Cuba's new leader faces a brave new world

Sunday, April 22, 2018

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Cuba now has a new president in Mr Miguel Mario Díaz-Canel Bermúdez, who has succeeded the 86-year-old Mr Raul Castro, in what is a change of potentially historic proportions in that Spanish-speaking country.

Mr Castro, however, remains first secretary of the Communist Party of Cuba, which is a more powerful post than president and one that was held by his late brother Mr Fidel Castro until April 2011. In addition, his power is based on being the commander-in-chief of the Cuban Armed Forces from 1959 to 2008, almost 50 years.

The handover to Mr Díaz-Canel makes it the first time since 1959 that the day-to-day management of Cuba will not be under the command of a Castro. Born April 20, 1960, the new president is an electronics engineer who served in the Cuban army.

He has been a member of the politburo of the Cuban Communist Party for the last 15 years. He served as first vice-president of the Council of State and Council of Ministers (2013-2018) and minister of higher education (2009-2012).

The world watches to see how his leadership style will compare to the Castros.

Mr Fidel Castro led a guerilla movement which overthrew the corrupt dictator Mr Fulgencio Batista in early 1959. He started out as an anti-imperialist, ultra-nationalist and transitioned to socialism and them communism.

His advocacy along with Mr Che Guevara and support for revolution in the developing world made him an enemy of the United States. His social policy in Cuba endeared him to millions across the world and Cuban doctors have generated tremendous goodwill in poor countries.

But Mr Fidel Castro was often criticised for having a one-party political system and for limitations on human rights. His State-led economic policies left the Cuban economy as dependent on sugar as in the pre-revolutionary era.

Mr Raul Castro, on assuming power, allowed more private enterprise and foreign investment, particularly in the expansion of tourism. This, together with oil under the PetroCaribe programme of late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, enabled the Cuban economy to stave off economic collapse.

The reforms were complemented by the enlightened gradual but progressive liberalisation of US restrictions on trade, investment and tourism by President Barack Obama. These measures have, to a large extent, been reversed by President Donald Trump.

Mr Díaz-Canel is obviously an astute politician to have gotten to the presidency and his first statement reiterated his commitment to Cuba's model of socialism. He comes to his post in a difficult context of domestic pressures for an improved standard of living and individual freedom, a hostile US Administration and operating under the overarching power of Mr Raul Castro and the Communist Party.

In these circumstances, it is difficult to predict what policies he will pursue. The two extreme possibilities are that the new leader sticks to the old policies and risks political implosion or saves Cuban socialism by introducing market reforms as Mr Deng Xiaoping did in China, which galvanised the unprecedented economic growth of that country over the last 30 years.

President Díaz-Canel and Cuba face a brave new world of infinite possibilities. We wish him great wisdom and success in the context of the historically close and mutually beneficial ties between Jamaica and Cuba.

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