CubaBrief: Goodbye Castros, Hello Communist Party

CubaBrief:  In a thoughtful opinion column just published by The New York Times, two professors from Amherst College and the University of Sidney write that “on March 11, Cuba will hold elections for the National Assembly, which in turn will select the country’s next president on April 19. President Raúl Castro, [Fidel’s brother], will not run for re-election… The National Assembly is widely expected to choose a successor from outside the Castro family. Some believe “this could be the first step toward democracy,” but Professors Javier Corrales and James Loxton, say that “Cuba is heading for more of the same: undemocratic one-party rule.” 

More of the same means the continuation of “policies that have kept the regime afloat since the end of the Cold War”: migration (a safety valve/ dissenters emigrate), repression which remains as strong as before President Obama approved travel policies that strengthen Cuba’s military and security forces, and remittances from Cuban Americans. Raul Castro will remain head of Communist Party (just like Stalin) and the armed forces. 

The National Assembly “deliberations” will result in the same unanimity it has always demonstrated. [See photo above].

Internally, however, despite “the safety valve,” remittances and repression, the democratic opposition grows, while the beatings of women calling on the release of political prisoners continues. In the aftermath of Hurricane Irma hundreds protested chanting “Libertad, Libertad.”  Last year professors and college students were expelled from universities due to their political ideas. Internationally, Havana cannot expect Washington to look the other way, as it did under the Obama Administration when Raul Castro attempted to smuggle war planes to North Korea. Some of Havana’s Latin American allies have lost power and throughout the region there are governments unhappy with thousands of Cuban troops helping Maduro in Venezuela. The OAS secretary general calls the Cuban military deployment “an army of occupation.” And Mr. Trump is ending some of the policies that made possible the safety valve. The regime has no friends at the White House. After sixty years, as it was the case in the old Soviet Union, very few Cubans believe in the revolution or its leaders. When the Soviet Communist Party was dissolved, little was heard from its membership of millions dedicated to the legacy of the October Revolution. Without a crystal ball, it can be said that the past is prologue. But not always.



Goodbye Castros, Hello Communist Party


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Members vote at the National Assembly in Havana, Cuba. President Raúl Castro has pledged to step aside during upcoming elections, meaning someone other than a Castro will almost certainly lead the country for the first time in six decades. CreditSven Creutzmann/Mambo Photography, via Getty Images

AMHERST, Mass. — For the first time in six decades, Cuba is poised to have a non-Castro as leader. On March 11, Cuba will hold elections for the National Assembly, which in turn will select the country’s next president on April 19. President Raúl Castro, brother of the late Fidel Castro, will not run for re-election. In 2012, he introduced term limits and seems willing to honor them. The National Assembly is widely expected to choose a successor from outside the Castro family.

What are we to make of this succession? One optimistic reading is that this could be the first step toward democracy. A more realistic reading is that Cuba is heading for more of the same: undemocratic one-party rule.

If the Cuban Communist Party — the only party allowed to participate in elections under the one-party regime — were smart, it would try to get out while the getting is good. By transitioning to democracy on its own terms, the party could reap benefits.

Newly configured institutions and laws (for example, electoral laws) could be tailor-made to its advantage. The party could take advantage of this new freedom from the Castros to produce new freedoms for Cubans, thus generating good will that could translate into votes.

After all, in many new democracies, the old authoritarian ruling parties (or parties formed by former authoritarians) remain prominent actors. In a majority of cases, these “authoritarian successor parties” are freely and fairly elected back into office. From Mexico to Mongolia, Poland to Panama, Spain to South Korea, Taiwan to Tunisia, voters have returned the “bad guys” to power.

This happens because, in the often messy post-transition environment, some voters feel nostalgia for the authoritarian past. And some authoritarian regimes can point to significant achievements. In the case of Cuba, the party could point to its record in the areas of free public services like health care, nationalism and domestic security.

But the longer the Communists wait, the less viable this exit strategy becomes — and the more likely that the party will eventually succumb to full-blown regime collapse.

Authoritarian regimes born of revolutions such as Cuba’s often survive for decades, but they struggle once the revolutionary generation dies off — especially if they cannot find an alternative source of legitimacy, such as China’s extraordinary economic growth in recent decades. For this reason, this “golden parachute” option should be appealing to Cuba’s rulers.

Unfortunately for the Cuban people, there are few signs that this option is being considered. Instead, most signs point to a continuation of the status quo — a succession to a non-Castro, yes, but not a transition to a freer regime. The Cuban regime remains fairly protected from domestic pressures to become more democratic, even if it is ultimately in the Cuban Communist Party’s long-term interests to do so.

Most obviously, while Mr. Castro will step down as president, he will not retire fully. He will remain head of the Communist Party and the unofficial head of the military, the country’s two most important institutions. When former authoritarian rulers retain control of key parts of the state, they are able to veto any potential democratic openings.

Mr. Castro’s son and daughter will remain in powerful positions, as well. His son, Alejandro, runs the Ministry of the Interior, and his daughter, Mariela, is a member of the National Assembly and the head of Cuba’s most important gender think tank, Cenesex. Alejandro is known for his love for efficiency, and Mariela for her love for L.G.B.T. causes. But neither is known for a love of liberal politics. The two devote a significant part of their time repressing (in the case of Alejandro) and belittling (in the case of Mariela) dissenters.

Beyond the family itself is the fact that Raúl Castro’s most important policy legacy — military control of the economy — is hard to dislodge. The Cuban military, through its conglomerate Gaesa, owns the vast majority of firms that operate engaged in trade, from hotels to foreign exchange houses to ports, which gives it control of up to 60 percent of incoming hard currency. Any economic reformer knows that breaking a monopoly is difficult, even more so if the monopolist also holds power over arms and intelligence. Cuba’s military is committed to not just one-party rule, but also, it seems, to one-firm economics.

And because Cuba’s economy is so closed, the private sector is small and weak. We know that transitions to democracy require actors with wealth to lobby the state for change — and perhaps bankroll the opposition. Under Fidel Castro, Cuba enforced one of the world’s most draconian bans on private property, essentially foreclosing the possibility of this occurring. His brother did expand the number of allowable self-employed activities, but only professions requiring low skills were liberalized; huge restrictions on hiring and financing remain in place, and taxation is onerous. The private sector exists, but it is severely hampered.

Finally, the triad of policies that have kept the regime afloat since the end of the Cold War — migration, repression and remittances — remain in place. Migration has long operated as a safety valve by moving the most disaffected dissenters off the island, and it has become easier now that the government no longer requires exit visas. Repression continues to be applied to the remaining dissenters with as much force as was the case before President Barack Obama restored diplomatic relations with Cuba.

And remittances, averaging perhaps as much as $3 billion annually, are a vital lifeline for the Cuban economy. One would think that remittances could help democracy in Cuba by financing civil society. But because poverty is rampant and financing scarce, most remittances get used for household consumption or self-employment activities, with very little left over for the sorts of civic groups that are indispensable for democracy to emerge.

After the succession, Cuba’s regime will remain cornered by the Castro family, the military and by a regulatory system designed to restrict the growth of business and political organizations, minimizing the pressure to democratize.

Perhaps the only possible pressure for greater democracy after the succession could come from a conflict between the party and the military. These are separate entities, each with its own culture, resources and base of support. It is conceivable that an eventual conflict between the party and the military could produce a political earthquake, which could in theory produce a political transition.

Mr. Castro understands this better than anyone in Cuba. That is why he may decide to stay in charge of both groups, and as long as that is the case, the potential for a free Cuba will remain limited.

Javier Corrales is a professor of political science at Amherst College and author of the forthcoming book, “Fixing Democracy: Why Constitutional Change Often Fails to Enhance Democracy in Latin America.” James Loxton is a lecturer in comparative politics at the University of Sydney and the co-editor of the forthcoming “Life after Dictatorship: Authoritarian Successor Parties Worldwide.”