In 2013, Raul Castro announced that he would not seek a third term as president of Cuba. For the first time in nearly sixty years, Cuba would have a president who is not a part of the Castro family. On April 19 of this year, Cuba’s legislative body announced that it had chosen Miguel Díaz-Canel, the former First Vice President, as Cuba’s new president, marking the official end of the Castro era.
The mechanics behind Cuban elections
Every five years, Cuban citizens are asked to endorse candidates for the National Assembly of People’s Power, who then pick the next president. The lists of candidates are created by the National Candidature Commission, an amalgamation of governmental organizations including the Cuban Workers’ Federation, the Committee for the Defense of the Revolution, and the National Association of Small Farmers. The assembly members are elected for five-year terms, and their job is to create a Council of State, which is comprised of the president, first vice president, secretary, and twenty-three other executive members.
Voting for the assembly generally takes place in early March, although this year it was pushed back until April due to unforeseen challenges from Hurricane Irma. Candidates must obtain a simple majority to win. If a candidate does not get at least 50 percent of the vote, then the seat remains open until the council decides to hold a second election.
Cuba under the Castros
In 1953, Fidel Castro revolted against the regime of Sergeant Fulgencio Batista, which had been in power since the early 1930s. With the help of Ernesto (Che) Guevara, Castro waged a guerrilla war against the government in 1956. In 1959, Castro forced Batista to flee Havana and became the prime minister of Cuba.
After meeting with Vice President Nixon, Castro initiated a series of reforms, most notably the nationalization of US businesses. In response, the United States formally suspended diplomatic relations with Cuba and established a trade embargo. The following year, the CIA initiated the Bay of Pigs invasion, prompting Castro to declare Cuba a communist state and ally with the Soviet Union.
Following the Bay of Pigs, the CIA began planning Castro’s assassination. After suspecting a US invasion, however, Castro granted permission to the USSR to install nuclear missiles in Cuba, marking the beginning of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. Tensions remained high—with some fearing nuclear war—until the Soviet Union agreed to remove its missiles from Cuba in exchange for the withdrawal of US missiles in Turkey.
Over the next two decades, the United States tightened its embargo on Cuba as many attempted to escape and make the treacherous journey to the United States. Under the Bush administration, the US strengthened the clauses and enforcement of its embargo and created the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba, a campaign aimed to put an end to Cuban communism and aid the Cuban people with transitioning to democracy.
In 2006, Fidel Castro handed over the presidency to his brother Raul after undergoing a serious surgery. The United States attempted to capitalize on this power transfer by sending a bipartisan delegation to Havana, but the delegates were turned away.
After President Obama took office, restrictions began to lighten. However, it will be a long time until fully-functional diplomacy is attained, as neither Trump nor Castro has demonstrated any desire for further reconciliation.
Now, as Raul Castro steps down, there has been much speculation over Cuba’s new leader. Castro is not leaving the political scene—he will still serve as the head of the Communist Party—but for the first time the presidency will belong to someone outside of the infamous family, which opens up the possibility for change.
Who is Miguel Díaz-Canel?
Miguel Díaz-Canel is an enigma to most of the international community, as well as to a substantial number of Cubans. A socialist from the beginning of his political career, Díaz-Canel became First Secretary of the Union of Young Communists and was the party’s liaison to Nicaragua by the age of twenty-seven, in 1987. He then went on to serve as a bodyguard for Raul Castro, followed by three years in the Cuban army.
Díaz-Canel is expected to remain true to the values and politics of the revolution. While he is allowing US tourists and certain businesses into Cuba, Díaz-Canel has claimed that he will maintain his animosity with the United States. Through the few statements that have been published, he has demonstrated clear loyalty to the communist cause and to the old regime.
However, many have speculated that there is a chance that Díaz-Canel will be less of a hardliner with the United States. Those who know him personally consider him to be quiet and much less rigid than his predecessors, certainly appearing more open to change. Most importantly, he was born after Castro’s revolution and might not be as invested in pursuing all of its ideals.
The future of domestic policy and the likelihood of change
There are some signs that Díaz-Canel will be more moderate than his predecessors, despite his apparent dedication to preserving the Castro’s political agenda. First, he stood up for a gay club in Santa Clara that was under fire—a serious departure from the Castros’ intolerance and persecution of Cuban homosexuals. He also has pushed for internet access at the popular level, arguing that Cuba needs to modernize in order to stay up-to-date with the rest of the world. Though it is important to note that he has demonstrated a desire to censor subversive websites, his drive for modernization is somewhat promising.
More generally, Díaz-Canel will be tasked with reviving the Cuban economy and improving the daily life of Cubans. Because he is a few generations younger than the Castro brothers—he is only fifty-eight years old—Díaz-Canel is expected to compromise with regard to Cuba’s conservative stance on technology.
In addition, there has been pressure at the popular level for change. Many have pushed for internet access, and there has been an eruption of human rights protests since Obama visited in 2016. In addition, most Cubans support the normalization of relations with the United States. Given this pressure and the uncertainty surrounding the new president, there is a chance that Cuba might part from its traditional, unwavering politics.
The future of US-Cuban relations
This uncertainty about the future of Cuban policy under Díaz-Canel also extends to the future of US-Cuban relations. There are many reasons to believe that he will continue to act like his predecessors. His loyalty to the revolution and to the Castros point to his obedience of the status quo.
However, there are a number of challenges that could threaten Díaz-Canel’s ability to enforce his hardliner stance. First, Trump recently stated that he would be parting with Obama’s conciliatory attitude towards Cuba. He highlighted that the Castros have always held the United States in contempt and have executed violent and authoritarian policies. As a result, he has promised to tighten restrictions on Cuba and continue to push their administration to democratize.
This pressure put on Cuba could empower Díaz-Canel to champion even more uncompromising stances towards the United States. On the other hand, it could reduce Díaz-Canel’s ability to carry out the inflexible policies of his predecessors, both directly by limiting his economic power and indirectly through undermining his authority in the eyes of the Cuban people.
In addition, Trump’s decision to keep the Cuban embassy open, as well as exposure to modern technology in periods of openness during the Obama presidency, could foment an effective response at the popular level. Even a small amount of exposure to democratic elements such as free speech, political rights, and rotation in office to the Cuban people through diplomats, the media, or tourism could finally give popular protests enough momentum to overhaul the status quo.
Finally, Díaz-Canel does not have the weight of the Castro name. This raises the question of whether he will be perceived as weaker both domestically and internationally.
Of course, there are limitations. Miguel Díaz-Canel currently champions traditional, Castro-esque politics both domestically and internationally, and Raul Castro is not gone from the political stage. However, given the uncertainty over Cuba’s new president, there is a chance that pressure from within Cuba and from the Oval Office could result in a loosening of a nearly sixty-year-old era of hostility.The photo featured in this article was taken by the Government of El Salvador and is licensed under the Creative Commons. The original can be found here.
Noa Levin is a third-year Political Science major and Human Rights minor from New York. On campus, Noa works as a research assistant for Professor Paul Staniland and as Communications Director of the Maroon Project on Security and Threats (MPOST). She has previously served as a Policy Research Lead for Neal Salés-Griffin’s campaign for Mayor of Chicago, and this past summer, she interned at the U.S. Department of State. In her free time, Noa enjoys watching Seinfeld and bullet journaling.