Cuba diversifies key government posts with somewhat younger but loyal leadership

Raúl Castro is shown with Miguel Díaz-Canel on April 18, the opening day of the National Assembly session that propelled Díaz-Canel to Cuba's presidency.
Raúl Castro is shown with Miguel Díaz-Canel on April 18, the opening day of the National Assembly session that propelled Díaz-Canel to Cuba's presidency. AFP/Getty Images

When Miguel Díaz-Canel was elevated to the presidency of Cuba's Council of State last week, a group of more diverse politicians — many not born or who were children at the time of the 1959 Cuban Revolution — joined him in high-level positions on the council.

Díaz-Canel's selection as Cuba's new president was the beginning of a generational shift in power as Cuba starts to address the inevitable march of time and the thinning ranks of "historicos" who fought in the revolution.

Forty-two percent of the 31 members selected for the Council of State are new, and women now hold 48.4 percent of the council seats. Black and mixed-raced representation on the council has reached 45.2 percent.

"From what I see, these people are loyal to the [Communist] party and the approach of gradual change," said Ted Piccone, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based think tank. "I see the rationale behind these new leaders as a very deliberate plan to preserve the revolution and insure the survival of the party for future generations."

Two members of the revolutionary old guard, 87-year-old José Ramón Machado Ventura, a former Council of State vice president, and Gen. Alvaro López Miera, 75, who fought alongside fellow revolutionaries in Cuba's eastern provinces as a 14-year-old, no longer hold seats on the new council. Machado Ventura, however, stills retains his post as No. 2 in the Communist Party of Cuba (PCC).

Revolutionary Comandante Ramiro Valdés, 85, a former Interior minister, retained his post as one of five vice presidents on the Council of State. He is also a vice president of the Council of Ministers, but it remains to be seen whether he'll also keep that job when the National Assembly of People's Power convenes again in July to approve a new Council of Ministers.

During last week's transition, Raúl Castro said that Machado Ventura had "offered" to give up his vice presidency "to make way for the new generation."

Raúl Castro awarded the title of “Hero of Labor” to José Ramón Machado Ventura, 87, second secretary of the Communist Party of Cuba. He no longer has a seat on the Council of State. Granma Granma

While Valdés is "another old-school hardliner," his retention "signals the importance of having the continuity of the older generation" on the Council of State, said Piccone.

Although 58-year-old Díaz-Canel was relatively unknown outside Cuba before the National Assembly, Cuba's parliament, ratified him as president of the Council of State and Council of Ministers, the former provincial party chieftain's rise through the political ranks began decades ago.

Castro said Díaz-Canel was among a dozen promising younger candidates who had been groomed for higher office for many years. Most of the others have risen to the level of the Communist Party's Political Bureau but Castro joked that Díaz-Canel was the only "survivor" to make it all the way to the presidency.

Although Díaz-Canel is expected to rule in the shadow of Castro, whose term as head of the powerful Communist Party of Cuba doesn't expire until 2021, Castro said the goal is to eventually have the same person as president of the Council of State and Council of Ministers and as first secretary of the party.

"His rise to the maximum state and governmental responsibility of the nation has not been the result of change or haste," said Castro, who added that Cuba still has work to do to make the political hierarchy more representative of the Cuban population .

"Now it's necessary to continue, as you yourselves have said, into decision-making posts, not only to increase the numbers," Castro told the National Assembly.

The National Assembly meets twice yearly to debate and approve new laws, but Cuba's Council of State stays in session throughout the year and approves decrees in the interim.

The man who now occupies the first vice president seat is Salvador Valdés Mesa, 72, a former labor leader who was trained as an agricultural engineer. Valdés Mesa and two of the other newly seated vice presidents are black.

Cuba's new president Miguel Diaz-Canel, center, applauds as he stands beside First Vice-President Salvador Antonio Valdes Mesa, second right, and Commander of the Revolution Ramiro Valdes, at the National Assembly in Havana, Cuba, Thursday, April 19, 2018. Raul Castro left the presidency after 12 years in office when the National Assembly approved Diaz-Canel's nomination as the candidate for the top government position. (Alexandre Meneghini/Pool via AP)

He was a teenager working in agricultural fields at the time of the Cuban Revolution and quickly became active, joining the national militia to protect against threats from the United States, participating in the literacy campaign of the 1960s and becoming a regional secretary general of the Association of Young Rebels. He was elected secretary general of the Young Communist League just after its formation.

Like Díaz-Canel, Valdés Mesa has climbed steadily through the Communist bureaucracy, serving in provincial party and labor posts. He is a former minister of work and social security and is a member of the party's Central Committee and Political Bureau. He served as secretary general of the Cuban Workers Federation from 2006 until 2013 when he was elected as one of five vice presidents of the Council of State.

"Valdés Mesa is ideal [for first vice president] because of his pragmatism," said Carlos Alzugaray, a Cuban academic and retired diplomat. "Raúl seems to have given [Díaz-Canel] a lot of leeway in choosing his team."

But Domingo Amuchastegui, a former Cuban intelligence analyst who now lives in Miami, said although Valdés Mesa is a "good guy, a self-made man from the working class, he is getting older." He said he was surprised Díaz-Canel hadn't chosen someone younger to have his back and presumably be ready to take over if he couldn't exercise his duties.

Besides Ramiro Valdés, who retained his vice president seat on the Council of State, the other four vice presidents are:

Roberto Tomás Morales Ojeda: A doctor, he has been minister of public health since 2013. Morales, a member of the Political Bureau, is a first-time vice president.

Gladys María Bejerano Portela: The 71-year-old economist is Cuba's comptroller general. She's a member of the PCC Central Committee and this is her second term as a vice president of the Council of State.

Betriz Jhonson Urrutia: The chemical engineer is serving her first term as a vice president of the Council of State. She has held various positions in the cement industry and was president of the provincial Assembly of People's Power in Santiago de Cuba. She's also a member of the Central Committee of the PCC.

Inés María Chapman: A hydraulic engineer, she is president of the National Institute of Hydraulic Resources and a new vice president.

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From left to right: Roberto Tomás Morales Ojeda, Gladys María Bejerano Portela, Betriz Jhonson Urrutia and Inés María Chapman.

Although the new vice presidents form a diverse group, they are all at least well into middle age. "There are younger generations in Cuba that are fully prepared, trained and qualified," said Amuchastegui. He said Cuba should be moving them into positions of influence.

There were also two other interesting departures from the Council of State: Mercedes López Acea, a vice president on the previous council, and Marino Murillo, who was known as the czar for Castro's now stalled economic reforms.

Castro said in his speech last week that López Acea, an engineer, was headed to a new job in the party Central Committee, but he made no mention of Murillo, who currently heads the Permanent Commission for Implementation and Development of the government's economic guidelines.

Follow Mimi Whitefield on Twitter: @heraldmimi