The succession from Fidel to Raúl Castro, programmed since the early days of the Cuban revolution, was efficient, effective and seamless. Gen. Castro now is orchestrating his own succession, but this one lacks the historical legitimizing elements of the 1959 revolution.
The recent appointment of Miguel Diaz-Canel, a 52-year-old party apparatchik factotum, as first vice president of the Council of State places him in line to succeed Raúl Castro in that state body. This, however, is not equivalent to being No. 2 in the regime as the international media seem to have concluded.
Article 5 of the Cuban constitution makes it clear that the Communist Party is “the superior leading force of the society and the state.” The 15-member Politburo of the Communist Party remains headed by Raúl Castro as first secretary, and by 82-year-old Machado Ventura as second secretary.
It is not often understood that Raúl Castro leads Cuba not because he is president of the Council of State, but because he is first secretary of the Communist Party and Fidel’s brother. Under the Cuban governing succession scheme, the military-dominated Politburo would recommend Cuba’s next leader.
The succession plot thickens when we consider that constitutionally, the president of the Council of State is also the supreme chief of the Revolutionary Armed Forces. Cuban history offers no tradition of military subordination to civilian rule. With Raúl Castro gone, it is difficult to envision old comandantes like Ramiro Valdes and three-star generals of the Politburo obediently offering military allegiance and saluting in subordination to a civilian bureaucrat like Diaz-Canel. This comportment of unchallenged civilian command of the armed forces is not in the Cuban memes (cultural genes).
When thinking about change in Cuba, it is essential to keep in mind that Cuba’s history for the past half century is that of the Castro brothers and their ideas. Raúl Castro’s inner circle is not made up of closet democrats waiting for an opportune moment to put into practice their long-suppressed Jeffersonian ideals. Their governing modality is ontologically inseparable from their ideology. In a symbiotic relationship, authoritarianism engenders a corrupt oligarchy, and that oligarchy profits from the continuation of corrupt authoritarianism.
Behind the Diaz-Canel designation — let’s make sure we do not label it an election — is a venal plot of political maquillage.
The role of the Cuban military in the economy is extensive and pervasive, with the military managerial elite controlling over 60 percent of the economy. Therefore, from a longer-term strategic perspective the critical question is: What follows when the Raúl era comes to an end, leaving the generals in control of both the Politburo and the economy?
When enterprises are state-owned and managed, the military-officers-turned-business-executives enjoy the privileges of an elite ruling class. Their standard of living is higher, they move into better homes, etc. But these benefits are minuscule when compared with the opportunities to gain significant wealth by owning the enterprises under their control. The military elite understands that managing government-owned enterprises offers only limited benefits — owning the enterprises is far more lucrative.
In the years to come, the military elite will be highly motivated to arrange a manipulated privatization of the economy in order to monetize their positions. Alas, this corrupt mockery of privatization ends with the generals and colonels as the new Cuban “captains of industry.”
This, however, requires support from the international investment community, and for that, the Cuban leadership must appear willing to make changes in the political realm. Enter the Diaz-Canel designation. Surely, he is a capable, obedient and disciplined party loyalist and fully aware of the dire fate of those civilians who preceded him in prominent positions when their loyalty was questioned e.g., Aldana, Lage, Robaina, Perez Roque.
In the Cuban governing madhouse, Gen. Castro is seeking regime continuity presenting a façade of political lawfulness that will enable his generals and family to monetize their loyalty. The military will oversee a hegemonic party system offering a patina of political legitimacy for the benefit of the international community.
It is not important who fills the civilian poster-face roles. After all, Roman Emperor Caligula, in his insanity or perversion, sought to make his favorite horse into a Roman consul to show that a horse could perform a senator’s duties.
José Azel is a senior scholar at the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies, University of Miami, and the author of the book, “Mañana in Cuba.”