Ivan Garcia, 23 April 2018 — Lacking the solemnity of a conclave in the Vatican to elect a pope or the white smoke announcing the new Holy Father, on Thursday, April 19, at the Convention Center, west of Havana, the new Council of State and its president were announced, those who will rule the destinies of Cuba in the next five years.
There were no surprises. The script was already written. Raul Castro awarded the position of president of the Councils of State and of Ministers to Miguel Díaz-Canel, an electronics engineer born on April 20, 1960 in the village of Falcón, a rural municipality in Placetas, Villa Clara province, about 200 miles from the Cuban capital.
Now we’re in a wait-and-see time before the performance of Diaz-Canel. In the history of the Castro dictatorship, camouflaged as a country in a perennial revolution, there were two presidents*: Manuel Urrutia and Osvaldo Dorticós, managed at will by Fidel Castro.
The novelty in this comedy is that there will be a kind of cohabitation. A president of the nation next to the first secretary of the Communist Party.
Who will have greater power? According to the quirky Cuban Constitution, which was reinforced in the summer of 2002 by Castro I with a perpetual Marxist socialism, the lead role is held by the Party.
The brothers from Birán, by-the-book autocrats, performed both functions when they governed. But now Diaz-Canel has his hands tied. A kind of Big Brother will supervise him from the headquarters of the Central Committee.
In practice, what has happened is a distribution of powers. An elderly lover of vodka with orange juice like Raul Castro, simply got bored with controlling internal finances, self-employment and the unsettling double currency system with its seven types of exchange rates that distort the national economy.
That disastrous puzzle is now in the hands of Diaz-Canel. To move the economy forward in Taliban mode, there will need to be a magician or a suicide. If the changes upset the most conservative sector of the party, they will pass the bill to Diaz-Canel. He is a disposable politician. He is not untouchable.
But if within five or ten years the economic and social situation of Cuba continues along the same paths or gets even worse, there will be a shot at the target, a culprit, who can pay for the broken dishes.
With the presidential relay, Raul Castro, eternal conspirator, ran out of revolutionary gods. Diaz-Canel and the majority of the current Council of State, with the exceptions of Ramiro Valdés, Leopoldo Cintra Frías and Guillermo García, are dispensable.
Diaz-Canel appears to be faced with mission impossible, as long as the current economic model is maintained. After nine o’clock in the morning, when he strode into the session at the convention center, along with his political manager Raul Castro, dressed in black suits and red ties, the new president looked like a deer in the headlights.
The ratification of the positions, selected by a mysterious commission, was a piece of cake in a nation like Cuba, where the parliament votes unanimously, or almost, on any election or bill put before it.
Diaz-Canel’s first speech was lousy. Quotes from Fidel Castro and singer-songwriter Silvio Rodríguez. Monotonous pronunciation, a bland tone, no enthusiasm. Fortunately, he does not have the diction problems of the primitive Esteban Lazo, president of the National Assembly, nor make mistakes when reading.
Miguel Diaz-Canel left many Cubans open-mouthed, like the child who was promised an ice cream and then deceived by being given a purgative. To Elier, a taxi driver, the very first words disappointed him. “He said he did not come to promise anything and that he was going to continue to work along the same lines. Wow, everything stays the same. I expected him to make important announcements or at least to talk about what will happen with the self-employment licenses that have been suspended. But nothing, the guy did not talk about that, as if the fact that the economy is a disaster was not important. The kitchen robot should be an actor in a telenovela, not the president of a country that is bankrupt.”
A brigade of bricklayers who are repairing an apartment in Havana’s La Víbora neighborhood listened to the new president’s speech on the radio. “Something else was expected. From what I heard, the man has nothing on the ball. His first speech was pure drool to Fidel and his compadre Raúl, whom he has to thank him for giving him the job without even holding a raffle,” says Manuel, bricklayer.
On a tour of Diez de Octubre, Havana’s most populated municipality, looking for the impressions of ordinary people, a butcher, who was cutting chunks of frozen chicken with an ax and putting them in a refrigerator confesses that he did not have time to see the speech. “What did he say?” He asks. And upon learning that he did not say anything new, he replies: “I imagined it. This isn’t any kind of arrangement. The guy had a reputation in Villa Clara for being a good and liberal person, but then he climbed the ladder and now he doesn’t laugh. One more opportunist who coasts. Who takes advantage, because the opportunities are all bad.”
Carlos, a sociologist, is not surprised by the appointment of Díaz-Canel or his dull inaugural speech. “You can’t get blood from a stone. The self-centeredness of Fidel Castro clipped the wings of Cuba’s political class. Diaz-Canel is not creative and is more accustomed to listening and following directions from ‘above’ than having any autonomy of his own. I would be surprised if he was different, he’s Raul Castro’s private satellite. He’s in his pocket. He will not do what he wants. If he departs from the script, he will find himself in Combinado del Este (prison).”
Everyone interviewed believes Diaz-Canel is a puppet. To Douglas, a seller of online navigation cards, “the guy doesn’t rule on his own, he receives orders from the Padrino. These people (the regime) are like the mafia.”
Luisa, a clerk in a cafe that charges in hard currency, believes that “you have to give him the benefit of the doubt. Maybe the man does things right. What we can say is that we have the best-looking president in all of America.”
Idania, a priestess in the Santaria religion, recalls that one afternoon in 2013, “at the headquarters of the Yoruba Association, Diaz-Canel did a few dance steps from our religion. The man could be stuck in the past or take the country forward. Of course, he will have to change many things and fight with an army of prejudiced bureaucrats.”
Elvira, a teacher, was the only one consulted who mentioned the word democracy. “As long as Diaz-Canel is in the government or Raúl Castro is in the party, they will not implement an openly democratic system. a real one, not a fake one, Cuba will be bogged down in the same swamp. The Cuban problem is economic, but also political.”
The new president is facing difficult times. An economy adrift, an aging population, low productivity, widespread apathy among citizens, especially the youngest, and aspirations to emigrate from an important sector of society.
The demands are multiple. From lowering the prices of food and items sold in stores that deal only in hard currency, raising wages to cover current inflation, improving public transport, expanding private work and small business, stop extorting Cubans living abroad with exorbitant passport fees and allow them to participate actively in national political and economic life.
In baseball terms, Miguel Mario Díaz-Canel Bermúdez, comes on as a relief pitcher with the bases full, no one out, and the best batter in the league at the plate. He does not have easy.
On April 20, the day of his 58th birthday, in his bedroom, next to his wife Lis Cuesta Peraza, the first lady, he will be able to analyze coldly the dimension of the assignment that Raul Castro has left him.
Any mistake can bury the fragile system that his predecessors insist on calling Revolution. There are some gifts that may be poisoned.
*Translator’s note: In the early years of the Castro dictatorship there was the position of “president” — currently the person formally designated as President of the Council of State fills that position.