The Cuban government has announced that it will postpone a historic presidential election scheduled in two months’ time that was expected to result in a generational political transition and Cuban leader Raúl Castro’s stepping down from office.
Castro will remain in power at least until April 19, the date now set for election of a new legislature and the president of the Councils of State and Ministers, positions that Castro currently holds. The official announcement, published in the Communist Party newspaper Granma on Thursday, said the decision was made because of the impact of Hurricane Irma, which hit Cuba as a category 5 storm in September and caused more than $13 billion in damages.
Storm recovery also delayed municipal elections — the first step in a process that was to culminate in the Feb. 24 election of a new National Assembly and the selection of a new president. Provincial elections where candidates are selected by slates determined by electoral commissions also were postponed until March 25.
Since 2013, Castro has been saying that he planned to retire Feb. 24, the end of his second term in power after succeeding his late brother Fidel.
Never miss a local story.
The U.S. Department of State and the White House did not immediately react to the news.
Some Cuba watchers had speculated that Castro would stay in power longer, given a host of economic problems beyond the hurricane, a tense relationship with the United States stemming from mysterious acoustic incidents that damaged the health of American diplomats in Havana, and dwindling economic support from its staunch ally Venezuela.
Although the Cuban government says the economy has grown by 1.6 percent this year, some independent economists say they expect no growth or worse when this year’s final figures are tallied.
“I know very well how they think and react. To me, it’s inconceivable facing the current circumstances that they would retire,” Domingo Amuchastegui, a former Cuban intelligence analyst who now lives in Miami, told the Miami Herald earlier this month. “And it’s not just him [Castro], but it’s the whole team — the historic generation — that would be expected to go forward for a time.”
And in June, Mariela Castro — Raúl Castro’s daughter, said in an interview with a Spanish radio station that “there are many people that don’t want my father to leave power, many people that are pressuring that he won’t do it.”
For Florida Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the postponement of the election was more or less what she expected. “It’s unsurprising that Castro would make a play to stay in power and continue to oppress the Cuban people,” she said. “The Castros have never willingly given up power. Cubans deserve freedom, fair elections, and the liberties those of us enjoy in this country, not the dictator who currently occupies the seat of power.”
On Thursday night, in a speech before the National Assembly, Castro said he will complete his promise and in April Cuba “will have a new president.”
This is the first time since 1976, when limited elections were reintroduced on the island, that the Cuban government has changed the dates of the elections.
The delay also gives Castro more time before the transition to try to finalize potential deals with other countries that could help the ailing Cuban economy, said Andy Gómez, the interim director of the University of Miami’s Institute of Cuban and Cuban-American Studies.
“The pragmatic Raúl Castro wants to pass the baton when the economy is in better shape,” Gómez said. “The Cuban economy is not going to recover in 60 days, but it does give him more time to reach out to other countries.”
One of them could be the U.S., he said: “Sources tell me that the Cubans are working on a plan to present to the United States that would make Cuba more attractive for U.S. investment. That would require [President Donald Trump] to change some of his executive orders on Cuba.”
Another might be Russia. Castro met with Igor Sechin, president of Rosneft, the oil company majority-owned by the Russian government, on Saturday — raising expectations that energy announcements favorable to Cuba might be forthcoming.
Amuchastegui said Thursday it is true that Irma took a devastating toll on Cuba as it raked the northern coast of almost the entire island but agrees that “buying time is part of the game — but buying time for what is the question.”
During the presidential campaign, Trump repeatedly said that the United States needed to get a better deal with Cuba than the one negotiated by the Obama administration during the historic restoration of U.S.-Cuba diplomatic ties. Since Trump took office in January, relations between the two countries have deteriorated.
In the wake of acoustic incidents or attacks that the United States said caused hearing loss and other health problems for 24 diplomats stationed in Havana, the United States withdrew all but a skeletal staff at its embassy in Havana and ordered the expulsion of 15 Cuban diplomats from Washington. While the United States hasn’t directly blamed Cuba for the incidents, it has said Cuba had the responsibility to protect American diplomats while they were on Cuban soil.
Encouraged by several Cuban-American members of Congress, the U.S.-Cuba relationship has taken a political turn under Trump and his administration issued new regulations that prevent most business dealings between U.S. companies and entities controlled by the Cuban military. The Mariel Special Economic Development Zone — a centerpiece of Cuban efforts to attract foreign investment — was among the Cuban entities placed on the prohibited list.
Amuchastegui said Cuba has made it clear that the “door is open” to business relations with the United States. That could lead to a better relationship with the U.S. by April 2018 and a normal transition of power, or the Trump administration could respond to political pressure to put Cuba back on the list of state sponsors of terrorism, a move that could result in a different type of transition, he said.
By the end of March the United States also will make a determination whether it wants to send its diplomats back to Havana or declare the U.S. embassy in Havana a “hostile post,” said William LeoGrande, a government professor at American University. That will be an “important decision point” on where the U.S. is heading in its relationship with the island, he said.
The Central Committee of Cuba’s Communist Party also plans to meet in March in advance of the National Assembly election to discuss the results of the economic guidelines, or reforms, introduced under Castro and talk about a strategy for the coming years.
The delay in the transfer of power opens up more questions about who Castro’s successor might be. Cuban First Vice President Miguel Díaz-Canel, a man who was born after the triumph of the 1959 Cuban Revolution, has been widely viewed as the most likely successor to Castro.
There was no mention of Díaz-Canel’s role in the official announcement, but he and Castro sat together at Thursday’s session of the National Assembly.
Díaz Canel has “institutional legitimacy … and for being the person who Raúl Castro has deposited his confidence in and indicated as an eventual successor,” said Cuban political analyst Carlos Alzugaray in an email sent to el Nuevo Herald.
“However, unlike Fidel and Raúl, Díaz-Canel does not have the legitimacy of being un histórico, [one of the historic leaders of the Cuban Revolution] in a country where this has importance and is a source not only of legitimacy but also of authority,” Alzugaray said. Without that legitimacy, Díaz-Canel will have to show results, especially in the economic sphere, he said.
During Wednesday’s session of the National Assembly, Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez gave a pep talk of sorts, saying Cuba’s “problems have solutions and there can be no giving up.”
Whoever succeeds Castro will be called upon to balance the desires of Cuban hardliners and those who want the Cuban economy to open more and the outreach to the United States to continue.
Some Cuban dissidents have noted what they consider “lack of leadership” by the Cuban vice president, who has issued harsh statements about the United States and the Cuban opposition in a leaked video.
“I do not see a scope in his thought or in his expression,” Antonio Rodiles said in a recent interview. Rodiles and fellow Cuban activist Ailer González believe that Castro is preparing a transfer of generational power in which Diaz-Canel, 57, would be the face of a government controlled by the Communist Party with Castro remaining as the party’s first secretary and his son, Col. Alejandro Castro Espín, also at the forefront.
“Díaz-Canel is perfect for that because he does not have any power, nor anyone who follows him, nor a commanding voice,” González said.
Amuchastegui said he doesn’t buy the Castro dynasty model but said it’s clear Díaz-Canel won’t wield the power of the Castros. “The whole process will result in collective leadership. It will not be Díaz-Canel as superstar or a one-man show. That has come to an end. There will be no commander in chief.”
Follow Mimi Whitefield on Twitter: @HeraldMimi
Follow Nora Gámez Torres on Twitter: @ngameztorres