International news outlets were abuzz Tuesday with the news that the Cuban General Assembly, the nation’s legislature, will vote a new president in to replace Raúl Castro, leaving the head of state running only the Communist Party.
While the man called “president” may no longer carry the Castro name—experts mostly agree that Vice President Miguel Díaz-Canel is the hand-picked heir to the title—the Communist Party is the supreme governing organ of the country, meaning the person truly running the country is the person running the Party. That name will not change this week, and is scheduled not to until 2021.
The Castro regime announced Tuesday that they had moved up the opening of the legislative session to choose a new president to April 18—the original date had been Wednesday, the anniversary of the massacre of Cuban refugees at Bay of Pigs. The constitution of Cuba is modeled after the Soviet Union’s and similar to modern-day China’s, meaning the legislature has full control over who becomes president and who joins his cabinet.
The only voting process granted to Cuban citizens is to choose their representative in the Assembly. The regime hand-picks candidate for each and every seat and blocks any individual contemplating placing their name on the ballot, either through disqualification, intimidation, or arrest. In November, the regime blocked all opposition candidates from appearing on ballots nationwide, resulting in a clean sweep for candidates representing the only legal political party in the country, the Communist Party.
With a legislature assembled, the Cuban regime must now appoint a president. Havana is calling the process a “transition;” most observers say Díaz-Canel will take the reins as president, even though the Castro regime has not confirmed this to maintain the appearance of competition for the position. Whether Díaz-Canel takes the presidency or not, power will remain ultimately in the hands of Rául Castro, the head of the Communist Party.
As in China—where the presidency is a weak title compared to Communist Party general secretary and commander-in-chief of the People’s Liberation Army—the Cuban presidency is heavily limited by the overarching power of the party.
Chapter I, Article 5 of the Cuban constitution makes the Communist Party “the superior directing body of society and the State, which organizes and orients the common efforts towards the end of the construction of socialism and advancement of communist society.” This makes the head of the Communist Party—Castro—the “superior” director of the State, above his future successor.
Who remains as commander in chief of the Revolutionary Armed Forces (FAR) of Cuba is not entirely clear from the constitution, as Fidel and Raúl Castro have typically been both president and comandante.
According to the Cuban constitution, the Assembly president’s powers include:
- Presiding over National Assembly sessions
- Convening National Assembly sessions
- Organizing National Assembly dockets
- Signing and regulating the publishing of the legislative gazette
- Organizing international relations
- Leading and organizing permanent work commissions in the Assembly
- Attend cabinet meetings
- Others the National Assembly can grant
The head of government’s powers are even more limited:
- Represent the State and Government and manage general policy
- Organizing and lead activities by the Council of Ministers
- Control and attend to the development of activities at the ministries
Neither of these categories mentions the leadership of the armed forces. Raúl Castro was a longtime military man, acting in his younger days as the head of older brother Fidel’s executioner—officially “commander of the armed forces”—and it would stand to reason that he would still wish to retain much of the control of his preferred wing of the government. The FAR are also where many of the Castro heirs have found their careers. Alejandro Castro Espín, Raúl’s son, is a colonel and the head of the Ministry of the Interior. Raúl Guillermo Rodríguez Castro, the dictator’s grandson, is the head of personal security for his grandfather. Also floating around in the Cuban government bureaucracy is Raúl Castro’s daughter Mariela, head of the Cuban National Center for Sex Education (CENESEX). Fidel Ángel Castro Díaz-Balart, the oldest son of Fidel Castro, was a top government scientist before his suicide in February.
“Even after ‘resigning,’ Raúl will remain Secretary General of the Communist Party, the most important position in the government,” Otto Reich, former assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs under President George W. Bush, told Fox News. “Raul’s son, Colonel Alejandro Castro Espín, will remain in charge of counterintelligence (the political police) and therefore the chief enforcer of order, ideology, and loyalty to the dynasty.”
Díaz-Canel will have to contend with all these Castros if he wishes to claim any power with the expected receipt of the title of president. There is little evidence, however, that the hardline communist Díaz-Canel will try to reform the state.
Supporters claim that Díaz-Canel is “a cool guy” who enjoys soccer and alcohol and likes a good time. Observers of his statecraft note that “he has made clear he is not the man for change, that he has gotten to where he is by being a follower of orders par excellence,” as Professor Francisco Perdomo of the Raúl Roa Superior Institute of International Relations told Univisión.
The vice president openly boasted about suppressing opposition voices in last year’s legislative elections, arguing that allowing non-communists to run for office “would be a way to legitimize the ‘counter-revolution’ within our civil society.” He has denounced any policies that bring Cuba and the United States closer together. He reportedly relishes the role of suppressing dissident voices who wish to speak openly.
He is regularly trusted with representing Cuba to fellow communists, from receiving dignitaries of fellow Marxist countries to applauding mass murderer Ernesto “Che” Guevara at events commemorating his demise. “The colossal example of Che persists and multiples day by day,” Díaz-Canel declared on one of those occasions. “Che has not died.”