Accustomed to reading between the lines, Cubans have been speculating about the fate of three “historic” revolutionary leaders — José Ramón Machado Ventura, Ramiro Valdés Menéndez and Guillermo García Frías — all of whom were honored in a recent ceremony.
Cuban leader Raúl Castro awarded the trio medals as “Heroes of Labor” during the Feb. 24 ceremony in Havana’s recently renovated Capitolo building, which serves as the new headquarters for the National Assemby. The awards generally indicate the honorees will soon retire from public life.
“This is goodbye,” Reinaldo Escobar, editor of the 14ymedio digital news page, told el Nuevo Herald during a Miami visit. “That would mean Ramiro Valdés, Machado Ventura and Guillermo García may be removed from the Council of State,” the executive body of the island's legislature, the National Assembly of People's Power.
Castro, 86, has promised to retire from the presidency of the Council of State and the Council of Ministers (the cabinet) in April, fueling intense interest in the succession. The newly elected National Assembly to be inaugurated in April will officially select the new Council of State.
“That award ceremony seems to show Raúl Castro's desire to leave his top government position not alone, but with his three old cronies,” former political prisoner René Gomez Manzano wrote in a column published in Cubanet, a digital news site. “If that was not the case, this solemn ceremony would not make much sense. In the Communist liturgy, awarding medals is usually the prologue for a demotion and retirement.”
Machado, 87, is considered a top influential figure. He was first vice president of the Council of State from 2008-2013 and remains second secretary of the Cuban Communist Party (PCC) — both posts No. 2 to Castro. Machado and Valdés remain among the five vice presidents of the Council of State and sit on the PCC’s Political Bureau.
Valdés, 85, served many years as Minister of the Interior, in charge of domestic and national security and Cuba's intelligence services. García, 90, is a member of the Council of State and the PCC Central Committee.
Machado and Valdés are believed to be part of a conservative faction within the government that views with suspicion the reforms Castro launched after he replaced his ailing brother Fidel in 2006, such as improved U.S. relations.
Their departure might help to clear the way for Castro's successor as well as a reformist agenda to try fix the island's grave problems: an economy stalled by the crisis in Venezuela, the dual-currency system, an aged population, little foreign investments, tense relations with Washington and younger generations who want more change.
“The entire historic generation is retiring. That's what was planned. And that's healthy and important. Let a new generation of young people come up,” said someone close to the Cuban government who asked for anonymity for fear of retaliation. “Whomever becomes (Castro's successor), will be a great hope.”
Machado, Valdés and García all participated in the first stages of Fidel Castro's revolution and have held a series of top government jobs over the past 60 years. And, like Raúl Castro, they are all over the age of 85.
In recent years, Castro has been publicly adament that a generational change in the top leadership is needed to guarantee the continuity of the island's Communist system.
In 2013, Castro announced that he would retire in 2018, at the end of his second five-year-term, as president of the Council of State. Machado was then replaced as first vice president of the Council of State with Miguel Díaz-Canel, signaling that the 57-year-old engineer with a long history of PCC and government service could be Castro's successor.
During a PCC congress in 2016 Castro also proposed a maximum age of 70 and two terms for the party's Central Committee. Those changes were supposed to be part of a constitutional reform that never took place.
The National Assembly is not expected to observe that age limit, because both Machado and Valdés have bullet-proof nominations for seats in the new legislature come April.
“I do think these tributes are a prelude to these three históricos stepping down their positions on the Council of State in April, in line with the two-term limit on holding high posts,” said William LeoGrande, an American University professor who follows Cuba closely.
Even if Castro fulfills his promise to leave the presidency of the Council of State in April, he could stay on the council as “just another member,” said Escobar of 14ymedio. Castro is expected to retain the top post at the PCC.
A meeting of the PCC Central Committee scheduled for March 18 might also throw up some surprises, such as the replacement of Machado as second secretary with Díaz-Canel or another younger cadre.
The Granma newspaper, official voice of the Communist Party, has reported that the meeting's agenda includes “deepening … the strategic projection for the coming years.”
LeoGrande said the changes will likely be limited to the government and will exclude the PCC, which is expected to have a stabilizing role in the transition.
“I would be surprised if they (Valdés and Machado) were also replaced on the Political Bureau of the party right away. Raúl has tried to smooth the generational transmission by keeping some senior people in place while promoting younger people so that the leadership combines both,” he said.
But even if Castro, Machado and other members of the old generation of leaders retain their party jobs, it may not be for long. The next congress of the PCC should take place in 2021.
“Does anyone believe that Raúl Castro will be head of the party until his 90s? I don't think so,” said Escobar.
The departure of the old leadership, if it happens, could also be interpreted as a response to the international and domestic pressures faced by Castro and his inner circle at this transitional moment for the government.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson suggested in February that the future of bilateral relations — now at a standstill because of the alleged health attacks on U.S. diplomats in Havana — would depend on what happens with the leadership transition.
“Cuba has an opportunity in their own transfer of power from decades of the Castro regime to take a new direction,” Tillerson said. “The future of our relationship is up to Cuba – the United States will continue to support the Cuban people in their struggle for freedom.”
The head of the Organization of American States, Luis Almagro, said in Miami last month that the Castro regime was “the worst kind of dictatorship” and urged OAS member nations to reject “a non-democratic succession” in Cuba.
He also offered his support to the campaign for a plebiscite known as Cubadecide and led by Rosa María Payá. She has urged the international community to refuse to recognize the new National Assembly and Council of State because they are not directly elected by voters.
Several dissidents also have launched the campaign “Más castrismo para qué” (More Castro rule for what?) to denounce what they allege is an “electoral farce” that would allow Castro family members to retain the reins of power. Raúl Castro's son, Col. Alejandro Castro Espín, heads the powerful National Defense Commission but was not nominated to a seat in the National Assembly — and, therefore, cannot be president under current law.
Several opposition activists tried to register their candidacies during recent local elections just to show that the nomination and election process was not democratic and was controlled by the government. None of them won nomination.
Many Cubans who don't directly oppose the government have also started to question the island's electoral system, in which a “Candidates Commission” appointed by the government selects the candidates who can be elected to the National Assembly. Cuban law only recognizes the Communist Party or PCC.
An online discussion organized by the official Cubadebate site drew the following questions: “Wouldn't a separation of powers be useful for the country? “Why do the Candidates Commission and the electoral commission belong to the Assemblies, and are not independent of them?” “What's the basis for the selection process for the Assembly candidates who are not nominated by voters at the base level?” and “Why keep candidates who have an enviable personal record but who are well past their 80s?”
Follow Nora Gámez Torres en Twitter: @ngameztorres.