Cuba's next president faces choice between economy and communism

Cuba's next president faces choice between economy and communism
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On April 19, Cuba’s National Assembly will meet to elect Cuba’s next president. There will only be one name on the ballot for the legislators to consider and the vote will be unanimous. First Vice President Miguel Diaz-Canel will become president and Raul Castro, at 86 years old, will formally retire from government. Raul personally selected Diaz-Canel five years ago as his first vice president and has groomed him as his successor.

While Raul will retire from his head of state position, he will continue as first secretary of the Communist Party of Cuba, where he is likely to exercise a chairman of the board role rather than chief executive officer. At 57 years old, Diaz-Canel was born after the 1959 Cuban Revolution. He is a civilian who held increasingly important Communist Party positions and has a reputation as a low-key and efficient administrator.

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Diaz-Canel will face serious challenges from the moment he takes over. Cuba’s Soviet-style economic model is not working. Raul has acknowledged as much and in 2011 began to implement economic reforms that allowed many Cubans to become self-employed and buy and sell residences. These changes have allowed some Cubans to achieve relative prosperity, while the majority is stuck in low-paying jobs.

Although the self-employed and small entrepreneurs have little interest in politics, they became advocates of additional economic structural reforms that would facilitate their business activity. Their success caused a reaction from inside the Communist Party that saw the rise of these non-state workers as a threat to the system. Recognizing these concerns, Raul told the National Assembly last summer that he took personal responsibility for “errors” and froze the concession of most new business and self-employment licenses.

Diaz-Canel faces a dilemma. To pull Cuba from its economic morass, he must introduce urgent reforms to eliminate economic distortions such as the use of two national currencies and inefficient state industries. He must also attract private foreign investment to generate new exports and rebuild Cuba’s decaying infrastructure, and allow Cuba’s incipient private sector to grow.

Many in the Communist Party fear that if Diaz-Canel implements a comprehensive economic reform agenda he could become a Cuban Mikhail Gorbachev whose actions would destroy the party and the revolution. So far, the party has rejected the Chinese or Vietnamese models that allowed a market economy to develop while retaining strict political control. The party has rejected any system which would allow the creation of private wealth, which is the driving force of a market economy.

In his few public statements, Diaz-Canel has tried to assure the party of his orthodoxy and his willingness to defend Cuba against U.S. influence. He will not have much time to improve the current situation. He is not a military man and does not have lifelong allies in the security forces who are unconditional supporters, nor does he have the Castro name which automatically instills respect in some Cubans and fear in many.

Until recently, he was almost unknown to the Cuban people and has not established himself as a leader. It is uncertain how much longer Castro will live or remain healthy. Diaz-Canel cannot turn Cuba’s economy around and satisfy party conservatives. He will have to choose one or the other. He will not have much time.

John Caulfield is a former chief of mission of the U.S. Special Interests Section in Cuba and co-founder of the Innovadores Foundation.