Cuba’s New President Faces Many Serious Challenges

The challenges Cuba faces involve economic inequality, increasing citizen inclusion the political process, and the still-ongoing US economic blockade. Prof. Elizabeth Dore and James Early discuss the challenges President Diaz-Canel needs to address

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Story Transcript

GREG WILPERT: It’s The Real News Network. I’m Greg Wilpert coming to you from Quito, Ecuador. Last week Cuba’s National Assembly elected Miguel Diaz-Canel as the island’s new president. This represents an important change in Cuba’s leadership, which now passes on to a generation that was born after the Cuban revolution in 1959. The 86-year-old Raul Castro, however, will not leave the scene so quickly, as he remains in charge of Cuba’s all-important Communist Party until 2021. During his acceptance speech, President Diaz-Canel said that Cuba will remain socialist, despite ongoing U.S. efforts at regime change. Here’s a clip from his speech.

MIGUEL DIAZ-CANEL: This is how we will face the threats of the powerful imperialist neighbor. There is no space here for a transition that ignores or destroys the legacy of so many years of struggle. In Cuba, by decision of the people, it is only possible to give continuity to the work of generations born and educated in the revolution, united to the founding generation without giving in to pressures, without fear, and without setbacks, defending our truths and reasons without renouncing sovereignty, independence, development programs, and our dreams. We will always be willing to dialogue and cooperate with those who in turn do so with respect and treatment between equals.

GREG WILPERT: Joining me to discuss Cuba’s new president and what he might mean for Cuba’s future is James Early and Elizabeth Dore. James is former director of Cultural Heritage Policy at the Smithsonian Institution, and a member at The Real News Network board of directors. He’s traveled in and written extensively on Cuba. Elizabeth Dore is Professor Emeritus of Latin American studies at the University of Southampton. She also has a new book coming out on Cuba published by Verso Books called “Cuban Lives: What Difference Did the Revolution Make?” Welcome, James and Elizabeth. Thanks for joining us today.

JAMES EARLY: Thank you.

ELIZABETH DORE: Very nice to be here.

GREG WILPERT: So let’s start with you, Liz. What would you say does Miguel Diaz-Canel’s taking over of the Cuban presidency represent for Cuba? That is, how significant a change is this change of leadership, and will it mean changes in the lives of ordinary Cubans?

ELIZABETH DORE: I think that we need to see whether it will bring about significant changes. We don’t know yet. Miguel Diaz-Canel is a complete protege of Raul Castro. In his acceptance speech he said that the major decisions will still be made by Raul Castro, by his predecessor. And so he wasn’t pretending that he was going to, you know, sort of step up to the plate and and have a lot of power. So I think that the changes that we see probably will be somewhat gradual, and it’s hard to predict.

GREG WILPERT: So, James, what do you see as being Diaz-Canel’s main challenges as he takes over the reins in Cuba? And do you think he will be able to steer a different course from Raul Castro, even though Raul Castro remains head of the Communist Party?

JAMES EARLY: Well, first and foremost, I think that we should look at this as a significant change within the Communist Party and within the state of Cuba. Miguel Diaz-Canel has been on the Politburo for about 15 years. He’s been head of two provinces. He was very prominent as a young Communist Party leader being detached to Nicaragua in his, at 20 years of age, or so. And so he is a tried and true member within the Communist Party and the evolution of that party.

And I think the context of looking at what, who he is and what he might do is not so much Raul Castro as a reference, albeit a significant one as continuing to head the Communist Party, but to look at the documents of the more recent Communist Party gatherings in which they have raised a number of issues about their virtues, about their errors, and about their failures. In Cuba there is a widespread debate that has gone on within the Communist Party, within the state, and within the general population about the virtues and the limitations and the failures of the revolution. And Miguel Diaz-Canel is a young man. What is he, 58 years old. So I think he celebrated a birthday the day after he was elected. I think he will be measured in how he advances the concerns laid out in the Communist Party documents, particularly those of a younger generation, and how he balances his interaction with those who have anchored and secured the country, represented by not only Raul Castro, but Salvador Mesa, who is the vice president, who is a trade unionist born in 1945.

So I think there is a complex here of seeing how he evolves the Communist Party doctrine and separates the Communist Party from the state, and recognizes the significance of a proactive citizen, citizenry, as he has also emphasized.

GREG WILPERT: [Crosstalk]

But I also want to ask you about the challenges that you think Cuba faces.

ELIZABETH DORE: Well, first let me respond to something that James said. I agree with James that the challenges in Cuba are to bring a large part of the population into the political process. Right now a very large part of the population, particularly young people, feel disconnected from the political elite. They feel like the political elite doesn’t represent their interests, and they’re sort of on a planet of their own. And I think one of the great challenges of Diaz-Canel is to bridge that gap and to make it, to bring in a large part of the population.

The other thing I think is important is in, in revising party documents over the last, let’s say, 10 years, there was a change that is very significant, and I think very worrying. That is, in 2011 the Congress of the Communist Party eliminated egalitarianism from one of the party’s principles, and it substituted equal rights and opportunities. What many critics of that, critics within Cuba, particularly people who are trying to advance a more egalitarian agenda, say that equal rights and opportunities is not a softer version of egalitarianism, but it’s a way of structuring inequality.

And so this issue between inequality and equality is going to be an absolutely key issue, a very tense issue, an issue that a lot of people in Cuba have a great desire to resolve in one way or the other. And I think that’s an issue we need to be watching.

GREG WILPERT: James, I’d like you to respond to that, but also basically to highlight the issue of inequality. There’s been lots of reports that Cuba has increasing inequality because of the changes that Raul Castro has introduced. And the question is, to what extent is that directly related to the removal of that platform, and is that something that, how’s, how’s the government going to address that, and what are the issues around that?

JAMES EARLY: Well, I think what the government has done cannot speak so much to the differentials in the terms of egalitarianism and of equal, equality, except to say that I think Cubans have come to recognize that the state cannot deliver a paradise within the Cuban economy, within Cuban institutions. No, no state can do that. One of the first things that Raul Castro said when he was elected by the National Assembly is to say to the Communist Party that you are indispensable to the security and the direction of the country, but that you are not the government, and you are not the citizen. And the implication is a recalibration of this dialectic between the citizen as primary servants of government, as politicians, and the role of the Communist Party, of which they are trying to figure out. Inequality has, indeed, merits more substantively with the change toward small enterprises in which remittances are highly colorized. One might also argue that they are highly reflective of the vestiges of an older class system. And so that, the issue of race has emerged as one that is unresolved in Cuba, the issue of racism, using the term that the Cubans themselves have raised.

But I would conclude by noting that, notwithstanding all of those challenges and limitations, there are young socialists, young communists, who are openly discussing and debating in [inaudible] and other online magazines, and in public fora, at the Centro Juan Marinello for the center of, the study of Cuban culture, about the revolution within the revolution, the citizen revolution. And that is the question of democracy in Cuba, and socialism. The fact that there has been over-centralism, and not enough reliance on the imagination and creativity and production of citizens who are easily noted by the UN as one of the most educated populations in the world. But the Cuban Communist Party and government has recognized a population that produces very little, and that the onus has not been on the people, that has been on the limitations and overconcentration of state and party governance, and therefore this discussion of participatory democracy across Cuba is now an open one, and I would suggest a healthy one.

GREG WILPERT: I’d like you to respond that, also, Liz, but I also want to bring in the issue of the U.S. efforts to basically sabotage the Cuban economy. To what extent does that play a role in all of this, in terms of inequality, and, I mean, recently, for example, the Trump adminstration has increased or made it more difficult for Americans to travel to Cuba, which has really impacted the tourist industry in Cuba, and certainly that has an effect on the situation, the economic situation, as well. But maybe you can also address some of the issues that James raised.

ELIZABETH DORE: Well, certainly I agree that the U.S. blockade , the virtual 60-year U.S. blockade, has crippled the Cuban economy. It’s impossible to say what the Cuban economy could have been like, what Cuban society could have been like, had it not been for the U.S. blockade. The first principle should be to remove the blockade. The U.S. should play, ideally, a more sort of benevolent role, or no role, but not have the role of the enemy from the North that’s trying to sabotage the revolution, which is what it has played, more or less, even under Obama, whose view was more business would bring down parts of socialism.

GREG WILPERT: So it seems like the Cuban economy and the political situation is a pretty tough spot, where on the one hand people say that in order to dynamize, that is, to make the economy more dynamic, you need to introduce some kind of free market principles, perhaps. And on the other hand people are saying that this will increase inequality. And then on top of that there’s the sabotage from the U.S. So this seems like a very complicated context in which the new president needs to maneuver. How do you think, James, I mean, what do you see as a possible way out of this situation? Or is this perhaps not the right question to be asking?

JAMES EARLY: Well, I, I think it, it is challenging. I’m not, I’m not so sure that the word complicated is the right word. I think we should recall that when Raul Castro was elected by the National Assembly, one of the things that he said was that this revolution is in serious trouble, and it is significantly in trouble because of the devastating negative impact of the blockade. But he said if you remove that blockade tomorrow, we are still in trouble by our own thoughts and our own actions. He noted continuously doing the last few years of his tenure the high corruption in Cuba, which the progressives and the left outside of Cuba don’t want to talk about. But the Cubans themselves are looking at their own errors, their own failures, in the context of their own ventures and their achievements.

It has been noted by Diaz-Canel and others that Granma, the very reputable Communist Party organ, tends to tell the truth, but not the whole truth, and that they need a more open, democratic reflection in its organs. And there have been other self-critiques, very healthy, going on inside Cuban socialism. And so I think we need to pay more attention to the internal narrative about how they assert their strengths and their virtues and how they also identify their own internal problems in addition to the external major problem of the U.S. blockade and the attempt of the U.S. and its allies, some of them in Latin America, to continuously undermine the Cuban Revolution. The Cubans have made great steps forward in really orchestrating a new relationship with Western Europe, and they’ve made extraordinary steps in terms of their relationship with China, with Russia, even the Japanese are doing work with Cuba.

So I think we need to look at a broader context in which the Cuban revolution continues to assert itself, and to slowly move forward and to face its own internal contradictions while it faces its external enemies.

GREG WILPERT: One thing that I want to bring up, also, in terms of the progress that has been made, it was interesting that Sunday’s New York Times actually had an article , an issue that you raised earlier, James, which was the whole issue about increasing diversity in the leadership and throughout society, in terms of that, that now I think something like half the vice presidents are Afro Cubans, including the first vice president, and that increasing the participation of women. I just want to ask Liz, also, do you think this represents a form of progress? And in what direction might this be going?

ELIZABETH DORE: I definitely think it represents progress to bring young people, to bring minorities who have been, if not excluded, at least somewhat marginalized in the decision-making processes and the economic processes. I think to bring them into politics is crucial. I think also it’s not just bringing individuals in, but it is critiquing why there is continued racism, why there is continued sexism. These are, I mean, it doesn’t, we don’t need to. It’s not difficult to say these are incredibly complex issues, and there needs to be, and I hope that there will be under Diaz-Canel, a public debate about how to move forward on these issues.

I think it’s important in Cuba to bring in voices that up until now have been excluded. Excluded either because with the idea that either you’re with the revolution or you’re not with the revolution, they were deemed as not with revolution. Many of these voices are very much with the socialist revolution. There’s a whole circle of rather young people who want to figure out, they know it’s very hard, and they don’t have answers, but they’re trying to figure out how to move forward with a socialist, egalitarian society. These people should be playing a very active role, a public role in bringing them into a public debate. And if that happens it would be wonderful.

GREG WILPERT: OK. Well, I think we’re going to have to leave it there for now. I was speaking to Elizabeth Dore, professor of, Professor Emeritus of Latin American Studies at University of Southampton, and James Early, former director of Cultural Heritage Policy at the Smithsonian Institution. Thanks again, both Liz and James, for having joined us today.

ELIZABETH DORE: Thank you very much for inviting me.

GREG WILPERT: And I’m Greg Wilpert for The Real News Network.