan Estaban Lazo Hernandez, Abelardo Colome Ibarra, Carlos Lage Davila and Julio Casas Regueiro (the only new VP). Julio Miguel Miyar Barruecos remains the secretary.
Of the other 23 Council of State members, 12 are new including 7 of the 8 women elected (up from 6 in 2003). The new council now includes 11 black and mestizo members including two of which are vice-presidents, Lazo and Almeida.
US POLICY UNLIKELY TO CHANGE
The transfer of power dealt yet another blow to the 50-year-old US government obsession with overturning the Cuban revolution. Neither punishing US citizens and Cuban-Americans by strict travel restrictions, nor limiting normal business transactions, nor blocking academic, scientific, sports and culture exchanges has produced the clearly-stated goal of the Bush administration to return the island to its former status as a pseudo-colony.
Any possibility of a thawing in the icy relations between the US and Cuba now depends on Washington. Cuba’s offer still stands for unconditional talks to improve relations and work together on matters of mutual interest like drug trafficking, human smuggling and the fight against all types of terrorism.
In this final year of the Bush presidency, any cooperation appears out of the question. However, a new US leader in January 2009 will have the chance to make history and break the hostile policy of ten successive administrations towards Cuba.