Make no mistake, Raul Castro will orchestrate Cuba’s election results

Make no mistake, Raul Castro will orchestrate Cuba’s election results
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Cuba’s National Assembly will gather on April 19 to choose Cuba’s next leader, and for the first time in more than 60 years he or she is unlikely to bear the Castro name.

In 2013, Raul Castro announced that he would step down as president this year. At the age of 86, biology necessitates such a move — but this will not be a sign of transition, rather part of a well-orchestrated script authored by Raul Castro and those who surround him. It will be a continuation of the same one-party communist state that has ruled the island since his brother, Fidel Castro, first took the helm in 1959.


To be sure, the Cuban government will be pressed to unveil the succession as a “historic transition,” all part of the natural functioning of a healthy democracy — it will be anything but.


Raul Castro is expected to remain as first secretary of the Communist Party, which in practical terms dictates all key policy decisions. And as the only four-star general in the Cuban military, Raul Castro is also likely to continue to yield unparalleled influence over Cuba’s Revolutionary Armed Forces. Since the mid-1990s, the Cuban military has been charged with running Cuba’s economy and GAESA, a conglomerate of government-owned companies in Cuba’s primary economic sectors. By some accounts, GAESA is said to manage an estimated 40 to 60 percent of the island’s economy. 

So what does this election represent and what can we expect? Few understand Cuba’s intricate electoral system, which only recognizes Cuba’s Communist Party, the PCC, as legal and does not allow for direct presidential elections. Rather, Cubans vote in municipal elections whose winners are then eligible for consideration to fill the more than 600 seats on the National Assembly.

According to Freedom House, each seat on the National Assembly is then filled via a simple vote for or against a single unopposed Communist Party-approved candidate. Under Raul Castro’s direction, the National Assembly then convenes to designate Cuba’s next leader. That’s what will happen on April 19, and most analysts point to the likely ascendancy of Miguel Diaz-Canal.

Diaz-Canal is the 57-year-old current first vice president and former minister of Higher Education, trained as an engineer. He is believed to be loyal to the party and to the Castros and would be expected to execute policy on their behalf.

Others cite the possibility of Alejandro Castro-Espin, Raul Castro’s only son and now a colonel in Cuba’s Interior Ministry charged with overseeing intelligence services. He is also thought to be a hard-liner but, unlike Diaz-Canal, has had little public visibility and therefore seems a less likely choice at the moment. In the short-term, it’s even reasonable to believe there may be a desire to move away from the Castro name. 

This leadership change will take place amidst worsening U.S.-Cuba relations. Just last month, the United States made permanent embassy personnel reductions in Havana, initiated in response to the so-called sonic attacks of 2016 and 2017 that affected at least 24 American citizens working in Cuba.

As a result, the U.S. embassy was officially downgraded to an unaccompanied post, thus restricting its function to basic duties. While the Cuban government denies any wrong-doing and has not been found culpable, it is undoubtedly an unusual set of circumstances reminiscent of Russia’s Cold War–era microwave beam attacks on the U.S. embassy in Moscow.

Unfortunately, until the State Department can assure the safety and well-being of embassy staff and their families, the president has little choice but to maintain the current course.

This change is also happening at a time of significant economic uncertainty for the island. Support from Venezuela continues to dwindle, with trade down 70 percent since 2014. U.S. tourism is also in decline, due to tougher U.S. restrictions and State Department warnings. Cuba’s dual currency system, in place since the mid-1990s, is another complicating factor that will need to be addressed by Cuba’s new president.

On the domestic policy front, the Cuban government has initiated a “rectification process” on private enterprises that includes a revoking of licenses in some sectors. This policy change may be intended to remind Cubans that the government remains in charge. In any case, it is adding to an increasingly complex and challenging economic reality for Cubans eager for progress and is fueling rising discontent that could prove troublesome for Cuba’s next leader.

Cuba will surely hype the forthcoming shift in power, but the United States and the world should not be fooled. A new president in name will not translate into meaningful change for the island.

In the short term, in fact, we may even witness a tightening up as the government weathers the change. While the Politburo has been working hard to control all relevant variables, they are certain to remain vigilant until the coast seems clear. 

Cristina Lopez-Gottardi, PhD, is assistant professor and research director for Public and Policy Programs at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center.