Cuba’s president changes style not substance in first 100 days

FILE PHOTO: Cuba's President Miguel Diaz-Canel attends a ceremony at the National Pantheon in Caracas, Venezuela May 30, 2018. REUTERS/Marco Bello/File Photo

HAVANA (Reuters) – Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel has engaged in a nonstop series of public appearances during his first 100 days in office, stopping everywhere across the island nation in an apparent bid to consolidate his leadership position. But the Castro dynasty is still calling practically all the shots.

Upon taking office on April 19, some had hoped he might move quickly to breathe new life into reforms aimed at modernizing one of the world’s last Communist-run countries.

But the 58-year-old hand-picked successor of Raul Castro has demonstrated limited room for manoeuvre in what analysts have called a well orchestrated and only gradual transition from the octogenarian leaders of Cuba’s 1959 revolution.

Diaz-Canel has appeared daily in meetings broadcast on state television with authorities and in communities across Cuba, playing basketball with school students, hearing the concerns of patients at hospitals and inspecting factories to see the challenges they face.

His outgoing approach is starkly different from Castro’s behind-the-scenes style and many Cubans have said they are reminded of Castro’s older brother, Fidel, although the bearded revolutionary was far more charismatic and unrestrained.

“Every day he is really getting closer to the people, getting to know their problems first hand,” said Lazaro Linares, 45, who struggles to get by on the $20 per month he earns working for a state administered urban garden in Havana.

In terms of substance and problem solving, however, Diaz-Canel has made good so far on the promise made in his inaugural address to defer to his 87-year-old predecessor on key issues.

“Beyond frequent emphasis on the need to combat corruption … it is hard to identify as yet a policy agenda fully his own,” said Michael Bustamante, an assistant professor of Latin American history at Florida International University.

It is Castro, for example, who is spearheading the revamp of Cuba’s Soviet-era constitution to overhaul its courts and government, and reflect market reforms opening its economy.

Last weekend, when Diaz-Canel announced his new cabinet, he retained two thirds of the ministers who served under Castro, including those in key posts like defence, trade and foreign relations.

Earlier this month new regulations defining the scope of the fledgling private sector were released, but the bulk were signed by Castro before he left office.

“More than leading the strategic decisions, Diaz-Canel is acquiring a lot of executive management capability in the day-to-day running of the government,” said Arturo Lopez-Levy, a former analyst for the Cuban government who now lectures at the University of Texas.

“How long will this situation last? Until Raul Castro and (Jose Ramon) Machado Ventura find it proper,” he said, referring to the Communist Party’s No. 2, an 87-year-old hardline communist ideologue.

According to some, Diaz-Canel will only have full leeway to implement his own policies when he succeeds Castro in the powerful position as chief of Cuba’s Communist Party, which is expected to happen at the party’s next congress in 2021.

“Diaz-Canel will survive the generation of octogenarians who decided on his promotion and only then will he be able to show his true face, hidden now between compromises, fears and the roadmap dictated by others,” Yoani Sanchez, a dissident blogger and director of the online news outlet 14ymedio, told Reuters.

“MORE CAPTIVE THAN CAPTAIN”

While it is still early days, Diaz-Canel has given few hints he might push more aggressively for reforms to address living standards on the island, Cubans’ main concern.

Cuba’s inefficient state-run economy never fully recovered from the collapse of former benefactor the Soviet Union and now faces declining aid from ally Venezuela and lower Cuban exports.

Most Cubans complain they cannot live off the average monthly state wage of $30 despite free social services and some subsidized food and housing.

Castro had initiated reforms to foster the private sector and foreign direct investment while making state-run companies more efficient, but he faced resistance from Communist Party officials and bureaucrats afraid of losing power.

Diaz-Canel has tapped new officials to deal with domestic economic issues under his leadership, according to American University professor of government and Cuba expert William LeoGrande.

So far, however, he has appeared “more captive than captain,” said Richard Feinberg, an expert on Cuba at the Brookings Institution.

To date, the one economic topic Diaz-Canel has highlighted is corruption, but for many this is more a symptom than a cause of Cuba’s economic problems. Cubans often argue, for example, that low wages force them to steal from their workplace to get by.

Diaz-Canel’s only big ideological speech to date came at the annual congress of the union of journalists.

He has long championed a more critical state media and the cautious roll-out of internet in one of the world’s least connected societies. But in his speech, he appeared to attack alternative web-based news outlets that have surfaced in recent years, accusing “new revolutionaries” of trying to subvert the revolution.

Lopez-Levy said that if Diaz-Canel’s speech on the press was anything to go by “we should expect more changes provoked by economic conditions and pressures, not by a progressive ideology or the new president’s political support for democratization.”

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