Cuba without a Castro: Is Diaz-Canel the new Yeltsin?

Cuba remains one of the last communist strongholds in today’s world, with China and North Korea. For seven decades, it withstood belligerent policies of subsequent administrations of its giant neighbour, the United States, including a failed invasion attempt one year after the 1959 revolution that overthrew the dictatorial regime of Fulgencio Batista, and brought ‘El Comandante’, Fidel Castro to power. He remained in power until 2011 when his brother Raul succeeded him as head of the Communist Party.

However, on Friday, Raul stepped down as leader of the party and for the first time in 70 years, Cubans are not led by a Castro — a huge change in a country that needs to make determined choices very soon. The current leader, Miguel Diaz-Canel seems willing to make those choices.

Fidel Castro’s charisma, anti-imperialist ideas and pro-farmer and pro-poor policies for more than five decades made him an undisputable leader of the island nation. In 1959, following the overthrow, he took over as prime minister, yielding political and military power.

The United States, weary of Castro and Che Guevara’s leftist ideals (almost communist), opposed the new regime in Havana and imposed all sorts of sanctions and economic blockades on the new government. Washington tried repeatedly to assassinate Fidel and attempted a coup against him in 1961, in what will be later known as the Bay of Pigs Invasion.

While El Comandante enjoyed support among the Cubans, the country, nevertheless and like other communist states, suffered economic hardships because of the US blockade, high rate of poverty, state control of business and goods and less political and personal freedoms than most countries in the western hemisphere.

However, looking at the recent development in Cuba, the historic similarities with the now-dead and buried Soviet Union seem to be more than just the ideology and scud missiles. Think Mikhail Gorbachev!

Gorbachev was the 8th and the last leader of the Soviet Union and general secretary of the Communist Party, an absolute leader from 1985 until 1991, when the Communist block collapsed, and the union was divided. The collapse did not happen overnight though. It was the end result of years in the making, by the supreme leader himself. It was called Perestroika.

Perestroika and Glasnost

Perestroika (the Russian word for restructuring) was Gorbachev’s plan in the 1980s to restructure the state and party and reform the economic system in an attempt to rescue the deteriorating state of the economy following the disastrous invasion of Afghanistan.

Also, the entire state was so consumed by the idea of beating the US — militarily, politically, scientifically and in sport — that there was little left in the state’s coffers to give to the people to eat.

The legacy of the Soviet supreme leader Leonid Brezhnev, who ruled for 18 years until his death in 1982, was so powerful and overwhelming that it may have needed long years to unravel. But his Afghanistan blunder most probably led to fast-tracking of that unravelling and allowed Gorbachev to pursue his Perestroika, despite the opposition of the old guard in the party. He even went farther by launching his second phase of reforms — Glasnost.

Politically, Glasnost was taken to refer to the increased openness and transparency in government institutions and economic entities in the Soviet Union. It meant allowing people for the first time since 1917 to discuss and debate their country’s issues and try to solve its problems, including criticism of the system. Then came Boris Yeltsin, the man historians say was key figure in dismantling the Soviet Union in 1991.

Taking the Glasnost flag from Gorbachev, Yeltsin took the ultimate step in formally announcing the dissolution of the Soviet Union in December 1991 in response to a botched coup attempt against Gorbachev by the hardliner generals who sought to bring back the old system.

As the new leader of independent Russia, Yeltsin decided to abandon all socialist rules and policies, transforming Russia’s state- controlled economy into a capitalist market economy, using what he once described as “economic shock therapy”.

He embarked on nationwide privatisation of most state-owned economic establishments and lifted all subsidies and price controls. Inflation and economic collapse were the natural results of his ‘shock therapy’.

There is no doubt that Raul Castro who stepped down as leader of the Cuban Communist Party bears a lot of similarities to Gorbachev. Fidel knew it too- I suspect El Comandante may have even encouraged those tendencies.

By the way, Gorbachev remains a close friend of the Castro family. Raul Castro may not be Gorbachev but for sure he is not Fidel either, an American politician observed once, and he may be right. But Raul has done mostly as Gorbachev did.

It was a Cuban version of Perestroika. But his most critical decision was choosing Miguel Díaz-Canel in 2019 to succeed him as president. And on Friday as his successor in the party leadership. Therefore, Raul may not actually be Cuba’s Gorbachev but there are signs, few of them now though, that Diaz-Canel could be the new Yeltsin.

Diaz Canel: New Yeltsin in the making?

Diaz-Canel has been a member of the Politburo of the Communist Party of Cuba since 2003, served as minister of higher education from 2009 to 2012; promoted to the post of deputy prime minister in 2012. Since October 2019, he is the president of the republic. Like Yeltsin, he is the ultimate insider, son of the system, but in the two years since in the presidency, he showed signs that he is intent on changing things around him.

The office of the president is by itself new. It was created in February 2019 as part of Raul’s promised reforms, his own version of Perestroika. Those reforms continued by Diaz-Canel and included the important limit on the presidency to two consecutive five-year terms — no more leader for life.

On Saturday, Cubans woke up without a Castro as their leader for the first time since 1959. Those who were born after the revolution may have a hard time adjusting. But in the past year, Cuba’s economy contracted by a staggering 11 per cent because of the coronavirus impact and the harsh sanctions imposed by former US President Trump.

Diaz-Canel’s financial reforms also have had a painful impact on the country as inflation spiked while the hard currency, the dollar, is increasingly in short supply as the pandemic disrupted tourism and US sanctions squeezed remittances and bank transfers..

The conditions look strikingly similar to the Soviet Union’s in the late 1980s. And Diaz-Canel knows what is to be done. Cubans know that, too. I believe we will be hearing a lot about Glasnost in Cuba soon, perhaps sooner than we might have imagined just few days ago.

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