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Who will succeed Raul Castro?

The celebration of the 7th PCC Congress, in April, could provide some clues.

Los Ángeles
Raúl Castro (left) and Miguel Díaz-Canel, in May of 2015.
Raúl Castro (left) and Miguel Díaz-Canel, in May of 2015. SUMARIUM.COM

General Raúl Castro has stated that he will retire when he finishes his second term as president of Cuba, in 2018, even indicating that he then plans to head to Mexico to summer there.

Of course, the bit about enjoying a nice overseas escape was a slip of the tongue, revealing that he has either already stolen a hefty sum of public funds, or that the State will be footing the bill for a vacation abroad for him, his family and bodyguards. As was the case with his nephew, Antonio Castro, on a large yacht in the Mediterranean. Because in Cuba a retiree, no matter how good his pension, cannot even take a vacation in the city where he lives.

Politicians, leaders and members of the media all over the world assume that in 2018 the Castros' time in power will come to an end. And many believe that this will mark the start of profound changes leading the towards democratization of the country’s political system.

That all sounds very nice, but they’re overlooking something. General Castro has not stated whether at the 7th Congress of the Communist Party (PCC), to be held next April, he will step down as the party's First Secretary, a position that gives him the "right" to continue for another five years, in accordance with the rules adopted at the organization's meeting in 2011.

That is, it is not clear whether his retirement in 2018 will be only as the Head of State and Government, and not as the head of the PCC. And this is pivotal, because Castro's status as a dictator does not stem from his role as president of the nation, but rather as the leader of the PCC, the highest level of political power under the Constitution, and as Commander-in-Chief of the army, navy and air force.

It is unlikely that the General will cede his pharaonic throne within three months. Especially with his brother still alive, who has demanded that he remain in the post as long as his health allows, so as to keep alive the legacy of Moncada and the Sierra Maestra, etc. And, if by some miracle he did step down, the position would be de jure and not de facto.

The dictator is obviously pondering two possibilities: 1) continuing as the head of the regime beyond 2018, or 2) continuing to head up the PCC for another two years and relinquishing the post when he gives up the presidency.

If he remains as the leader of the PCC "until death does them part," in 2018 Cuba's new president will be his puppet, like Osvaldo Dorticós was for Fidel Castro, who in February of 1959 annulled the Constitution of 1940 and made the President of the Republic a subordinate of the Prime Minister. 

And if Castro II abandons his leadership of the PCC in 2018, it will be to remain behind the scenes as the regime's political/military "guide," as did China's Deng Xiaoping, who, after "retiring," actually continued to run the country until his death at the age of 93.

The point is that, if he only leaves the presidency in 2018, and not his Party post, for the first time the First Secretary of the PCC would no longer be the commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces, as the socialist Constitution stipulates that it falls upon the President of the Council of State to "assume the Supreme Command of all armed institutions and determine their general organization." 

This would be unacceptable in a militarized regime that is increasingly so. Today four of the six vice presidents of the Council of Ministers are officers, as are 9 of the 14 members of the Political Bureau. Really in charge of Cuba is a 15-member Military Junta headed by a commander-in-chief who has always been the First Secretary of the PCC.

That is, it would be necessary to amend the Constitution to strip the Head of State of his status as supreme commander of the armed forces, or the fact that he is a puppet of the dictator would be all too obvious. The leader of the PCC will always be the head of the country's military. Period.

But if Raúl, who will be 87 in 2018, also decided to hand over leadership of the PCC, and for his replacement to also serve as the Head of State, the situation would be different: if the dictator were to become ill, or die, his successor would be called upon to guarantee the implementation of the neo-Castroist military model of State-backed capitalism that has been underway for years now.

Even with General Castro still alive there would exist the possibility that the new head, with all the branches of government under his command, would just ignore Raúl's guidance. Thus, the dictator's successor is bound to be chosen for his fierce loyalty.

It will not be Díaz-Canel

Who could that successor be? Nobody knows, but we can say that it will not be Miguel Díaz-Canel, as he does not form part of the political-military elite holding power. The current First Vice-president’s mission is marketing: selling the false idea that Cuba's ruling cadre is being overhauled. Díaz-Canel could only be President of Cuba if Raúl died, and only until 2018. 

The answer to the previous question will depend largely on who will be the new Deputy Secretary of the PCC, as we know that José R. Machado Ventura, about to turn 86, will not be ratified.  A strong candidate, even for the official "number one," if Raúl were not to continue as head of the PCC, is General Álvaro López Miera. At age 72 he is the youngest and the most capable of the "historic" generals, and the dictator has been protecting him like a child since, at the age of 14, he went up to the Sierra Cristal to fight against Batista's army. 

López Miera is the First Deputy Minister of the MINFAR, head of the General Staff, and the man who in practice really runs that Ministry, as its official head, General Leopoldo Cintra Frías, is short on talent, we might say, and was given the post to placate his protector Fidel Castro. In the Sierra Maestra "Polito" was always under Fidel's direct command.   

The most powerful generals are old commanders back from the Sierra Maestra days, who are now in their 80s or older. But there are other equally powerful young people, many with command over troops, and all of them members of the Party's Central Committee - almost all of whom distinguished themselves as invading officials in Africa - who qualify to succeed the dictator.

What about Alejandro Castro Espín?

Of course, there is also Colonel Alejandro Castro Espín, the youngest member of the Military Junta. But there are some things that would have to happen first.  At the next congress, in addition to being promoted to the Party's Central Committee, he would also have to be promoted to the Political Bureau. If this spectacular ascent were to occur, and if before or after the 7th Congress Alejandro were promoted to general, we would be looking at the new crown prince of the House of Castro in 2018.

However, such a meteoric rise could produce rifts in the regime's political and military apex. It seems unlikely that the seasoned general would agree to be under the command of an inept young person without military experience and with serious difficulties communicating and interacting with others, just because he's a daddy's boy.  We are, however, dealing with Castroism, so nothing can be ruled out.

In short, whatever decision the dictator and his Military Junta make at the 7th Congress, unfortunately it does not look like there will be many pleasant surprises on the Cuban political horizon, at least in the short term. Hopefully there will be, and Castroism does not manage to mutate into Neo-Castroism in 2018.

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