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Cuba readies for life without Castro

For the first time in more than 60 years, Cuba is poised to have a government without a single Castro.

Raúl Castro, who succeeded his brother Fidel as the Communist Party of Cuba’s first secretary in 2011, is expected to step down from his post as the country begins its eighth Communist Party Congress on Friday.

“We all expect the old generation to step down from all of its functions within the party, including Raúl as first secretary,” said Ricardo Torres Pérez, a professor of economics at University of Havana.

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"That in itself is important. It marks the end of an era."

But while an end to the Castro reign is historic, few are convinced the leadership shift will lead to sweeping change for the island nation or its relationship with the U.S.

Castro is expected to leave party leadership in the hands of President Miguel Díaz-Canel, while the rest of the politburo will be filled not with the youngest generation most eager for change, but middle-aged party leaders born in the wake of the revolution.

“This isn’t a dynastic transition — the new leadership, though shaped by the Castro brothers and their legacy, are the next generation of the Cuban Communist Party, not the next generation of the Castro family,” said Geoff Thale, president of the Washington Office on Latin America.

“The generational change is pretty smooth; there aren’t going to be major disagreements or political conflicts at the convention.”

The shift in leadership comes as Cuba has struggled to implement many of the economic reforms agreed to in the 2011 party congress. The COVID-19 pandemic in the last year has also crushed an economy heavily reliant on tourism.

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Fulton Armstrong, a former director of Inter-American Affairs at the National Security Council who worked on Cuba issues in the State Department, White House and Senate, said the ability of Díaz-Canel to push for more reforms will depend on whether other old guard party members also step down.

He pointed to José Ramón Machado Ventura and Ramiro Valdés Menéndez, both now in their 80s, who have held a number of posts in the Communist Party leadership.

“The question is not whether the politburo is going to be Castro-less,” Armstrong said. “The question is whether they retire from the politburo as well. Those guys are known as hard-liners but they're also just hard-asses.” 

The government is moving ahead with the most drastic economic reforms since the early 1990s, when Cuba dropped into a severe recession after the fall of the Soviet Union.

The reforms, which include establishing a single currency for locals and foreigners alike, were deemed necessary for economic growth by the relatively young 60-year-old Díaz-Canel.

“Anything that stimulates production, eliminates obstacles and benefits the producer is favorable,” Díaz-Canel said recently about the reforms’ effects on agriculture, according to Reuters.

But that relatively liberal position could meet resistance if the old guard cements its power at the congress.

“If they do stay, I would say that is bad news for Díaz-Canel,” said Torres Pérez. “Because he will still have to sell his proposals to people like them who are not in favor of radical reforms.”

The tension, said Armstrong, is that Díaz-Canel’s generation understands the party is seeing a decreasing number of people seeking to join its ranks.

“The number of people that come in as aspirantes who are set to become militantes is down. The younger ones want to be part of something exciting versus exact sphincter-like control of over peoples’ lives,” he said.

“The generation of Díaz-Canel, the generation that are 60 years old, the ‘young-ins,’ they know that. They know they have to improve that vision to capture your 30-somethings and 40-somethings and really get them to move forward.”

Any slow reform in Cuba is likely to be matched by a Biden administration uneager to wade into a change on Cuba-U.S. relations.

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Biden lost Florida handily to President TrumpDonald TrumpVeteran accused in alleged border wall scheme faces new charges Arizona Republicans to brush off DOJ concern about election audit FEC drops investigation into Trump hush money payments MORE in the 2020 election, and Florida has been a loser for Biden’s party in statewide elections in recent years.

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That’s after the Obama-Biden ticket won Florida in both 2008 and 2012.

Obama’s rapprochement to Cuba was designed in part to win over the younger generation of Cuban voters in South Florida. And it did show some signs of success in 2018, when the party flipped two competitive seats in South Florida.

But Trump's strong stance on Cuba — a repudiation of Obama's openness to the island's communist government — contributed to Republicans' 2020 comeback in Florida, as Trump beat Biden by more than 3 percentage points and the GOP recovered the two House seats.

The political calculus, combined with virtually no democratization post-rapprochement on the island, have left the Biden administration with very little appetite to rehash Obama's reforms.

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Díaz-Canel's own political considerations limit his scope of action, even as he has shown a penchant for continuity in his time sharing power with Castro.

“Realistically the change will continue to be evolutionary. There will be change that over time will be significant, but it won't be dramatic and for the American right wing it won't be gratifying,” Armstrong said.

“But many people believe that what Cuba needs is gradual change, not implosion or explosion,” he added.