For the first time since in more than 60 years, Cuba faces life after Castro.
Raúl Castro has announced that he will retire in five years and be succeeded by 52-year-old Miguel Diaz-Canel (right, with Castro), signaling the start of a transition not to democracy but to a younger generation within the ossified Communist regime.
Blogger Yoani Sanchez welcomed Diaz-Canel’s promotion but said it was “deplorable” that her joy was caused “not by the politics of a candidate but by his age.”
In another key change, the National Assembly selected Esteban Lazo Hernandez, 69, an orthodox ideologue and Cuba’s top black official, to replace Ricardo Alarcon, a veteran foreign affairs expert who was president of the Assembly for the past two decades.
The selection of Lazo, a member of the Political Bureau in charge of ideology, “confirms the cautious focus on possible changes in the political system,” said Arturo Lopez Levy, a Cuban analyst now at the University of Denver.
Castro’s anemic reforms have produced enough cosmetic changes to alarm hardened orthodox party leaders like Raul’s brother Fidel, but not enough to address the island’s pressing economic crisis, say analysts.
“You can’t say that Raúl’s Cuba is the same as Fidel’s Cuba. You just have to go on the streets to see that,” said dissident Havana economist Oscar Espinosa Chepe.
“I am surprised at how fast Raúl has moved, in the context of the previous half-century” added Archibald Ritter, an economist at Carleton University in Ottawa who runs the blog The Cuban Economy.
But Espinosa Chepe, Ritter and other knowledgeable Cuba-watchers say the reforms have been far too slow and too meek to reverse nearly half a century of brutally incompetent central government and its controls, Soviet Union-style, over virtually the entire economy.
Castro’s main reforms are “positive and well-oriented” and have accelerated in the past six months but remain “insufficient to solve the socio-economic problems accumulated in 50 years of centralized socialism … due to obstacles and disincentives,” said Carmelo Mesa-Lago, the dean of Cuba economists and author of the Spanish-language book Cuba en la Era de Raúl Castro.
Castro allowed a limited degree of private enterprise by providing licenses to small businesses, but at least 181 jobs – including party clowns – remain subject to strict regulations.
“The list of reform initiatives launched since Castro officially succeeded Fidel on Feb. 24, 2008, is long and impressive and points to a strategy of allowing more capitalism but not democracy that looks like the China model,” notes one observer.
Castro is “losing time….not because of indolence but because there is no agreed-upon vision of the system toward which Cuba is moving,” said Lopez-Levy, a former government analyst on intelligence issues and Cuba-U.S. relations:
The “what” is widely believed to be an entrenched bureaucracy that fears the reforms will take away its benefits and perquisites. Jorge Dominguez, a Harvard University expert on Cuba, has described what Castro now faces as a tough “bureaucratic insurgency.”
Lopez-Levy said he believes that during his first five years in power Castro carefully laid the institutional foundation for a more mixed state-private economy and a state withdrawal from daily life.
It’s hard to believe that the system can “survive the new year, never mind guarantee its long-term viability,” blogger Sánchez wrote last month.
“But it merits mentioning that the Havana regime has been showing its ability to overcome, including even the most unfavorable predictions, for a long time,” she added. “After all, the Cuban economy has been in a permanent state of crisis for 20 years.”
“It will be much more likely to see our frustrations in the lines outside embassies [in Havana] waiting for a visa,” Sánchez noted, “than in any mass protests.”