What Happened on Sunday at Cuba’s National Assembly?

Haroldo Dilla Alfonso*

Raul Castro and Miguel Diaz-Canel at the Cuban National Assembly on Sunday. Castro was reelected to a new five-year term and Diaz is the new first vice president.

HAVANA TIMES — Cuba’s National Assembly has been an emotionless place. Above all else, the country is governed by executive orders; therefore the legislative function is carried out by the bureaucracy.

During its brief sessions, everyone in the National Assembly votes the same, the discussions can be anticipated, and the work of its committees is always about those issues where the devil isn’t hiding.

There is, however, one session that’s striking: It occurs every five years when the State Council is formed. This is because having a seat on the State Council — particularly the selection of the presidency — means individuals moving into the desirable sphere of the political elite.

When a Cuban politician at the same time assumes functions while in the Politburo of the Communist Party or the presidency of the Council of Ministers, then they’re enshrined as a member of the inner circle of the real decision-makers. As the French say, they become the creme de la creme.

For many years this didn’t change in Cuba, and in Granma one could see the same faces, become fatter and grayer at voluptuous five-year intervals. But since the 90s, a major renovation was being produced, and Fidel Castro’s own maneuvers to keep the elite subordinated produced unusual recruits and breeches. The main feature of the renewal of the elite in that period was the lack of a regular system of recirculation, which every political system needs.

It’s likely that a man like Miguel Diaz-Canel — whose location in the world is necessarily different from that of the founding fathers — will ultimately be the person who leads the transition to a more open political system.

In 2008 Raul Castro formally assumed those functions he had exercised since 2006, ones that his brother had employed to distribute power to his underlings – like a grandfather who distributes personal belongings to his descendants.

Since it was foreseeable that Raul would try to manage the island with greater attachment to the existing institutionalism, an institutionalism with lots of horn blowing, but at least it would be something formal in the wake of the “Battle of Ideas” mess.

This is why it was also expected that these processes (like the one that took place yesterday) were going to have more substance than the preceding ones.

In 2008 the novelty lied in guessing whether Fidel Castro would leave the arena, which he did, though he left in his place a bunch of guys approaching their 80s who were consecrated like interns fixed in power in the name of a supposed historical quality.

What took place yesterday had another meaning: it is the last mandate in which — occurring not out of the need for change but due to the dictates of biology — the historicos, now full-fledged octogenarians, can continue to exercise power. Therefore, any movement that occurred could have relevance in a future succession.

The first news that reached us was the choice of Esteban Lazo as National Assembly president – an occurrence with no more relevance than the value of an anecdote. Lazo, with his 69 years behind him, is one of Cuba’s leaders who has remained in the elite since the ‘90s without showing particular skills that allowed him to hope for a higher political future. He didn’t rise or fall – he only lurked.

He is a typical senior Cuban functionary who because of being black is essential as a demonstration of multi-ethic integration of what is actually a solidly white elite. As president of the assembly he’s been given visibility, but no power. He can be relevant or insignificant and still remain in office.

Alarcon demonstrated this over his two decades in office. As it doesn’t seem Raul Castro’s “updating” contemplates a change in the role of rubber-stamping decisions made outside the National Assembly, it’s likely that Lazo will continue to lurk.

The 31-member State Council resulting from these elections is considerably younger (57 on average), and some of the Tutankhamun figures have left. Nevertheless, there are still important figures that remain – for example, ranking military and economic leaders in charge of the reforms. Most of the members, however virtuous, are mere figureheads certainly without any decision-making powers.

The presidency of the State Council is something else.

When a Cuban politician at the same time assumes functions while in the Politburo of the Communist Party or the presidency of the Council of Ministers, then they’re enshrined as a member of the inner circle of the real decision-makers. As the French say, they become the creme de la creme.

The first major change is the appointment of Miguel Diaz-Canel as first vice president. There are many positive things about this. In addition to freeing Cuba from the pout of Machado Ventura, it’s positive that a relatively young person was put in the line of succession, someone who was born after the revolution and with political and professional training — in the provinces and in the capital.

These stints have been long enough and sufficiently varied to announce him as a man who knows how to overcome obstacles. He’s ultimately a man who can deal with the state in the event of the resignation or the temporary stepping down of Raul Castro, something that’s not at all improbable considering the age of the general/president.

What weighs against Diaz-Canel is his limited political pedigree — his impetuous career as a “national” politician has been for less than a decade — and his poor links with the military (he reports only three years of military service and a seat at the Defense College).

In Cuba right now, and for some time in the future, the role of the armed forces will remain crucial. Although some analysts will point out his mediocre oratory skills (indeed he speaks with the cadence of a schoolboy), I don’t believe that what will be needed by a Cuban leader in the coming years will be good speaking abilities so much. If he speaks poorly but has a good grip on things, he’ll have what it takes.

The other vice presidents continue to include Machado Ventura, Ramiro Valdes and Gladys Bejerano, along with two promotions: another female, 48-year-old Mercedes Lopez Acea, the secretary of the Communist Party in the capital; and another black, 64-year-old Salvador Valdes Mesa, the general secretary of the national trade union.

Ratification of Gladys Bejerano is interesting given her role as the national comptroller (a sort of Eliot Ness over the Cuban business world) in a context of widespread and growing corruption. Likewise, the entry of the union leader was no less than for his role of political control over labor unrest, which should grow as the reforms progress.

If Yoani Sanchez — with fine irony — thought that a vice president under 80 years of age would be a good sign of renewal, I think February 24 gave her more than that. Frankly I think the whole electoral process gave some very interesting signals about where Cuban society is moving and the limits faced by Cuban leaders in exercising their unwavering authoritarian bent.

It’s likely that a man like Miguel Diaz-Canel — whose location in the world is necessarily different from that of the founding fathers — will ultimately be the person who leads the transition to a more open political system. The history of arranged transitions have always started out with a bureaucrat without particularly democratic qualities but convinced that they have to change things to preserve the fundamental quotas of power.

And if this turns out not to be the case, I’m sure Diaz-Canel will be wiped off the political map, devoured by his comrades or sidetracked through some unpredictable reassignment, but what’s inevitable is that change will happen — as Juan Peron said — with the leaders at the head or with the heads of the leaders.
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(*) Published originally in Spanish by Cubaencuentro.com.

 

 


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