Credit Where Credit Is Due
HAVANA TIMES — Taxi drivers and “informal workers” — acute chroniclers of everyday life — often surprise us with their keen grasp for what mumbo-jumbo academic explanations miss completely.
A week ago, a shoe shiner in central Mexico recognized my accent and asked me, “Hey, are you Cuban?” After acknowledging that I was, he added, “Well then Cuban, this old man is more sensible than the other one… right?”
As the reader will quickly suspect, in mentioning these “old men,” the worker was referring to Raul and Fidel Castro – the octogenarian figures who have led the Cuban government for the past 54 years. This also related to news about “Cubans now being able to travel, sell their homes and start businesses,” which is covered daily by more than one media source – as well as in discussions in streets all around the world.
His description of a “more sensible” Raul was still going around in my mind when I viewed the recent videos of the formation of the new (?) Cuban National Assembly. There’s little to add to the sharp analyses of the background and the implications of the changes announced on February 24 (provided by recognized experts such as Rafel Rojas (in Spanish) and Haroldo Dilla). But I’d like to focus on the speech by the Cuban president after he won his expected reelection.
It wasn’t a speech with any big surprises. As was natural, Raul again reminded the audience that his mission “isn’t to install capitalism,” and he closed his speech by repeating the subversive concept of revolution penned by his older brother.
It was also normal for him to devote a few words of encouragement and praise to his Venezuelan partners, who sustain the island’s economy and are allies of Cuban foreign policy.
Nonetheless, I think it’s the worth noting a few of the other topics in Raul’s speech.
Firstly, all of his speech was aimed at highlighting the growing importance of institutionalism, laws and procedures prescribed for the generational “change of guard” in the island’s leadership. It could be argued (rightly so) that this is a model for succession within the PCC monopoly and for the elite that has been in control for decades.
Still, the announcement of term and age limits points to the rise of a new leadership, which will inevitably bring changes to the country’s political direction.
Furthermore, all those who recall the highly personalized management style of Fidel — and the consequent dislocation of roles and institutions — will agree: It’s always better to rotate the leadership and to limit their time in office than to have a mode of governance where personal whims determine government policy, with no checks or balances.
Placing an age limit on leaders is, in my opinion, less important. Perhaps today it will serve as a message to the country’s doddering leadership concerning their own retirement. On the other hand, if we take into consideration that we’re an aging population, I don’t think that’s the heart of the matter.
What are needed are young people (or old ones) with young, democratic and unifying ideas. I say this because a seasoned and elderly Mandela is always preferable to any of the “Taliban” hardliners of Cuba’s Young Communist League (UJC).
The same goes for the call for greater racial and gender presence in the National Assembly. Their participation will be of value only to the degree they express the specifics of those segments of the population – not if they operate like mere figurines, diluted in the tide of unanimous votes.
In conclusion, I was struck by two final things: Raul’s acknowledgement that the calls to accelerate changes weren’t just the result of people with ill intentions, and that he didn’t repeat the usual insults aimed at dissident groups.
His doing such things doesn’t mean he has awakened, imbued with the spirit of Martin Luther King. But, it does express his interest in focusing his last energies on the strategic battle to construct a regulated, effective, structured order.
This will mean constructing institutionalism, giving it legal foundation (through the Constitution) and endorsing it with popular legitimacy (by way of a referendum).
In the end, no one should be hopeful that we’re on the threshold of the current regime’s democratization (liberal, socialist or any other color). That will only come from necessarily increasing pressure and demands made by citizens.
However to ignore the fact that these changes are preparing a better scenario for everyone — including the elite themselves and their heirs — would be to commit a serious blunder.
In the transition from state socialism to authoritarianism, opportunities are being created so that social diversity can be increasingly expressed in its political, manifestations – either spontaneously, as a movement, organized or institutionally.
Therefore, we’ll have to weigh the recent Raulist statements recalling the proverbial biblical statement: “To Caesar, what Caesar is due.”