Castro Era Ends This Week As Raúl Steps Down As Ruler


Through the Space Age, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Internet era, Cubans held one constant: A Castro ruled the nation.

That is about to change.

Raúl Castro, 86, is expected to step aside as Cuba’s president this week, ending the epochal run of two brothers who sent shock waves through 20th-century politics. Nearly two decades into this century, and less than two years after Fidel Castro’s death, his brother’s exit from Cuba’s top job leaves this insular island at a crossroads, weighing how fast, if at all, to embrace change.

“This is an important moment for Cuba, but the truth is, nobody knows what to expect,” said Camilo Condis, general manager of Artecorte, a community project in Havana. “I mean, other than Fidel and Raúl, who is there? You didn’t really know anyone else.”

In a session of the National Assembly opening Wednesday – and probably culminating with a succession vote on Thursday – members are expected to replace Castro with Miguel Díaz-Canel. Born after the revolution, Díaz-Canel, 57, grew up in the shadow of the olive-drab-wearing guerrilleros who remain a powerful if aging force in Cuba’s decision-making apparatus. He is viewed as a consensus builder unlikely to push for quick or radical reform.

Castro has laid the groundwork for his exit for years, and the passing of the torch is highly symbolic. When Raúl took the reins from Fidel in 2008, a Castro was still in charge. This time, the succession amounts to a tricky effort to build a new generation of leaders without the Castro name, a move considered essential to cementing the central role of Cuba’s communist system.

“This is about institutionalizing the regime,” said Jorge Domínguez, a Cuba expert and professor of government at Harvard University. “It’s about Raúl Castro saying, ‘I am president, but I have a term, and then someone else is going to lead . . . . If you are someone who really wants the regime to endure, it’s what Raúl needs to do.”

The transition is happening at a time when a decade-long opening under Castro has already begun to alter the fabric of Cuban life. Access to the Internet is still subpar, but hotspots are more widely available than ever before. There are now more than 5 million cellphones in this nation of 11.5 million people. More than 550,000 Cubans work in the private sector. After years in which Cubans were forced to obtain permission to leave the country, Cubans these days can travel freely. It is now possible to buy and sell real estate.

Yet in a country where streets are still swimming in 1950s Chevys and Fords, Cuban life can feel stuck in time, and plagued with problems that never really went away. Locals talk of periodic shortages – eggs, potatoes, toilet paper. In a potential sign of discontent, turnout in recent municipal elections stood at 82.5 percent – the lowest in four decades, and a stunningly low number in a country where citizens face high pressure to vote.

Perhaps not surprisingly in a one-party state, few here are openly clamoring for radical political change. And in an important sense, this week’s transition will not mean the end of Castro leadership, since Raúl will remain the head of the powerful Communist Party.

But some are testing the boundaries of official tolerance through independent-minded blogs and social media. More and more Cubans are calling for a path to economic prosperity.

That desire for advancement is presenting Cuba’s ruling elite with a growing challenge: how and whether to more closely follow in the footsteps of communist societies like China and Vietnam, which have managed to ring-fence their one-party systems while vastly expanding the private sector. Cuba’s economic opening has been far slower, and has unfolded in fits and starts.

“We may find that the only way to preserve the achievements of the revolution is to change the country in substantial ways,” said Carlos Alzugaray, a former Cuban diplomat based in Havana.

Cuba’s National Assembly will pick Castro’s successor, with Díaz-Canel seen by insiders as by far the most likely successor. An engineer often seen toting a tablet computer, he has been serving as Cuba’s first vice president.

Though he lacks the Castro name – the most senior member of government among the Castro brothers’ children is Raúl’s son, Col. Alejandro Castro Espín, who heads counterintelligence – Díaz-Canel is without doubt blessed by Raúl Castro. He has been a constant presence at the side of his reform-minded mentor. But he has also curried favor with the hard-liners, who have largely succeeded in stalling a more drastic opening here.

Some Cubans hope that, given his relatively young age, Díaz-Canel may be willing to take economic reforms further than the Castros ever did. Yet he is also viewed as a party ideologue who was skeptical of the thaw with the United States under President Barack Obama and whose position on freedom of expression appears to have hardened in recent years. In a video leaked last year, for instance, Díaz-Canel is shown in a party meeting threatening to block a website for acting “against the revolution.”

(c) 2018, The Washington Post · Anthony Faiola 



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