TOPICS > Politics

New Cuban Leadership Intensifies Speculation on Reforms

February 25, 2008 at 6:20 PM EDT
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Raul Castro was confirmed as Cuba's president Sunday, after last week's announcement that his ailing brother, Fidel Castro, would step down after decades in power. Two experts on Cuba discuss the prospects for reforms in the country and relations with the United States.

RAY SUAREZ: A unanimous vote from the 600-member Cuban National Assembly on Sunday confirmed Raul Castro as the new president of Cuba. The election marked the end of Fidel Castro’s tenure as president.

Raul, now 76 years old, has been the caretaker leader since his older brother, Fidel, became ill and largely disappeared from public view 18 months ago. In accepting his new title, Raul acknowledged his brother’s special place and role.

RAUL CASTRO, President of Cuba (through translator): There is only one commander-in-chief of the Cuban revolution. Fidel is Fidel. We all know that very well. Fidel is irreplaceable, and the people will carry on his work when he is no longer with us physically.

RAY SUAREZ: Fidel Castro remains the head of Cuba’s governing Communist Party, and Raul said he would still be consulted.

CUBAN CITIZEN (through translator): I feel as if nothing has changed. Everything is the same. It’s the same president.

RAY SUAREZ: On the streets of Havana today, Cubans expressed different views.

CUBAN CITIZEN (through translator): He spoke about many things, that there should be change in Cuba. There will be change and things will start to get better for people.

CUBAN CITIZEN (through translator): Nothing, all the same. We are going to follow the same thing, no matter what they say.

RAY SUAREZ: Raul Castro, until this weekend Cuba’s defense minister, said his priority was Cuba’s ailing economy.

RAUL CASTRO (through translator): I insist that the country will have, as its priority, satisfying the basic needs of the population — material needs, as well as spiritual needs — starting with the strengthening of the national economy and its base of production.

RAY SUAREZ: Besides conferring the presidency on Raul Castro, the Cuban assembly yesterday chose a veteran Communist and Raul ally, the 77-year-old Jose Ramon Machado Ventura, as first vice president. That puts him second in line for the presidency.

Another veteran, Ricardo Alarcon, was re-elected president of the National Assembly.

The U.S. State Department today dismissed the assembly’s decisions as a sign of no real change.

TOM CASEY, State Department Spokesman: The Cuban people deserve much better than the handover of a family business of dictatorship between the Castro brothers.

RAY SUAREZ: Spokesman Tom Casey went on to say that real transition would mean allowing Cubans to elect their own leaders.

A more pragmatic approach

Jose Azel
University of Miami
I see some changes, but I see them as much more minute changes. I think Raul Castro early on was the more Stalinist of the two brothers and arguably, in his older age, he's become a little bit more pragmatic.

RAY SUAREZ: For two perspectives on Cuba's new leadership, we talk to Julia Sweig, senior fellow and director of Latin America studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, and Jose Azel, associate at the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American studies at the University of Miami.

And, Jose Azel, has power really transferred? Is Raul Castro really running Cuba?

JOSE AZEL, University of Miami: Well, yes, power has transferred. I think what we have seen is a successful succession from one comandante to another.

However, we have to be very careful to recognize that this is just a succession. It is not a transition. It does not imply or even suggest any changes in Cuba's policy towards democracy or free markets. It is a succession, but not a transition.

RAY SUAREZ: Julia Sweig, just a succession, not a transition?

JULIA SWEIG, Council on Foreign Relations: Well, I agree with Jose, Ray, it a succession. But within the framework that Raul Castro laid out last night within socialism, I think we will see some changes that do change people's lives.

RAY SUAREZ: And based on what? Does this man have a different reputation for delegating authority? Is he prepared to take advice? Is Raul Castro someone with a different approach to running Cuba from his older brother?

JULIA SWEIG: Well, if you read the speech that Raul Castro gave last night, what comes clear to me is this a pragmatic person who wants to strengthen and fix Cuba's existing institutions, who wants to deliver on bread-and-butter issues, and who is practically Protestant on insisting on a work ethic in talking about shrinking the state, and in talking about merit pay, and in talking with about introducing mechanisms that until now we haven't begun to see, only since Fidel got sick a year-and-a-half ago.

In that sense, I think will you see less rhetoric and more action, delivering bread and butter, rather than just the kind of rhetoric and adrenaline-infused energy that under Fidel we saw so often.

RAY SUAREZ: Jose Azel, what do you make of that analysis?

JOSE AZEL: Well, I see some changes, but I see them as much more minute changes. I think Raul Castro early on was the more Stalinist of the two brothers and arguably, in his older age, he's become a little bit more pragmatic.

But the fact is that Raul is not going to embrace democracy and he's not going to embrace free markets. Within the framework of a socialist-communist command economy and centrally planned system, he may very well introduce some cosmetic changes, maybe allowing some free enterprise, maybe allowing some of the farmers to sell some of their products to entities other than the state.

But outside of those minor changes, I really do not see major economic reforms and certainly not major political reforms.

Appointing loyalist leaders

Julia Sweig
Council on Foreign Relations
Raul Castro is very clearly aware that his legacy will be less about what happened in the 1950s or '60s and more about his ability to make that legacy of that revolution stick.

RAY SUAREZ: Jose, in the weeks leading up to this vote, there was talk that maybe now, with a 76-year-old man in charge, it was understood this would be a short-term presidency, that you'd see younger leaders start to take senior positions in the governing structures. But we didn't see that yesterday, did we?

JOSE AZEL: No, we didn't see that. And Carlos Lage was not promoted to be part of the council of ministers or one of the vice presidents. And I think that is telling.

Raul is solidifying his control. And, in fact, we now have two generals that have been added here and two old historicos comandantes. So I think Raul is putting his loyalists in place.

And I think we have been somewhat too focused on this after-Fidel situation and what happens. And I think now the time has come for us to sort of change focus and start thinking after Raul, because I don't see we're going to see substantive changes now.

So the transition or the succession from Fidel to Raul was kind of telegraphed nearly 50 years ago. Fidel had anointed Raul as his successor. And I don't think anyone truly questioned that all these years.

But the next succession from Raul to somebody else, that is not quite clear, and I think there is where the possibilities and the problems may lie ahead for us.

RAY SUAREZ: Julia, I saw you shaking your head. What?

JULIA SWEIG: Well, just listening to Jose, Ray, I'm thinking this that we, for 50 years, have been asking that question, what happens after Fidel?

And if we postpone a realistic look at what's happening in Cuba under Raul Castro who may well be the president for the next five years -- that's his term -- if we wait and put off any discussion about what's really happening there and therefore what, perhaps, the United States might do to engage more directly and have a positive influence there, I think we're just fooling ourselves.

The truth is that this is a revolution which political project is at stake. And Raul Castro is very clearly aware that his legacy will be less about what happened in the 1950s or '60s and more about his ability to make that legacy of that revolution stick.

They've been talking about this for the last few years in Cuba. And right now, under Raul Castro, we are, I believe, going to see, both because Cuba has an externally favorable environment, support from Venezuela, a new line of credit from Brazil, a blessing of the Vatican today, an effort to make Cubans on the island more of a stakeholder, more stakeholders in that regime, and to secure its legitimacy.

So I wouldn't sit now and wait until Raul is gone to really check out what's happening there.

RAY SUAREZ: But briefly, then, what do you make of the significance of putting in veterans of the 1950s revolution into senior positions of responsibility? And many of these were the men who were running the economy.

JULIA SWEIG: It's true. And Jose Ramon Machado Ventura, let's not forget, he, along with Raul Castro, were involved in purges in the 1990s that purged many of the people that had advocated economic reforms from research centers, from universities.

It's not that he's suddenly gone soft. But having the old guard there and watching them yesterday and listening to that speech, what I saw was that Raul Castro has built a political consensus from top to bottom inside of the government.

I'm not talking about throughout the whole society, but if he has buy-in from the hard-liners, the ideologues, to begin the process of reducing the size of the state, of getting the state out of the way, to inject some of that free enterprise possibility into the economy, than that's a major step. And it takes Cuba into a different era, frankly, than it has been under Fidel.

Measuring signs of change

Jose Azel
University of Miami
[I]f Raul [Castro] has become more pragmatic, that's one thing. But for him to suddenly embrace the kind of substantive economic changes, introducing a new model, I simply do not see that happening.

RAY SUAREZ: So, Jose Azel, if you're watching the Cuban scene over the next weeks and months, what will you be looking for to sort of understand the change, if there's any that's on the way?

JOSE AZEL: Well, there could be some significant measures introduced, for example, the unification of the currency. Cuba now has this dual currency system. And if Raul is serious about making some changes, that would probably be one of the first things that he would do.

I just don't see that kind of situation happening. Arguably, if Raul has become more pragmatic, that's one thing. But for him to suddenly embrace the kind of substantive economic changes, introducing a new model, I simply do not see that happening.

I think he's consolidated power, and he's going to make some cosmetic changes, maybe some stylistic changes.

It is a very cost-free strategy for Raul to create the illusion of changes going forward. It is, however, a little bit of a problematic strategy, because it could raise the expectations of the Cuban people.

And if he does not meet those expectations, then we could see some unrest and perhaps some exodus towards Florida. So we need to be very careful and very observant as to what happens next.

RAY SUAREZ: OK, so, Julia Sweig, what will you be looking for in the next weeks and months to get an idea, take the measure of this new government?

JULIA SWEIG: In the agricultural sector, Ray, Raul yesterday talked about already having saved the government $30 million by freeing up the buying and selling of milk in the provinces.

And he talked about no longer having to spend to import $30 million of dried milk, to let farmers sell milk, Cubans buy it, however much they want, at any age. By removing restrictions on the buying and selling and production of milk, he has seen that the economy has become more efficient in that realm.

He's talking already about expanding that in other agricultural spheres, again, getting rid of the regulations that have gotten in the way, essentially, of free-market activity, so that Cubans can produce their own food, not have to spend as much money buying it.

On the currency front, if they revalue the currency and move to one currency instead of two, one convertible currency, the central bank is going to have to have the reserves in stock in order to be able to finance paying Cuban salaries that allow them to boost their purchasing power, a second point.

RAY SUAREZ: Julia Sweig, Jose Azel, thank you both.

JULIA SWEIG: Thank you.

JOSE AZEL: Thank you.