Cuba’s Elections, 2017-2018

Cuba has elections by private ballot for members of its local legislatures (Municipal Assemblies of People’s Power); provincial legislatures (Provincial Assemblies of People’s Power); and national legislature (National Assembly of People’s Power). The initial such election in 2017-2018 occurred on November 26 for the local legislatures. This post looks at that election and the direct elections early next year for the other legislatures and the indirect election on February 24, 2018, of Cuba’s president.[1]

Municipal Assemblies of People’s Power Election

On November 26, Cuba held its national election of delegates to 168 Municipal Assemblies of People’s Power, which are local governing bodies. There were more than 42,300 polling stations and 27,221 candidates, 35.4% of whom were women, and 19.4%, young people. The majority of candidates have secondary and higher education, and workers from the production and services, as well as administration sectors, are most widely represented, although there are also non-state sector workers among the candidates. These candidates were chosen by nomination assemblies from September 4 through October 30 with the participation of 6.7 million voters. Such elections occur every two and a half years.[2]

Preliminary electoral data reveals that 7.6 million Cubans voted, which was 85.9% of those on the electoral register and that 11,415 delegates were elected. Another 1,100 delegates will be elected in a second round of voting on December 3 as a result of ties or no one receiving more than 50% of the valid votes.[3]

The 85.9% turnout sounds incredibly high to American observers. However, it was the lowest participation since the late Fidel Castro imposed a system of elections in 1976. Moreover, 8.2% of the ballots were left blank or annulled. Thus, a combined 22.3% of the population did not vote or rejected the government-sanctioned candidates. Even this figure may understate the proportion of non-participation as opposition activists question the validity of the official statistics.

The U.S. State Department immediately attacked the validity of these municipal elections. Its spokeswoman, Heather Nauert, said they were “the first stage in what we consider to be a flawed process that will culminate in a non-democratic selection of a new president in 2018. Unfortunately, the elections that took place further demonstrate how the Cuban regime maintains an authoritarian state while attempting to sell the myth of a democracy around the world.” She added, “Despite courageous efforts by an unprecedented number of independent candidates this year, none . . . [was] allowed on the ballot. The regime, once again, used intimidation, arcane technicalities, and false charges to discourage and disqualify independent candidates from running. Democracy is not quantified by participation alone; democracy is undermined when voters may only choose candidates who follow one ideology.” [4]

Yet another negative comment was made by Ms. Nauert. “It’s important to remember the dozens of political prisoners who are unjustly held in Cuba. So far in 2017, there have been more than 4,500 arbitrary detentions for political motives. The detentions show that Cuban citizens cannot exercise their fundamental freedoms to organize, assemble, or express themselves. Those are all vital components of democratic elections.”

There indeed is evidence that the Cuban Government took steps to discourage, and in fact, to eliminate independent candidates from running for these municipal government positions. An independent Cuban news source reported that the “majority of the  independent candidates  who tried to run for the ‘elections’ in the Nominating Assemblies of constituency delegates did not achieve their goal. The regime frustrated the effort through arbitrary arrests, police summons, criminal proceedings, acts of repudiation and even the capture of people.”[5]

Miguel Diaz-Canel, Cuba’s First Vice President and the rumored next President, openly said before the elections that the government was  “taking all steps to discredit” the  independent candidates because if they reached the Municipal Assemblies that “would be a way to legitimize the counterrevolution within our civil society.”  Just after he voted, he made a lengthy statement to the  press, saying the voting would deliver a message to the world. “What message? Unity. Conviction. A message that our people don’t bow down, not to a hurricane and even less to external pressure and some people’s desire to see our system change.” He also said the future presidents of Cuba “will always defend the Revolution and will rise from among the people. They will be elected by the people. Are people forced to vote or do they take on a duty, take on an expression of continuity” in the socialist system?  “I believe in continuity and I am certain that we will always have continuity.”[6]

Provincial Assemblies of People’s Power Election

Each of Cuba’s 14 provinces has its own Assembly of People’s Power that oversees transportation and communication systems throughout the province and recommends legislation regarding national crime and allocations of resources for development. Each such Assembly elects a provincial committee whose  president functions as the provincial governor.

The provincial assembly members are elected directly by the people to five-year terms, Only candidates belonging to the Communist Party of Cuba are allowed to run. Their next election will be in early February 2018.

 National Assembly of People’s Power Election

In early February 2018 there will be a national direct election of 614 members of the unicameral National Assembly for five-year terms. This election is limited to a slate of approved candidates chosen by the National Candidature Commission, and such candidates run unopposed. Candidates are required to obtain at least 50% of the valid votes to be elected. If no candidate passes that threshold, the seat is left vacant although the Council of State my choose to hold a special election to fill the vacancy.

The National Assembly “is the supreme organ of state and the sole legislative authority. . . . [and] has the formal power, among others, to approve the budget and the national economic plan; elect the members of the Supreme Court; and generally oversee the rule-making activities and electoral processes of the provincial assemblies and municipal assemblies.” But it “meets [only] twice a year for a few days to rubber stamp decisions and policies previously decided by the governing Council of State.”

Since the National Assembly meets only twice a year for a few days each time, the 31-member Council of State wields supreme legislative authority. Another body, the Council of Ministers through its nine-member executive committee, handles the administration of the government and the economy.

Cuba’s Presidential Election

There is no popular election of the president of Cuba. Instead, the newly elected National Assembly will elect an individual for that position for a five-year term with possible re-election to another such term. The current president, Raúl Castro, age 86, has said that he will not seek another term, and the current First Vice President, Miguel Diaz-Canel, is widely expected to be chosen for that office on February 24, 2018.

In addition to Diaz-Canel’s recent comments noted above, he also was the highest-ranking official at a concert held on the steps of the University of Havana last Saturday night in tribute to Fidel Castro on the first anniversary of his death. Afterwards Diaz-Canel said he was optimistic about the attitude of Cuban youths toward the system founded by Fidel Castro in 1959 and led by a member of the Castro family for nearly six decades. “When one sees young people gathering in solidarity in the name of the Cuban people, feeling so much for Fidel, I’m convinced that we’ll see the youth and the Cuban people out defending the revolution at the polls tomorrow.”[7]

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[1] This post’s simplified account of the provincial and national legislatures of Cuba and certain other organs of its government is based upon the following sources: The structure of Cuban State, Granma (Mar. 11, 2014); Cuban Government, Legislature, countriesquest.com; CIA World Factbook: Cuba;    Cuban parliamentary election, 2018, Wikipedia; Cuba’s Government, Global Security.org. Comments correcting any errors in this account are most welcome.

[2] Elections begin in Cuba, Granma (Nov. 26, 2017); Morales, Garcia & Pérez, Cuba ready for election day, Granma (Nov. 24, 2017); Elections in Cuba, Wikipedia.

[3] Morales, Second round elections scheduled for 1,100 constituencies, Granma (Nov. 28, 2017).

[4] U.S. State Dep’t, Daily Press Briefing (Nov. 28, 2017); Reuters, U.S. State Department Criticizes Cuban Municipal Vote as ‘Flawed,’ N.Y. Times (Nov. 28, 2017).

[5] Independent observers register numerous ‘incidents’ in the municipal ‘elections,’ Diario de Cuba (Nov. 27, 2017).

[6] Torres, Cuba had the lowest election turnout in four decades. Is the government losing its grip? Miami Herald (Nov. 28, 2017); Low participation in the ‘elections’ without opponents of the regime, Diario de Cuba (Nov. 28, 2017); Torres, 175 Cuban dissidents tried to run for office. Here’s how Castro’s government reacted, Miami Herald (Nov. 10, 2017).

[7] Assoc. Press, Cuba’s Expected Next President Starts to Take Higher Profile, N.Y. Times (Nov. 26, 2017).

Is Cuba-North Korea Cooperation Good or Bad for U.S.? 

On November 22-24 North Korea’s Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho was in Havana to meet with Cuba’s Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez and President Raúl Castro. Was this a positive or negative development for  the U.S., which has simultaneous strained relationships with both countries?[1]

Background

Since 1960, soon after the Cuban Revolution assumed control of the island’s government, Cuba and North Korea have had close diplomatic relations. It started with a 1960 visit to North Korea by Che Guevara, who praised the North Korean regime as a model for Cuba to follow.

In 1986 Fidel Castro visited North Korea and met with the country’s founder, Kim Il-sung, and his son and successor, Kim Jong-il (the grandfather and father, respectively, of the current North Korean leader).

In July 2013, a North Korea-flagged vessel was seized by Panamanian authorities carrying suspected missile-system components hidden under 10,000 tons of sugar bags upon its return from Cuba. Cuba claimed the weapons were going to North Korea for repairs and were to be sent back. However, the next year a United Nations panel of experts concluded that the shipment had violated sanctions placed on North Korea, although Cuban entities were not sanctioned in the aftermath despite protests from the U.S.

In 2015, Cuba’s First Vice President and foreseeable successor to Raúl Castro, Miguel Díaz-Canel , was received by Kim Jong-un in the North Korean capital.

In December 2016, a North Korean delegation to the funeral of Cuban leader Fidel Castro emphasized that the two nations should develop their relations “in all spheres” — a comment that was echoed by Raúl Castro, according to state media reports at the time.

This year the Kim regime has been strengthening its ties with Cuba with a view to breaking its diplomatic isolation, before the tightening of sanctions imposed by the international community. In January, Cuban Vice President  Salvador Valdés Mesa  received the number three of the North Korean regime, Choe Ryong-hae. In May the North Korean trade union leader Ju Yong-gil visited  Havana as part of a meeting of the World Federation of Trade Unions and reportedly returned with a message of solidarity from President Raúl Castro.

The Ho-Rodriguez Meeting

Ho’s first meeting in Cuba was with Foreign Minister Rodriguez and below is a photograph of the two men at that meeting. 

Afterwards Cuba’s Foreign Ministry stated that the two officials  had “reviewed the satisfactory status and positive evolution of bilateral relations, which [are] based on the traditional bonds of friendship established by the historical leaders Fidel Castro Ruz and Kim Il Sung and the links that exist between both peoples, parties and governments.” They also asserted their “respect for peoples’ sovereignty, independence and free determination, territorial integrity, the abstention or threat of the use of force, the peaceful settlement of disputes and non-interference in the internal affairs of States.”

They then “strongly rejected the unilateral and arbitrary lists and designations established by the US government which serve as a basis for the implementation of coercive measures which are contrary to international law.” In addition, they “expressed their concern over the escalation of tensions and the increased military activity in the [Korean Peninsula].”

The Ho-Castro Meeting

After the two officials’ meeting, the official note of the meeting released on Cuban official television stated, “In the fraternal meeting both parties noted the historic bonds of friendship that exist between the two nations and discussed international issues of common interest.”

Implications for the U.S.

On November 23 Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau raised the possibility that the North Korea-Cuba relationship was a positive development for the U.S. and the world. He said that last year he had discussed with Castro the possibility of working together to defuse global tensions with North Korea. “Can we pass along messages through surprising conduits?” Implicitly answering “yes” to his rhetorical question, Trudeau said. “These are the kinds of things where Canada can, I think, play a role that the United States has chosen not to play, this past year.”

Canada had an interest in seeking such solutions, not just because of regional security but also because the flight path of possible North Korean missiles would pass over its territory, Trudeau said.

An unnamed Asian diplomat had a similar thought: “We often ask the Cubans if they can talk to [the U.S. about North Korea].”

A more negative assessment was offered by an anonymous U.S. State Department official who said that the U.S. had made clear it wanted a peaceful resolution to the North Korean nuclear issue, but North Korea’s “belligerent and provocative behavior demonstrates it has no interest in working toward a peaceful solution.” Also skeptical was Anthony Ruggiero, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a former U.S. Treasury Department official, who said,  “A key element of the Trump administration’s sanctions effort is isolating North Korea. The U.S. should warn Cuba about the dangers of a relationship with North Korea.”

Conclusion

Although this blog desperately hopes for a de-escalation of tensions between the U.S. and North Korea and the avoidance of a nuclear war, I doubt that Cuba or Canada via Cuba can make a significant contribution to that objective.

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[1] Reuters, Castro Meets North Korean Minister Amid Hope Cuba Can Defuse Tensions, N.Y. Times (Nov. 24, 2017); The North Korean chancellor brings to Raúl Castro a ‘verbal message’ from Kim Jong-un, Diario de Cuba (Nov. 24, 2017); MacDonald, North Korea relations could be cooled using Cuba, Trudeau says, Global News (Nov. 23, 2017); Reuters, Cuba, North Korea Reject ‘Unilateral and Arbitrary U.S. Demands, N.Y. Times (Nov. 23, 2017); Cuba Foreign Ministry, The Cuban Foreign Minister met with his counterpart from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (Nov. 22, 2017); Gomez, Bruno Rodriguez receives Foreign Minister of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Granma (Nov. 22, 2017); Reuters, North Korean Foreign Minister Heads to Cuba, N.Y. Times (Nov. 20, 2017); Taylor, Amid growing isolation, North Korea falls back on close ties with Cuba, Wash. Post (Nov. 17, 2017).

 

 

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).

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).

Conclusion of Seventh Congress of Communist Party of Cuba

The final three days (April 17-19) of the Seventh Congress of the Communist Party of Cuba featured criticism of President Obama’s words during his March visit to Cuba, adoption of the Party’s Central Committee’s report, election of the Party’s leaders for the next five years, a concluding speech by Raúl Castro and a surprise appearance of Fidel Castro.[1] These topics will be discussed in this post. Prior posts provided an overview of the Congress, Raúl Castro’s discussion of Cuba-U.S. relations and his discussion of socio-economic issues.

Criticism of President Obama

Bruno Rodriguez
Bruno Rodriguez

The most direct criticism of Obama came from Cuba’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Bruno Rodriguez Parilla. He said, “Obama came to stand here and dazzle the non-state sector of the economy [the so-called cuentapropistas] as if he was not the defender of big corporations but the defender of those selling hot dogs and small businesses in the U.S.”

Moreover, according to the Foreign Minister, “In this visit, there was a deep attack on our ideas, our history, our culture and our symbols.” However, “Socialism and the Cuban Revolution are the guarantees that there can be a non-state sector that is not that of big North American companies. ”

The Foreign Minister also referred to Cuba’s constitutional referendum in the near future as “a battle” in a different context, with “a very heterogeneous society…in which there are changes in the perception of the enemy, which remains the enemy. And it is there, in the North.”

René González, one of the Cuban Five, said Obama was “the ‘Pied Piper’ . . . [who] came to play to our children and steal their hearts. He played the flute very well, because he has specialists who tell him how to play it.”

But Rene González also made an unusual call for the consideration of political reform in Cuba by saying the Party had focused excessively on the economy for 10 years. “Let the party [now] call for a broad public discussion that goes beyond concepts of economic development. Let’s arrive at the eighth party congress [in 2021] for the first time in human history with a consensus on that human aspiration that some call democracy, and that’s possible through socialism.”

Another member of the Cuban Five who was released from U.S. prison on December 17, 2014, Antonio Guerrero, dedicated a few verses from Cuban poet Cintio Vitier to Obama and his policy of rapprochement: “Don’t attempt with your delicacy to have me betray myself. Do not pretend you are going to believe in my situation.” According to a report in Juventud Rebelde, Guerrero turned to poetry, “as a resonant symbolic exercise against those who approach us today with fake softness.”

Adoption of the Central Committee Report

As reported in an earlier post, on April 16 Raúl Castro as the First Secretary of the Communist Party of Cuba, spent two hours reading the report of the Party’s Central Committee.

Miguel Diaz-Canel
Miguel Diaz-Canel

Two days later Miguel Diaz-Canel had the important, but boring, job of making a resolution for the Congress’ adoption of that report, which meant that he had to re-read that report. This included the report’s criticism of the Cuban governmental bureaucracy as having obsolete ways of thinking led both to inertia in enacting reforms and “a lack of confidence in the future. Along with other deficiencies, there’s a lack of readiness, high standards and control, and little foresight or initiative from sectors and bureaucrats in charge of making these goals a reality.”

That resolution was adopted unanimously by the 1,000 delegates to the Congress.

Election of Party Officials

Castro y Machado Vedntura
Castro y Machado Vedntura

Raúl Castro was re-elected as the Party’s First Secretary as was 85-year-old Machado Ventura as Second Secretary, who is known as the enforcer of Communist orthodoxy and an opponent of some of the biggest recent economic reforms. Raúl added that the “inexorable law of life” means that the Seventh Congress will be the last headed by the historical generation.

There had been speculation that Miguel Diaz-Canel might have replaced Machado Ventura as a clear sign that Diaz-Canel was the successor to Raúl as President. But Diaz-Canel was re-elected to the Political Bureau of the Party.

Raúl addressed the composition of the Party’s Political Bureau, noting that its 17 members include a four women, five Black or mixed-race members, two heads of mass organizations, five Council of State vice presidents, three Council of Ministers vice presidents, and four generals, including the First Secretary. Five new members were elected to this body.

The Central Committee was composed of 142 members, of which more than two-thirds were born after the triumph of the Revolution and the average age was 54.5 years, lower than in 2011. More than 98% of Central Committee members have university-level education, the representation of women has grown and now reaches 44 or 37% and blacks and mestizos with 35 or 92%

Fidel Castro’s Valedictory Remarks

Fidel Castro
Fidel Castro

I’ll be 90 years old soon [in August],” Castro said in his most extensive public appearance in years. “Soon I’ll be like all the others. The time will come for all of us, but the ideas of the Cuban Communists will remain as proof on this planet that if they are worked at with fervor and dignity, they can produce the material and cultural goods that human beings need, and we need to fight without a truce to obtain them.”

“This may be one of the last times I speak in this room,” Fidel Castro said. “We must tell our brothers in Latin America and the world that the Cuban people will be victorious.”

Raúl Castro’s Closing Speech

In a reprise of his two-hour speech on Saturday, Raúl Castro said the development of the national economy, with the struggle for peace and ideological firmness, was the main task of the Party. “This will be a revolution of the humble, by the humble and for the humble, as defined by comrade Fidel.”

Conclusion

I agree with other U.S. commentators that the harsh language against Obama at the Party’s Congress is a sign that the Cuban people had and still have a very positive opinion of President Obama, his speech to the Cuban people and his meeting with Cuban entrepreneurs. As Richard Feinberg, a former national security adviser to U.S. President Bill Clinton, put it, “The harsh rhetorical push-back by the ideological wing of the Communist Party suggests their heightened sense of vulnerability.”

“Clearly the Cubans are on the defensive after President Obama’s trip,” said Ted Piccone, a Cuba analyst at the Brookings Institution in Washington. Ted Henken, a Cuba analyst at Baruch College in New York, said Mr. Obama’s visit “was very effective in rattling” the regime. “Instead of taking Obama’s visit as a chance to open up and speed up the transition to a younger generation, they have circled the wagons.”

Carlos Alberto Pérez, who writes under the name La Chiringa de Cuba, said that he was not surprised by the party’s decision to keep President Castro and Mr. Machado in place. “The transition is planned for 2018 when Raúl steps down. Anyone who thought there would be a change now was dreaming.”

“Party leaders are trying to set up continuity in the context of reform — but it will be the type of reform managed by conservative politicians,” said Arturo Lopez-Levy, a lecturer at the University of Texas, Rio Grande Valley, and a former Cuban intelligence analyst. He added, “Generations do matter. Their formative experiences are different. The younger leaders will take up their posts at a time when the party is becoming more nationalist and less Communist. Younger militants also are less adverse to market mechanisms in the economy than their elders.”

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[1] Reuters, Cuba Calls Obama Visit ‘an Attack’ as Communists Defend Ideology, N.Y. Times (April 18, 2016); Assoc. Press, Cuban Leaders Criticize Both Bureaucracy and Private Sector, N. Y. Times (April 18, 2016); Assoc. Press, Cuba congress says state’s obsolete mentality is holding back economy, Guardian (April 18, 2016); Loforte, There is, and will be, a single Party, Granma (April 18, 2016); Torres, Riled Cuban Communists deploy colorful arsenal against Obama, InCubaToday (April 18, 2016); Whitefield, Cuba’s Communist Party Congress wants change, but also more of the same, Miami Herald (April 18, 2016); Raul Castro: The development of the national economy, with the struggle for peace and ideological firmness, main tasks of the Party, Granma (April 19, 2016); Assoc. Press, Fidel Castro gives Rare Speech Saying He Will Die Soon, N.Y. Times (April 19, 2016); Reuters, Cuba’s Castro Keeps Top Job but Leadership Changes to Come, N.Y. Times (April 19, 2016); Torres, Fidel Castro bids final farewell to his Communist Party comrades, Miami Herald (April 19, 2016);Whitefield, Raúl Castro and hardline deputy remain at helm of Cuba’s Communist Party, Miami Herald (April 19, 2016); Burnett, In Farewell, Fidel Castro Urges Party to Fulfill His Vision, N.Y. Times (April 19, 2016); Morales, Raúl reelected as First Party Secretary, Granma (April 19, 2016); Assoc. Press. Cuba’s Aging Leaders to Remain In Power Years Longer, N.Y. Times (April 20, 2016); Córdoba, Raúl Castro Re-Elected to Top Post in Cuba’s Communist Party, W.S.J, (April 20, 2016).

 

Cuban Communist Party Holding Its Seventh Congress

CongressOn April 16-19 the Communist Party of Cuba will hold its Seventh Congress to set the country’s economic path through 2030.[1]

Granma, the Party’s official newspaper, reported that he Congress will work in four commissions or committees on the following topics: (1) “the conceptualization of Cuba’s socio-economic model;” (2) “the development plan . . . for the nation’s vision, priorities and strategic sectors” through 2030; (3) “the implementation of the Guidelines approved by the 6th Congress [in 2011] and their updating for the next five years;” and (4) analysis of “progress made toward meeting the objectives agreed upon by the First Party Conference [in 1975].”

The Guidelines approved at the last Congress included legalizing home and car sales, encouraging the development of mid-size cooperatives with dozens of employees and eliminating exit permits for Cubans to travel outside the country.

There will be 1,000 delegates, including “Party cadres, deputies to the National Assembly, representatives from Central State Administration bodies, our civil society, combatants, researchers from scientific centers, university professors, intellectuals, and press editors.” Women constitute 43% of the delegates, while 36% are Black or of mixed race. In addition, there will be 280 invitees, including 14 “members of Party units in our international solidarity missions, from five countries: Venezuela, Brazil, Haiti, Bolivia and Ecuador.”

In anticipation of the Congress, some “party members [have been] complaining about a lack of the advance debate on economic and social reforms seen in the past.” In response, Granma published a lengthy article admitting it had received “expressions of concern from Party members (and non-members, as well) inquiring about the reasons for which, on this occasion, plans were not made for a popular discussion process, similar to that held five years ago regarding the proposed Economic and Social Policy Guidelines of the Party and Revolution.”

Such expressions of concern said Granma, were seen as “a demonstration of the democracy and participation which are intrinsic characteristics of the socialism we are building.” Nevertheless, after reviewing the elaborate processes leading up to the decisions of the prior Congress and the difficulties in implementing all of its resolutions, Granma said that “rather than launching another process of discussion on a national level, half way along the road, what is more appropriate is finishing what has begun – continuing to carry out the people’s will expressed five years ago, and continuing to advance in the direction charted by the 6th Congress.”

This Granma article also stated that the forthcoming Congress would be evaluating six documents: (1) evaluation of the national economy’s performance during the five year period, 2011-2015; (2) progress in the implementation of guidelines [set in 2011]; (3) an updating of these guidelines for 2016-2021: (4) the conceptualization of Cuba’s socio-economic model of socialist development; (5) the Economic Development Program through 2030; and (6) the implementation status of the First National Conference’s objectives approved in January of 2012. As a result, according to Granma, the Seventh Congress “will give continuity to the previous Congress and the First National Party Conference [in 1975], and provide a much more precise definition of the path to be taken by our country – sovereign and truly independent since the triumph of the Revolution, January 1, 1959 – in order to build a prosperous and sustainable socialism.”

U.S. observers thought Party officials have been “particularly secretive” about this meeting and wondering whether the party signals it wants faster steps toward a more free-market system—such as allowing Cubans to operate more types of businesses—or if it keeps the current pace or even slows things down.” So far, however, “the only article in the official Granma newspaper to deal substantially with the congress made no mention of new initiatives” and instead said that “officials will review the implementation of economic guidelines adopted in 2011, only 21% have been put fully into practice.” [2]

Some believe President Obama’s March visit to the island “stirred great enthusiasm among ordinary people who do want change and are pushing for a better life, thereby putting pressure on Cuba’s leaders. Related to this thought is speculation that there might be a move to more selection of leaders by popular vote. Doing so for the National Assembly seems exceedingly unlikely, but such a move might come with direct election of mayors.

The Congress will be facing a vastly different economy than when it met in 2011. Now about a quarter of the labor force are working in a growing private sector, many in the booming tourist trade and are doing well financially The other 75% of the population who depend on state-sector jobs are struggling to survive on salaries that average about $25 a month, as consumer prices spike.

Many of those in the private sector now are limited to an odd list of 201 occupations that runs from cutting hair to acting as clowns in parties and want to see a greater liberalization that would permit professionals, such as lawyers, engineers and architects, to strike out on their own.

Other economic issues facing the Congress are (a) whether foreign joint ventures will have the freedom to hire Cuban workers directly, instead of having to go through state employment companies that keep most of their salaries; and (b) whether the government will create a legal framework for small and medium-size businesses to be able to export and buy supplies from a now largely nonexistent wholesale sector.

Observers also are watching to see if Miguel Diaz Canel, who was named first vice president of Cuba’s Council of State three years ago, and is widely regarded as Raúl Castro’s successor, will be promoted to second secretary of the Communist Party, succeeding the 85-year-old hard-liner José Ramón Machado Ventura.

A New York Times’ editorial complained that any economic reforms to come out of the Congress “remain a mystery to all but a few senior leaders of the party. While the policy review that preceded the last party conference, in 2011, included broad debate by rank-and-file party members, this time top officials have not shared information with them or solicited their views.” [3]

This “surreptitious approach,” says the Times, “s shortsighted at a time of change and rising discontent. Ordinary Cubans, including those who are critical of the Communist Party, should have a say in how the country will be run and by whom, without fear of reprisal and persecution.” Moreover, “If reforms continue at a glacial pace, young Cubans will keep fleeing the island in droves, fueling a exodus that has become a referendum of sorts.”

Now we wait to see what happens.

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[1] Morales, Looking toward 7th Party Congress, Granma (Feb. 29, 2016); Party congress less than a month away, Granma (Mar. 28, 2016);Eight questions about the Party Congress, Granma (April 14, 2016); 7th Party Congress begins, Granma (April 16, 2016). Here is more general U.S. information about the Communist Party of Cuba and its Sixth Congress.

[2] Assoc. Press, Cuba’s Future Economic Model in Spotlight at Party Congress, N.Y. Times (April 8, 2016); Padgett, Party Time In Cuba—With Marx, Not Mojitos. Here is What the Congress Might Do,,WRLN (April 12, 2016); Córdoba, Post-Obama Visit, Cuba’s Communist Party to Signal Next Steps, W.S.J. (April 15, 2016); Whitefield, Cuba’s Communist Party meets at critical time for country, Miami Herald (April 15, 2016); Assoc. Press, In Slow Dance With Capitalism, Cuba’s Communists Turn to Future, N.Y. Times (April 16, 2016).

 

 

 

 

 

[3] Editorial, Cuba’s Path to the Future Is Shrouded in Secrecy, N.Y. Times (April 15, 2016) http://www.nytimes.com/2016/04/16/opinion/cubas-path-to-the-future-is-shrouded-in-secrecy.html?ref=opinion

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).