Cuba’s Many Problems Prompt Speculation Galore  

Cuba’s facing many problems: the collapse of its ally and benefactor, Venezuela; recovering from the damage caused by Hurricane Irma; increased hostility from the Trump Administration; Cuba’s government’s fear of an expanding private sector of the economy; declining visitors from the U.S.; a declining national economy; the imminent political transition next February and the regime’s blocking 175 independent candidates from the upcoming election of municipal councils.

A Miami Herald article gathers experts’ speculation over whether Raúl Castro will in fact relinquish the presidency next February; whether the presumed new president, Miguel Diaz-Canel, will be capable of handling all of these problems; whether hardliners in the regime have been or will be empowered. Read it to get the full flavor of these and other speculations.[1]

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[1] Whitefield & Gámez, Raúl Castro: Will he stay in power in Cuba or retire? Miami Herald (Nov. 21, 2017).

Additional Reactions to New U.S. Regulations Regarding  Cuba         

As noted in a prior post, on November 8, new U.S. regulations on travel to Cuba and business with Cubans were issued while another post discussed initial reactions thereto.  Already additional reactions have surfaced: impact on what Americans drink in Cuba and the adverse impact on U.S. interests.

Americans Drinks in Cuba[1]

The new Cuba Restricted List bans U.S. businesses and individuals from doing business with the Cuba companies that produce two rum brands—Ron Varadero and Ron Caney—and three soft drinks—Tropicola Cachito, Jupiña and Nahita. That has raised concern that Americans in Cuba would have to be careful about what they drink.

Two days after the issuance of the new regulations, the U.S. Treasury issued a clarification. The List only bans direct financial transactions with the entities on the List. Therefore, says the Treasury, “Americans may still consume those soft drinks and rums” — as long as they don’t buy them directly from the companies on the List. They can buy a Tropicola from a street vendor, for example, and they won’t have to tell a bartender: ‘No Varadero or Caney rum, please.’”

But the Americans may not buy “a rum and coke at . . . one of the 83 hotels that are run by Gaviota or Habaguanex, two tourism brands controlled by the military [and, therefore, on the List]. It’s off limits for not only drinks but also lodging.”

Adverse Impact on U.S. Interests[2]

A Miami Herald journalist, Fabiola Santiago, has identified at least five ways the new regulations harm U.S. interests.

“First, by doing away with the independent people-to-people travel by Americans, . . . [the regulations] are actually helping the Cuban government control what travelers do, whom they meet, and how their perceptions of the country are shaped, thus becoming enablers of the dictatorship. Yet, tours are the mode of travel endorsed by Trump’s policy — and propagandistic historical tours are one of the activities that prove to the Treasury Department that your travel to Cuba is ‘educational.’”

Second, the new regulations put “the trips back in the hands of babysitters . . . [i.e.,] loyal government employees who shuttle around visitors. . . . Trump just expanded their ranks. Jobs!”

Third, the new regulations thereby harm “Cuba’s fledgling entrepreneurial class,” who will lose customers to the state-owned businesses.

Fourth, the new regulations do not adversely affect U.S. cruise ship operators even though their “passengers are a captive audience of government stores filled with Che Guevara paraphernalia and peddlers who offer government services to people disembarking.”

Fifth, the regulations and the Trumpian rhetoric about Cuba are helping the Russians enhance their relationship with Cuba, which includes “aggressively pursuing establishing a military base in Cuba, 90 miles from the USA.”

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[1] Whitefield, Do new rules on Cuba travel mean no rum in cocktails for American travelers? Miami Herald (Nov. 10, 2017). (I was unable to find the Treasury Department clarification on its website.)

[2] Santiago, It’s your Cuba policy, Miami republicans. You can’t blame Obama now, Miami Herald (Nov. 10, 2017)

Continued Official Uncertainty Over Cause of Medical Problems of U.S. Diplomats in Cuba     

There has been lots of news over the U.S. diplomats with medical problems from serving in Cuba. But there is still official uncertainty over the cause of those problems and resulting cooler Cuba relations with the U.S. and warmer relations with Russia.

U.S. Trying To Hide the Attacks?[1]

CBS News on October 10 reported that one of the 22 U.S. diplomats who has suffered from purported “sonic attacks” in Cuba had asserted that the U.S. was trying to hide the attacks.

In addition, this individual reportedly told CBS that the attacks had happened at the Embassy itself, their Havana quarters and hotels, that the State Department “pressured” some U.S. embassy officials who had been injured to remain on the island and “waited too long” to withdraw personnel and that the initial treatment by doctors in Havana and at the University of Miami Hospital in the U.S. was “superficial and incomplete.”

The State Department denied these allegations later the same day.[2] Its Spokesperson, Heather Nauert, at a press briefing, said, “We have an ongoing investigation that’s being spearheaded out of the [U.S.] with our best investigators on that, so they continue to move ahead with that investigation. We still don’t know who is responsible and we still don’t know what is responsible for the injuries of our American staff.” (Emphasis added.)

Pressed by other reporters about the above comments by one of the victims and by the Department’s recent identification of only two Havana hotels where some of the attacks occurred, Nauert said the following:

  • “I was just speaking with one of our colleagues who served down there in Cuba and is recently back here in the [U.S.]. And I asked this person that very question: ‘How do you feel that we responded?’ And I’ve asked numerous of my colleagues that very question. . . . [W]e all care deeply about how our folks are doing down there. And I asked the question, ‘Do you feel supported by us? Do you feel that we were quick enough to respond?’ And the answer I got back was ‘yes.’ . . . it took a while to put this together, because the symptoms were so different.”
  • “But this person said to me once we figured out a pattern, . . . the State Department was extremely responsive. This person said to me that they . . . never felt the pressure to stay in Cuba, although they wanted to make it clear that they wanted to serve down there. These folks love what they’re doing, they feel a real dedication to . . .our mission down there in Cuba, the activities that they were involved with on behalf of the U.S. Government with local Cubans, and they were encouraged by the State Department to come forward, please get tested if you feel like you’ve had some sort of symptoms or something.”
  • “I don’t have the actual timeline in front of me that lays out when attacks took place at different locations, and I’m not even sure that that is something that we’re making public. But once we started to figure out what this was all about and started to investigate and realized that we were not able to protect our people, that’s when the Secretary made [the decision to reduce U.S. personnel at the Embassy in Havana].”

U.S. Government Statements About the Attacks and Relations with Cuba

On October 12 White House Chief of Staff, John Kelly, provided a very unusual press briefing. Unusual because the chief of staff rarely, if ever, provides such a briefing. The apparent major reason for the briefing was to provide a platform for him to deny that he was quitting or being fired as chief of staff. In addition, in response to a reporter’s question, Kelly stated, “We believe that the Cuban government could stop the attacks on our diplomats.”  But he provided no bases for that belief and was not challenged with additional questions by the journalists.[3] (Emphases added.)

Later that same day Kelly’s comment was interpreted (or qualified) by the State Department spokeswoman, Heather Nauert, who said, “General Kelly, when he said we believe that they can stop the attacks, I think what he was referring to was, one, we have the Vienna Convention [on Diplomatic Relations]. And under the Vienna Convention, . . . the Government of Cuba, has a responsibility to ensure the safety of our diplomatic staff. That didn’t happen. But there’s also another well-known fact, and that is that in a small country like Cuba, where the government is going to know a lot of things that take place within its borders, they may have more information than we are aware of right now.”[4] (Emphases added.)

The next day, October 13, President Trump addressed the 2017 Values Voter Summit.  It included the following comment: “We’re confronting rogue regimes from Iran to North Korea and we are challenging the communist dictatorship of Cuba and the socialist oppression of Venezuela. And we will not lift the sanctions on these repressive regimes until they restore political and religious freedom for their people.”[5] (Emphases added.)

Two days earlier (October 11) Vice President Mike Pence delivered a speech at a National Hispanic Heritage Month celebration at the Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C. in which he referred to meeting people from the Cuban communities here in the U.S., and had seen “the spirit of the Cuban exile community in this country firsthand.” On that same day, the Vice President continued. “President Trump announced a new policy to ensure that U.S. dollars will no longer prop up a military monopoly that exploits and abuses the Cuban people. Under this administration, it will always be “Que viva Cuba libre![6] (Emphases added.)

Sound Recording[7]

The Associated Press obtained an audio recording of what some of the U.S. personnel in Cuba heard.  Says the AP, it “sounds sort of like a mass of crickets. A high-pitched whine, but from what? It seems to undulate, even writhe. Listen closely: There are multiple, distinct tones that sound to some like they’re colliding in a nails-on-the-chalkboard effect.”  The AP adds that it has “reviewed several recordings from Havana taken under different circumstances, and all have variations of the same high-pitched sound.”

Similar Problems at U.S. Embassy in Moscow, 1953-1976[8]

The BBC reports that in May 1953 U.S. officials at the Moscow embassy detected a microwave frequency that oscillated above the upper floors at certain times, sometimes up to eight hours a day, and that autumn some embassy workers felt inexplicably ill. At first it was dizziness, palpitations, headaches, blood pressure too high or too low. But no one understood what was happening.

In 1962, those who were still there or even those who had already left had more severe symptoms: sudden cataracts, alterations in blood tests or chromosomes. In 1965 the U.S. began what was known as the “Moscow Viral Study,” a multimillion-dollar operation in which scientists apparently looked for the potential exposure of workers to an unknown strain of a mysterious and potent virus. The eventual conclusion was the Soviets were “bombing” the U.S. embassy with very low-level microwaves, which the U.S. called the “S ENAL Moscow.” This persisted until April 1976.

Cubans Doubt[9]

From Cuba, the Associated Press reports that “the common reaction in Havana is mocking disbelief” about the attacks.

The same tone was struck by Miguel Diaz-Canel, the first vice president who is widely expected to succeed Raul Castro when he steps down as president in February. He said, “A few spokespeople and media outlets have lent themselves to divulging bizarre nonsense without the slightest evidence, with the perverse intention of discrediting Cuba’s impeccable behavior.”

Mass Hysteria?[10]

Journalists from the Guardian newspaper in London reported that “senior neurologists” say that ”no proper diagnosis is possible without more information and access to the 22 US victims,” but speculate that the diplomats’ ailments could have been caused by “mass hysteria.”

Cuba-Russia Relations[11]

According to the Miami Herald, “after the election of President Donald Trump, the pace of [Cuba’s] bilateral contact with Russia has been frantic,” even more so after the eruption of U.S.-Cuba relations associated with the medical problems of U.S. diplomats. Here are such examples:

  • Just days before Foreign Minister Rodriguez’ September 26 meeting with Secretary of State Tillerson at the State Department, the Minister met with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly gathering. The conversation was “confidential,” according to a press release issued by the Russian Foreign Ministry.
  • On July 26 Cuban diplomat Josefina Vidal, the main negotiator with the U.S., went to Moscow and met with Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov.
  • Cuba’s ambassador to Russia has met with Ryabkov at least five times so far, this year.
  • Last December, just after the election of Mr. Trump, Russia and Cuba signed an agreement to modernize the Cuban army, and this year Russian officials — including military personnel — have made frequent visits to Havana.
  • In March, the Russian company Rosneft signed an agreement to ship 250,000 tons of crude oil and diesel to offset the decline in Venezuelan oil shipments to Cuba.
  • Rosneft also has discussed other joint projects with Cuba for oil extraction and the possibility of modernizing the Cienfuegos refinery, operated jointly by Cuba’s CUPET and Venezuela’s PDVSA.
  • In April, Russia offered to fund $1.5 million in U.N. projects in Cuba for hurricane recovery and later pledged to support recovery efforts following damage caused by Irma.
  • In September, Cuban Vice President and Minister of Economy Ricardo Cabrisas signed a package of agreements with Russia in the energy, rail transport and elevator-supply sectors.
  • Recently, Cuban news agency Prensa Latina, which has an office in Washington, and the Russian news agency Sputnik signed an official cooperation agreement.

These developments are no surprise to Richard Feinberg, an expert at Brookings Institution and a former U.S. policymaker for Latin America during Bill Clinton’s administration. He says, “[Vladimir] Putin’s message is not difficult to understand. [He] longs to regain the past imperial glory and relations with Cuba follow that same pattern.” Feinberg added, “From the point of view of the Cubans, they are looking to diversify their relationships. As closer economic relations with the U.S. do not seem likely for at least the next few years, they are looking for alternative allies, especially from countries with strong states like Russia and China that can offer favorable payment terms, something very welcome in an economy with poor international credit standards.”

Conclusion

In the above and the many other reports about the medical problems affecting some U.S. personnel serving in Cuba, I find it astounding that there still is official uncertainty about the cause or causes of the medical problems.

It also is astounding that no journalist or other commentator has publicly asked whether the U.S. has investigated whether the problems were caused by a secret and perhaps malfunctioning U.S. program or device and if so, to provide details. Such a possibility would help explain the delay in the U.S. public announcement of this set of medical problems and the apparent U.S. reluctance to share details of its investigation with Cuban investigators, all as discussed in previous posts to this blog. Moreover, this possibility would render various U.S. reactions—reducing the U.S. personnel at the U.S. Embassy in Havana, expulsion of 15 Cuban diplomats and the latest U.S. travel warning—as cover ups and as excuses for additional tightening of U.S. screws on Cuba.

Moreover, Trump’s hostile rhetoric and actions regarding Cuba, which are unjustified in and of themselves, have adverse effects on other important U.S. interests, including the prevention of increasing Russian influence in Latin America.

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[1] Cuba victim tells CBS News “complaints were ignored,” CBS News (Oct. 10, 2017); ‘Washington was trying to hide the acoustic attacks,’ says one of the victims, Diario de Cuba (Oct. 10, 2017).

[2] U.S. State Dep’t, Department Press Briefing—October 10, 2017.

[3]  White House, Press Briefing by Press Secretary Sarah Sanders and Chief of Staff General John Kelly   (Oct. 12, 2017); Assoc. Press, White House Says Cuba Could Stop Attacks on Americans, N.Y. Times (Oct. 12, 2017).

[4] U.S. State Dep’t, Department Press Briefing-October 12, 2017.

[5] White House, Remarks by President Trump at the 2017 Values Voter Summit (Oct. 13, 2017); Reuters, U.S. to Maintain Cuba, Venezuela Sanctions Until Freedoms Restored: Trump, N.Y. Times (Oct. 13, 2017).

[6] White House, Remarks by Vice President Mike Pence at National Hispanic Heritage Month Reception (Oct. 11, 2017)

[7] Assoc. Press, Dangerous Sound? What Americans Heard in Cuba Attacks, N.Y. Times (Oct. 13, 2017).

[8] Lima, The “Moscow Sign”, the mysterious Soviet Union bombardment of the US embassy, which lasted more than two decades during the Cold War, BBC News (Oct. 14, 2017).

[9] Assoc. Press, ‘Star Wars’ Fantasy? Cubans Doubt US Sonic Attacks Claims, N.Y. Times (Oct. 13, 2017).

[10] Borger & Jaekl, Mass hysteria may explain ‘sonic attacks’ in Cuba, say top neurologists, Guardian (Oct. 12, 2017).

[11] Gámez, Amidst growing tensions with U.S., Cuba gets cozier with Russia, Miami Herald (Oct. 13, 2017).

Why is the Cuban Government Trying To Slow Down the Private Sector? 

                                                                                                              Yesterday’s post described the Cuban Government’s suspension of the issuance of new permits for certain self-employment categories and closing down some paladares (private restaurants).

Why is this happening and what is its impact on Cubans?

Nora Gámez Torres of the Miami Herald reports that certain experts say the suspension is the government’s fear of the emergence of a truly successful entrepreneurial class on the island as a future political opponent of the government. As Ted Henken, a U.S. sociologist and expert on Cuba’s private sector, put it this way: “hardliners in the Cuban government are afraid of the private sector, not only because it competes with state monopolies but because economic autonomy ‘can lead to more political freedom and independence, and create a powerful lobby with a different agenda than those in power currently.’”[1]

This move by the Cuban government is seen as against its economic interest as the private sector generates more than $2.5 billion and up to 18% of the economy’s revenues while the implosion of Cuba’s ally, Venezuela, has a major negative impact on Cuba’s economy.

Meanwhile Cubans planning to open new businesses are upset.  Here are some of their reactions.[2]

  • Sara in anticipation of renting a house in Vedado said, “I have spent months and money invested in arranging the house to rent it to foreign tourists, I already had contacts and I was planning to apply for my license in September.”
  • Sergio, a taxi driver who was planning to move to a home buying and selling office, said he lost more than 1,000 CUCs between chairs and other items he bought to set up an office. The government’s suspension of new licenses “demonstrates that no one can make more than four pesos.”
  • Brian, who already had bought equipment to open an appliance repair shop in Havana, has seen his aspirations frustrated, as he had not yet submitted his license application. “Right now I do not know what to do because I owe money to several people for the purchase of equipment.”
  • The owner of a cafeteria in Havana said that in just two months she planned to open a restaurant in the same place. “Now what do I do with all the cutlery, glasses and even an electric coffee maker I bought? I have to sell them or keep them until they reopen the licensing, but no one knows when that will be. The government wants us to be starving all our lives.”
  • Marta, a bookkeeper who looks for accountants to manage her payments at the bank, said that these closures “affects her a lot. As new entrepreneurs do not emerge, it makes it more difficult for me to get new clients. I have been put into China by these bastards since I only had a few months in this activity.”
  • Lázaro, “They do not want a middle class to emerge and they say they take these measures because there are many raw materials and equipment of illicit origin, and where do these illicit products come from? That comes from the lack of control and disaster of state companies,” he said. “They really screwed us up.”

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[1] Torres, Fear is driving Raúl Castro to punish Cuba’s new entrepreneurial class, experts say, Miami Herald (Aug. 2, 2017).

[2] Fernandez, ‘There is no one here to raise their heads,’ they complain affected by the brake on private work, Diario de Cuba (Aug. 2, 2017).

Cuban Entrepreneurs Fear Implementation of Trump’s Ban on Individual Person-to-Person Travel to the Island

Meg Whitefield of the Washington Post reports that members of Cuba’s emerging entrepreneurial sector are fearful of the negative impact on their business of the future implementation of President Trump’s announced ban on individual person-to-person travel to the island.[1]

Here are examples:

  • The manager of a Cuban “loose association of vintage car owners who have banded together to offer transportation for visiting dignitaries and other groups” already has received cancellations of reservations and fears for the 20 drivers who depend on these bookings for their livelihood as well as a group of mechanics that refurbish classic cars.
  • The husband and wife owners of a Cuban “bed and breakfast for the past two decades have gradually renovated an old mansion that was in ruins when they began, adding guest rooms and struggling to find parts to get the swimming pool filter running again.” They are fearful of having fewer American visitors. The couple also fears the negative impact on “their 17 employees and the private sub-contractors they use to do everything from carpentry work to washing and pressing clothes for guests.” The couple said, “Cuentapropistas (the self-employed) have created a network. We regularly seek out each other’s services to solve our problems.”

Phil Peters, a consultant and president of the U.S. non-profit Cuba Research Center, said most casa particulares are small and won’t be able to handle group travel. “It’s harder if you have 20 people and need to run a scheduled program. You can’t have a tour bus stop at 10 different locations to pick up group members. It’s a little impractical.”

The exceptions, said Peters, “are tourist towns like Trinidad or Viñales where it seems like almost every other house is a casa particular. The three state-run hotels in Viñales, a small rural town near dramatic rock formations and caves, have a combined total of 193 rooms, while there are 1,107 private bed-and-breakfasts, many that have two or three rooms.”

The adverse effects of the future ban on individual person-to-person travel will also be felt in the U.S., according to Sandra Levinson, executive director of The Center for Cuba Studies, which is based in New York and has sponsored educational travel to Cuba since 1973. She said, “Millions are being spent by Cuban Americans who are helping their families in Cuba start their businesses by providing them with the necessary equipment for their startups — everything from bought-in-the-U.S. blenders, ice cream makers, coffee pots, dinnerware, air conditioners, TV sets, leather upholstery for cars, computers, cell phones, sound systems, bedding, shower curtains and more.”

These are important reminders to those of us in the U.S. who oppose this change in U.S. policy. Write your Senators and Representatives to pass the pending bills granting Americans freedom to travel to Cuba.

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[1] Whitefield, Cuban entrepreneurs brace for President Trump’s new Cuba policy, Miami Herald (July 3, 2017)  This blog previously has commented on the upcoming negative impact of the ban on individual person-to-person travel on Cuba’s private sector: President Trump Announces Reversal of Some U.S.-Cuba Normalization Policies (June 19, 2017); Cuban Reactions to Trump Reversal of Some U.S.-Cuba Normalization Policies (June 22, 2017); This Blogger’s Reactions to Trump Reversal of Some U.S.-Cuba Normalization Policies (June 23, 2017); Reducing Adverse Impact on Cuban Entrepreneurs of Trump’s Partial Ban on U.S. Person-to-Person Travel to Cuba (June 28, 2017).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Economic Problems Bedevil Cuban Government and President Raúl Castro

A prior post reported that Cubans want greater economic growth and opportunity while also expressing pessimism about that happening. The grounds for that pessimism are highlighted in a Miami-Herald article about the many economic challenges facing President Raúl Castro In the last year of his presidency.[1]

This is the article’s big picture. “Many state enterprises are barely limping along, there are jitters as the economy of Cuba’s Venezuelan benefactor spirals downward, the rules of the road are murky for private businesses, salaries are low, a messy dual currency system still needs to be unified and Cuba is in dire need of much more foreign investment.”

These problems will not be easy to solve. “Many of Cuba’s economic problems are interrelated and the timing may not be good for any drastic moves — especially with Cuba’s relationship with the United States still up in the air.”

Yes, it is true that “Cuban officials are estimating economic growth of around 2 percent this year, but that figure is based on the assumption that oil prices will go up and tourism will keep growing.” According to Cuban economist Omar Everleny Pérez Villanueva, the 2 percent growth objective is “very ambitious.” He could have said “unrealistic” as His model puts the Cuban economy in negative territory with a decline of between .3 percent and 1.4 percent in 2017.”

Here are specifics on some of the economic challenges facing the island:

Maintaining Exports of professional services. Medical services by Cuban health care professionals on foreign medical missions in recent years have provided the Cuban government with a major source of foreign currency. In recent years, however, this source of foreign currency has declined with the implosion of the Venezuelan economy being a major factor.

Coping with Venezuela’s Economic Implosion. Venezuela’s problems for Cuba go beyond the decline in foreign medical mission income for Cuba. Since last July, oil deliveries from Venezuela have dropped as much as 60 percent. Venezuela used to send crude oil to Cuba for blending at the latter’s Cienfuegos refinery, but production at the Cuban refinery has fallen by half with the reduction in shipments from Venezuela.

Eliminating Cuba’s dual currency system. Cuba has two currencies: the Cuban peso (CP), which is generally used by the Cuban population and the Cuban convertible peso (CUC), which used by tourists and foreign companies, and the Cuban government for years has had a goal of eliminating this system. According to Carmelo Mesa-Largo, a Cuban economist and professor emeritus at the University of Pittsburgh, “In 2016, the budget deficit was 7.3 percent of GDP, and because of the already difficult economic situation, they have had to print money. The budget deficit may be even higher this year — perhaps 12 percent — generating even more inflation.”

Increasing public salaries. “There are constant complaints about low public salaries. A private cab driver, for example, can earn more than a physician or other professionals. According to Mesa-Lago, even though salaries went up in 2015, buying power was just 62 percent of what it was in 1989. Nominal salaries could be increased by printing more CP, ”but with inflation, they would have to raise salaries even more to have real wage growth.” And that could set off a further inflationary spiral.

Attracting foreign investment. The Cuban government has made it clear that foreign investment is a cornerstone of Cuban economic development going forward, but so far investment is lagging. “Diplomats, business executives and members of the U.S. Congress who favor lifting the embargo all concur that Cuba needs to reform its legal system to offer foreign investors better legal guarantees, make it easier to sign contracts and allow them to directly hire their Cuban employees.” The Cuban government, however, does not want to do anything that potentially could be destabilizing and cause a weakening of political control.

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[1] Whitefield & Torres, The next year will determine Raúl Castro’s economic legacy, Miami Herald (Mar. 23, 2017)   Previous posts in this blog have discussed many aspects of the Cuban economy as listed in the “Cuban Economy” section of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: CUBA.

Cuba’s Next President: Miguel Díaz-Canel? 

Díaz-Canel
Díaz-Canel

Cuba’s current President, Raúl Castro, has announced that he will leave office when his current term expires on February 24, 2018, and it is widely expected that Cuba’s current First Vice President of the Council of State, Miguel Dìaz-Canel, will succeed him.

Who is Miguel Díaz-Canel?

According to a lengthy Miami Herald report, the 55-year-old Díaz-Canel is an electrical engineer by training and while in military service as a young man established a strong bond with Fidel and Raúl Castro as a result of helping to provide personal security to the two brothers. [1]

Afterwards he was active in the Union of Young Communists, the party’s youth league, and in his mid-20s  was appointed the party’s liaison to Nicaragua — then communist-ruled and Cuba’s key ally in the Western Hemisphere.

Since then his career has alternated between senior managerial posts, including minister of higher education and increasingly important party jobs.

From 1994 to 2003, he was one of a small, influential group of regional party chiefs. These provincial chiefs are very much in the local public eye,  and Díaz-Canel was a popular figure. He sometimes popped into local bars to share a beer and a joke. When an electrical blackout darkened a provincial hospital, Díaz-Canel spearheaded the repair party and went from bed to bed apologizing to patients. His work ethic also was much admired. In Villa Clara, he hosted a radio show and promoted rock festivals and art shows.

He also was dutiful to the Party as a provincial chief. When Fidel, then the President, announced early in the morning that he was making a surprise visit to the city of Santa Clara, Díaz-Canel was able to fill the city’s Revolutionary Square with cheering throngs by the time the leader arrived in the afternoon.

In 1997 he became the youngest-ever member of Cuba’s Politburo, the hand-picked committee of 14 party members who function as the president’s senior advisers.

After being appointed to his current position as Cuba’s top vice-president in 2013, most of  Díaz-Canel’s speeches include Marxist jargon and revolutionary sloganeering and rarely break new ground. Even his cautious criticism of government press censorship — “secretismo,” he called it — wasn’t made until after Raúl had raised the same subject. Moreover, these speeches inevitably contain praise of the Castros.

Over the last three years as an emblem of Cuba’s new political direction, Díaz-Canel has made many important foreign trips on behalf of the government, including the climate-change summit in Paris and a meeting  in Pyongyang with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un. In addition, last year he frequently met with visiting U.S. officials in Havana.

As a handsome man, he projects the image and style of a new generation. He dresses in jeans and sports jackets, not military fatigues. He sings along to rock-and-roll songs. He carries a tablet computer under his arm and is even on Facebook.

What will Díaz-Canel do as President?

No one really knows what he will do if he becomes President in 2018, but most observers do not expect him to do anything radically different from the current gradual reforms of the economic system. He is not expected to abandon the one-party system. A major challenge will be strengthening his ties to the Cuban military, which is estimated to control two-thirds of the country’s private enterprises.

Another inhibiting factor, according to the Miami Herald, could be Raúl’s possibly retaining his positions as head of the Cuban armed forces and Communist Party as he has not said that he would give them up in February 2018.

Moreover, some observers believe that Raúl’s immediate or ultimate successor will be his son, Alejandro Castro, a colonel in the Interior Ministry’s security forces, or Raúl’s son-in-law, Luis Alberto Rodríguez López-Callejas, a colonel in the army and chief of some of the armed forces’ biggest business enterprises.

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[1] Whitefield, Torres & Garvin, After the Castro brothers: how much power will Cuba’s crown prince really wield? Miami Herald (Feb. 21, 2016).