Assessing the Current Dilemma in Cuba

Miguel Díaz-Canel’s presidency in Cuba is not so much a sign that the government recognizes the urgency of citizens’ demands for change in government, but that the state needs a new face to prepare for inevitable standoffs yet to come. 


May 14, 2018

Miguel Díaz-Canel, Cuba's new president, on April 19, 2018. (Flickr/Irene Pérez)

Almost exactly thirteen years ago, the first signs of what many island Cubans now refer to as “the eternal transition of power” were broadcast live on national TV. Just as he prepared to deliver a speech before a large, dutifully organized crowd of adoring citizens, Fidel Castro tripped while ascending a small flight of stairs to the stage. The incident not only demonstrated his increasing octogenerian fragility—Fidel had suffered multiple fractures to his leg and wrist—but it revealed a striking contrast between the way in which much of Cuban Miami viewed a foreseeable end to Fidel Castro’s rule and how many islanders felt.

While the Spanish-language media of South Florida celebrated the humiliation of Castro and touted “the biological solution” that Fidel’s death would bring Cuba, Cubans in Cuba joked that among right-wing exiles, plans must already be underway for a monument to the step responsible for Fidel’s accident. “Al final,” went the joke, “ese escalón ha logrado lo que ni el imperialismo yanqui ni los cubanos de Miami han podido lograr en casi 50 años de lucha: la caída de Fidel Castro." ("After all, that step achieved what neither Yankee imperialism nor the Miami Cubans have been able to achieve in nearly 50 years of constant war: the fall of Fidel Castro.")

This joke, and many others like it, represent a mode of civic resistance as well as a collective method for assessing and discussing the real versus imagined “state of The State.” Such expressions strategically evade the radar of the government’s elaborate efforts to surveil thought and maintain control over public discourse, thus ensuring Communist rule.  The joke also speaks to the suspicion with which islanders have often regarded the intentions of exile politicians and activists. Their near complete dominion over South Florida politics and resuscitation in new generations of politicians like 48-year-old Senator Marco Rubio often inspire comparisons to Cuba’s own homegrown rulers, including Raúl Castro’s personally chosen successor to the Presidency, 58-year-old Miguel Díaz-Canel. While Cubans on the island outnumber Cubans in the United States nearly ten to one, they are arguably less optimistic about the possibility of political change than they have been in years. Hardline exile politicians are partly to blame for this for the same reasons they were in the past: they mirror and therefore encourage the obduracy of Cuba’s political leaders.  

Holding hands with Trump, much as they once held hands with George W. Bush in the wake of the Clinton administration’s partial warming of relations, Miami exile politicians seek the known comforts of hostility with Cuba because they don’t want to risk the possibility of their own future irrelevance to the island. That irrelevance once appeared virtually guaranteed by the nature of Obama’s policy of opening and the possibility of its continued expansion under a Hillary Clinton presidency. The consequences of a permanent rapprochement would have proved detrimental to the system of Communist rule because its survival depends on the ability to exercise monopoly control over Cuba’s capitalist economy. Obama allowed a massive influx of “non-Cuban” American visitors to Cuba, an unrestricted flow of cash for personal use or direct investment from U.S. citizens to island Cubans, and the overt promotion of small-time entrepreneurs as the axis of island development. Consequently, these policies promised to rearrange power, credibility, and political thought in Cuba: change would rely on change itself to grow, in other words, not on the approval or authority of either the traditional exile establishment or the Cuban state. Yet such a future was not to be.

Instead, islanders face a Trumped up policy of gradual diplomatic reversal from the United States and a Communist state that appears to have morphed into an earlier ideological version of itself. This has happened precisely in the wake of Raúl’s long-awaited handing off of the presidency to Miguel Díaz-Canel. Although wishful thinkers frequently portray Díaz-Canel as an ideologically softer and potentially more liberal alternative, history shows him to be nothing of the sort. In a filmed private meeting with fellow Communist militants that was leaked to the press in August 2017, Díaz-Canel demonstrated his commitment to intransigencia, a longstanding fidelista term connoting uncompromising intolerance for any political opposition. He also overtly endorsed censorship—of the internet but also of blogs. He promised to block blogs automatically as a means for defending the state against the poison of pluralism and the toxin of debate. For Díaz-Canel, the internet is only the latest conduit of what Raúl Castro officially labeled “ideological diversionism” in 1968 and Cuban intelligence forces have persecuted as enemy propaganda ever since. And yet, citizens’ brisk, illegal commercial trade in entertainment (Telemundo telenovela series) and news (stories from Spain’s El País to columns in The New Yorker) sold and shared over personal flash drives (a practice known as el paquete) has top security forces befuddled. The state may surely rely on censorship but technology and the will to think for oneself will continue to stymie their efforts.

Indeed, Díaz-Canel’s targeting of mass access to the internet as a national security threat and clearly stated support for the distinctly hard line defining Raúl’s tenure might be the factor that best explains his ascent. In the first three decades of the Revolution when the solidity of the state’s consolidation always seemed at risk, Fidel’s domestic policies regularly shifted in tandem with his need to mollify discontent or coopt dissent. Yet Raúl’s approach to critique, let alone any sign that popular demands for change might engulf the state, never shifted: if Fidel strove to preach, convince, discredit or punish, Raúl strove to attack and repress. For Raúl, liberalism in any political guise and economic liberalization whose outcomes the Party cannot control have always proven deadly in political terms—especially when connected to political ambition and raw diplomatic talent. For this reason, Raúl Castro’s February 2013 designation of Miguel Díaz-Canel as successor to the Presidency of the Council of State matters, though even with Díaz-Canel as president Raúl maintains his own command of other key seats of power in the state. Rául remains in control of the Revolutionary Armed Forces and at the helm of the Communist Party. Díaz-Canel’s presidency is not so much a sign that the government recognizes the urgency of citizens’ demand for change in government. Rather, it is a sign that in facing that demand, the military apparatus of the state and those most willing to repress desires for change need a new face in order to prepare for inevitable standoffs yet to come. Díaz-Canel is that face; he is also the fall guy who will have to implement a series of extremely unpopular policies Raúl Castro and the Communist Party have been announcing as a matter of course since 2011.

The first of these policies is an end to the state-subsidized food rations on which Cubans have depended for most of their daily caloric intake since March 1962, what Raúl has called a “millionaire subsidy.” The second is an end to the dual currency system that allows the state to reap profits for its joint ventures with foreign companies and charge tourists in a currency called the CUC. It is pegged to the Euro, the U.S. dollar and other hard currencies while the country still pays its citizens (the vast majority of whom still work for the state) in island-only currency called the peso (CUP). Citizens have long complained that most of what they need is produced in state-owned facilities and sold in hard currency—money they literally don’t have because the state doesn’t pay them in hard currency.  However, despite the fact that the 25 pesos equal only 1 CUC, the existence of a peso-only sector has, in turn, cushioned state workers’ extremely low average salary of $20 to $25 U.S. dollars per month because some goods and services (like electricity, water and house payments to the state) were priced in the peso.  Still, because the overinflated exchange rate of CUC to U.S. dollars in the state-foreign investment sector acts as a disincentive for further foreign investment, the state might actually gain more by finally integrating its currency to world trade, eliminating the local dual system and bracing for a massive devaluation that will ultimately produce greater poverty among citizens but a boon for foreign investment. And finally, although the Party has been slow to implement its own goals, such as dismissing over half a million from the state sector since 2010 while advocating for twice that figure, it has long warned of the need to lay off hundreds of thousands of state workers, setting them adrift in a capitalist economy in which they face little chance of re-employment. Ironically, that is because Cuba’s thriving tourism sectors, free trade zones, and foreign investment platforms are controlled by one massive corporate monopoly called GAESA, owned by the Ministry of the Armed Forces and headed by generals like Raúl Castro himself, the CEO-in-Chief of a class of army officers who are also corporate executives.

Ironically, before 1992, when all industries and services were state-controlled, citizens enjoyed no political autonomy from the Communist state because their livelihood and well-being depended on their conformity to the political system that employed, fed, and clothed them. Today, when 80% of all industries and services lie in the hands of the same Communist state, it is hard to see how much has genuinely changed except that the state no longer wants to employ, feed, or clothe its citizens. Little wonder that Raúl tasks Díaz-Canel with ripping apart what remains of Cuba’s social safety net. The strategy allows Raúl to return to his previous role under Fidel as the military and intelligence enforcer. If protests arise, Raúl can repress them and replace Díaz-Canel as their instigator rather than blame the policies of the state or the Communist Party for creating a need for them.

Little wonder as well that Díaz-Canel has proven qualified for the job. Unlike notably brighter stars of Díaz-Canel’s own generation of younger Communist militants, Díaz-Canel has survived the multiple purges Fidel and Raúl carried out from 1989 till today. These purges occurred whenever their own continuity in power or that of their ideas appeared to flounder.

The list of Party luminaries whose shared fate of political oblivion Díaz-Canel managed to dodge is short but significant. The first to go was Roberto Robaina, fired in 1999 from his post as Foreign Minister and then expelled from the Party altogether in 2002 by Fidel Castro himself. The once-popular head of the Communist Youth during the tumultuous years of national disintegration that marked the collapse of the Soviet trading bloc, Robaina presided over Cuba’s structural entry into the brave new world of neoliberal capitalism. Paving the way for Cuba to negotiate increasing collaboration with foreign investors, Robaina convinced Western European, Canadian, and Mexican governments that Cuba’s adoption of a neoliberal-like development model led by the state was admittedly hypocritical but nonetheless permanent, despite Fidel Castro’s frequent outbursts of socialist nostalgia and episodic pronouncements to the contrary.  Ultimately, Robaina was not only fired and politically shunned in 2002 but charged with treason, corruption, and self-promotion as a potential successor to the Castro brothers’ rule. Resigned to a life of virtual house arrest and political obscurity, Robaina became a small-time, self-taught artist, ironically dependent on an entrepreneurial license that allows him to sell his work to collectors of Communist Cuba’s many curiosities.  

Díaz-Canel, who spent most of those years geographically tucked away in the forgotten political folds of the province of Villa Clara, is an exception to the rule that has haunted Robaina and other generational peers. In 2009, Raúl dispatched two of the most prominent of these after taking full control of the presidency from Fidel in 2008. Notably, Raúl led the attack on Fidel’s top civilian advisor, Carlos Lage. As Vice President of the Council of Ministers, Lage was a pediatrician turned economic advisor who shepherded Cuba through the worst years of its “Special Period,” a post-Soviet dark age of worthless currency, island-wide blackouts, empty gas pumps, and a population bordering on the brink of starvation. Miraculously, Lage had convinced Fidel to adopt state-directed capitalist reforms and renounce atheism in favor of exchanges with the outside world, including Communist Cuba’s long declared mortal and moral enemies—namely tourists, Cubans living abroad, and the papacy. Fidel and the state would reap the benefits of hard currency, religious charity, and renewed cachet for having defied U.S. imperial power and gotten away with it.

Like Robaina, Lage had saved Cuba from the abyss and Communist Party rule from annihilation; however, once his utility ended, Lage stood accused of the same abstract crimes of moral corruption Robaina faced and—in Fidel’s words—the seduction conferred by “the honey of power.” Because Lage subsequently signed a letter of resignation accepting the charges against him, the Party has recently allowed Lage to return to work as a pediatrician in a neighborhood clinic and reportedly plans to reward him for surrendering to the moral discipline of the state with possible political rehabilitation. By contrast, Robaina’s immediate successor, Foreign Minister Felipe Pérez Roque, was caught red-handed talking with his Spanish counterparts about his own possible bid to one day rule Cuba. Accused and sentenced for sedition (conspirando contra los poderes del estado) rather than “seduction,” Pérez Roque’s past confinement and current conditions remain unknown.

In short, such a capsule history of Cuba’s past and lost future conveys lessons that cannot be denied. Díaz-Canel is as expendable to the Communist Party as are citizens’ aspirations for freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, and the right to vote—for more than one party. Having survived extreme austerity under the combined weight of state Communism and the U.S. embargo until the 1990s, Cubans have lived in constant conditions of economic crisis while their Communist government survives by managing and publicly denying its own political panic. What Cubans have wanted for years is not the “eternal transition of power” whose signs they first witnessed when Fidel tripped on his way to the microphone in 2005. They need lasting foundations of permanent change in the nature, organization, and accountability of those in power.

Lillian Guerra is Professor of Cuba & Caribbean history at the University of Florida. Since 1996, Guerra has researched and visited Cuba more than 40 times. She is the author of four books of history, including Heroes, Martyrs and Political Messiahs in Revolutionary Cuba, 1946-1958 (Yale University Press, 2018).

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