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Cuba’s Puppet President

Closely overseen by Raúl Castro and the Communist Party, Díaz-Canel will govern, increasingly vulnerable to the Venezuelan economic crisis and US policy.


On April 19, 2018, an obscure 58-year-old bureaucrat, Miguel Díaz-Canel, was appointed by General Raúl Castro as President of the Council of State and of Ministers of the Republic of Cuba. In his inaugural speech before the National Assembly of Popular Power, the fledgling president hastened to make very clear his intention to ensure the continuity of the single-party regime and the state-based economy in force on the island for six decades, and emphasized that Castro, 86, would continue to run the country as General Secretary of the Communist Party (PCC), a position he will not abandon until 2021.

"I assume the responsibility for which I have been elected," said Díaz-Canel, "with the conviction that all Cubans will be faithful to the legacy of our Commander-in-Chief, Fidel Castro Ruz, the historic leader of the Cuban Revolution, and the example of the General of the Army, Raúl Castro Ruz, current leader of the revolutionary process." As a subtle hint to dispel any hopes for tolerance or political pluralism that anyone might harbor, he added: "For us is it quite clear that only the Communist Party of Cuba guarantees the unity of the nation and its people." Finally, he reiterated what was already obvious, and something all the attendees expected to hear: "I affirm before this Assembly that the Army’s General [Raúl Castro] will continue to make the most important decisions for the present and future of the nation." With these guarantees, Díaz-Canel confirmed his status a mere marionette in the Castroist show, which will continue to be directed by Raúl.

This triple profession of faith – the ideas of the late Commander-in-Chief, leadership "from behind the scenes," by his younger brother, and the hegemonic role of the Communist Party – put an end, for the time being, to any speculation about the future autonomy of the new president. Díaz-Canel did not assume the country's (nominal) leadership with the intention of actually leading, or deciding anything vital, as would correspond to the position he holds, but rather for the task of executing the orders issued by the First Secretary of the PCC, an entity which Article 5 of the Cuban Constitution exclusively calls "the supreme leading force of society and of the State, who organizes and guides common efforts towards the lofty ends of the development of socialism, and progress towards a Communist society."

The hollow rhetoric that remains incrusted in the Cuban constitution gave the ceremony an even more surreal tone. For many years now, the government in Havana has abandoned the development of socialism and the march toward Communist society, and replaced those tasks with an economic restructuring based on international market standards, under the control of former generals and officials converted into business leaders. Apparently, in the Constitution that the government is currently drawing up, these changes will actually be recognized, and others will be accepted in the economic sphere. But the intention, at least for now, is not to make any changes to the political system, in order to maintain, sine die, the PCC's monopoly. Díaz-Canel himself explained it a few days later, upon presenting the Commission responsible for drafting the document: "the statements in the new Constitution will take into account the principles of humanism and social justice that underlie our political system, considering as unshakable cornerstones the irrevocability of the socialist system, which our people sovereignly adopted; and ratify, more than ever, national unity and the role of the Communist Party of Cuba, as the organized champion and supreme leading force of society and the State."

But, just who is Miguel Díaz-Canel Bermúdez?

According to the information provided by the Cuban press, Díaz-Canel is an electronics engineer who, after a brief time teaching, devoted himself entirely to political work, first in the Union of Young Communists and then in the ranks of the PCC. The new president was First Vice-president (2013-2018) and Minister of Higher Education (2009-2012). He had previously held the position of First Secretary of the PCC in the provinces of Holguín (2003-2009) and Villa Clara (1994-2003). The holder, at 22 years of age (1982), of a diploma of dubious academic value, awarded by an undistinguished university, suffering from weak intellectual training, evident in the speeches he gives, and lacking experience in the exercise of his profession, Díaz Canel is the classic apparatchik of what could be called the civil side of the regime – if the distinction between the civil and military had any meaning within Cuban socialism. 

In the months leading up to his appointment, the government's propagandistic media published some stories and interviews in which the presumed candidate appeared as a competent official "close to the people", a young bureaucrat who rode his bicycle through the city of Santa Clara during the Special Period, responded to complaints voiced by his fellow residents, and used to listen to foreign music, activities that, without a doubt, were quite unusual for one with a high position in the PCC. In addition, in an unprecedented act of iconoclasm, he even dared to appear in public accompanied by his wife. 

But that image of a liberal and audacious renovator clashes with the statements that the man in question has made recently, sticking to the most rigid Leninist orthodoxy. In 2017, when he was already the first Vice-president of the Government, and began to emerge as the future president, Díaz-Canel achieved a certain notoriety for a video leaked from Cuba in which he condemned dissidents, called for the closure of blogs and other independent media sources, and described the European embassies as outposts of counterrevolutionary subversion.

The key to the rise of this 58-year-old "youth" on the octogenarian team that still holds power in Cuba was clarified by Raúl Castro himself during the investiture ceremony. "Comrade Díaz-Canel does not improvise," said the General. "Over the years, he has demonstrated his capacity for work, ideological solidity, and commitment to the Revolution. His growth has not been the result of haste. His case has not been like others, where we made the mistake of accelerating the process." 

Those "others" were young leaders who in recent decades received promotions within the government apparatus, but who showed too much impatience or independence, and ended up being dismissed by Fidel, or by Raúl Castro himself, with his brother's consent. The most notorious cases were those of Carlos Lage, Roberto Robaina and Felipe Pérez Roque. The last two, foreign ministers and senior officials of the PCC, were dismissed in 1999 and 2009, respectively. In this last year Dr. Lage also fell, formerly the Vice-president of the Council of State and a prime candidate for the presidential succession. As Fidel Castro explained in a press article, "the honey of power, for which they made no sacrifice whatsoever, aroused in them ambitions that led them to play shameful roles. The external enemy was given hope by them." The real reasons for the dismissal seem to have been their criticism and ridicule of the "historical leadership" in private conversations that the political police managed to record and transmit to the highest levels.

As Raúl Castro pointed out, Díaz-Canel is practically the only survivor of the dozen young talents that the Cuban leadership had groomed for the generational changeover. This indicates that the new president is endowed with the necessary traits to gain the confidence of his bosses: he has displayed unwavering obedience, dutifully parrots the slogans and clichés of the Castroist vulgate, and does not exhibit the slightest independence of judgment, which might endanger their political perspectives. And, above all, he has managed to stay away from "the honeys of power," whose usurpation so irritates the Castro family, which considers itself the only legitimate apiculturist on the island.

Socialism with an expiration date

Díaz-Canel's career at the pinnacle of political power in Cuba could culminate in 2021 when Raúl Castro finally retires - at age 90 - and steps down as First Secretary of the PCC, and de facto head of the Armed Forces (although, according to the current Constitution, that function lies with the President of the Council of State). At the end of the new president's inauguration session, Castro stated that everything was all ready so that "when I am gone, [Díaz Canel] can also assume this status as First Secretary of the Party."

In the event the subordinate character of the current appointment was not clear, Castro not only announced Díaz Canel's future designation as leader of the Party, but also how he is to carry out his assignment during the next 10 years, and how he is to abandon power. "His two terms must be completed," Castro said, "of five years each [...], when he finishes his two terms, if he works well and if they [the PCC and Government bodies] approve, he is to be maintained, and stay the three years until the next PCC congress, to render it [the succession] viable." Thus, in the next three years Díaz-Canel will exercise his ancillary function under the strict surveillance of the PCC, and it is unlikely that, in the hypothetical case that he had any liberal ideas about the future of the country, he could realize any of them.

Castro's disjointed address and the painful spectacle of his protegé's investiture, the unanimous vote of a domesticated Parliament that only meets four days a year, and approves by a show of hands everything that is laid before it, confirmed a well-known reflection by Guy Sorman appearing in the book Exit of Socialism: "When the boss is no longer charismatic, socialist regimes roll out just any deputy, as was often the case in Central Europe. And when there is no boss at all, the socialist system falls apart. Without the leader's cult of personality, socialism has a limited shelf life. This is another paradox of that system, supposedly based on the masses, and ideas."

Raúl Castro, an architect of this whole scam, intends to leave all the looses end tied up by concentrating power in the hands of a single person, not just with a view to 2021, but 10 years after then. In view of the current circumstances, this aim seems a bit ambitious. Thomas Paine warned, during a famous polemic about the French Revolution: "Vanity and the aspiration to govern from beyond the grave is the most ridiculous and insolent of all tyrannies."

The vicissitudes of the post-Communist era have rendered Cuba a country increasingly vulnerable to the upheavals of the Venezuelan economy and to the whims of US foreign policy. The evolution in trends that define the Cuban reality in the economic and social spheres will, in turn, be shaped mainly by the strength of Nicolás Maduro's government, and the US's Caribbean strategy. The permanence (or interruption) of the oil subsidies and the other businesses established with the chavista regime will be decisive for the economy of the island, as will the measures that Washington may adopt in terms of visas and remittances, which will also impact the demographic and migratory crises.

In the absence of a rapid and vigorous reconstruction of civil society, which allows the population to influence the country's destiny – a prospect that does not seem likely in the short term – the changes that may occur in Cuba by 2021 will depend more on external pressures than the desire to modernize Castroism. What happens after that could well mirror the pattern of third-world socialism, which aged very badly in places like Ethiopia, Grenada, Zimbabwe and Nicaragua.


This article is a fragment of an essay entitled "Après les Castro: La Liberté?" which the French magazine Politique Internationale will publish in a special issue dedicated to its 40th anniversary.

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