Castro seeks to do away with the old guard as a way to preserve socialism, analysts say

From right, former president and head of the Communist Party Raúl Castro, second secretary of the party Jose Ramón Machado Ventura, and Revolutionary Commander and current vice-president Ramiro Valdés attend a rally in 2009.
From right, former president and head of the Communist Party Raúl Castro, second secretary of the party Jose Ramón Machado Ventura, and Revolutionary Commander and current vice-president Ramiro Valdés attend a rally in 2009. AP

Fidel and Raúl Castro imposed Communist rule on Cuba and governed it for nearly 60 years without interruption. But now Raúl, 86, is trying to assure his legacy by imposing age and term limits on the presidency, almost unthinkable just years ago.

Castro surrendered the presidential seat in April but remains head of the Cuban Communist Party (CCP) and led the constitutional reform commission that is proposing limiting the age for incoming presidents to no older than 60 and mandating that they can’t serve more than two five-year terms.

Some Cuba political analysts say the new restrictions are a clear message to the generation of old guard — so-called “historical” leaders of the Cuban revolution who helped the late Fidel Castro seize power in 1959 — that their time is up.

“To limit the age for entering the presidency to 60 appears to be a deliberate effort by Raúl to block the road for certain generals known to want power,” said Carlos Alberto Montaner, a syndicated columnist.

The change “tries to close the path for the ambitions of those who accompanied them for a long time,” said opposition activist Manuel Cuesta Morúa. He added that enacting the proposed restrictions “makes no sense” in a country with an aged population and one of the highest life expectancies in the hemisphere.

The two-term limit fits the new government model detailed in the proposed revised constitution, which seeks to strengthen institutions and impose “collective” rule — a word used repeatedly by Miguel Díaz-Canel, who replaced Raúl Castro as president in April.

The proposed constitution — its full text has not been published and was drafted by a CCP-appointed commission — includes three government posts: president, vice president and prime minister. The prime minister would essentially serve as an administrator, overseeing the Council of Ministers. The president of the legislative National Assembly would be in charge of the Council of State, the executive branch of the assembly.

“The division of powers seeks more circulation within the elites, like China,” said Cuesta Morúa, who is pushing for an independent debate of the proposed changes. The new constitution is expected to be put to a vote through a national referendum.

Castro has spent years preparing a transition that guarantees the continuity of the socialist system. The new constitution would not change the one-party rule system, even though references to communism were erased from the known parts of the text. One key element of that process is the “generational relay” that Castro mentioned in several of his speeches.

“Communist systems have been notorious for having a hard time making generational transitions,” said American University professor William LeoGrande. “Mao Zedong held onto power until he was senile and bed-ridden. In the Soviet Union, Brezhnev and his contemporaries held on for so long that three general secretaries of the Communist Party died within just three years, between 1982 and 1985.”

“Raúl Castro learned the lesson that term limits would prevent that sort of leadership stagnation, and adopted a model similar to China’s before Xi Jinping,” LeoGrande said.

According to LeoGrande, the new obstacles put on the path of the old guard are not likely designed to directly benefit the next generation of Castros — a theory popular among some dissidents. Only Raúl Castro’s daughter Mariela currently sits on the National Assembly — a requirement for any higher government posts. Fidel Castro’s children have never held any political posts.

Resistance to Raúl Castro’s efforts to block the old guard has been evident in some recent public events. Stunned silence met his announcement to a CCP gathering in 2016 that he favored age and term limits for both party and government officials.

“These modifications on the issues of term and age limits for leadership posts should be included in the constitution that we plan to reform in coming years,” he said at the time.

But the government-controlled news media has not reported on whether the proposed draft also imposes term or age limits on lower posts, a possible indication that the PCC is not in agreement.

Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel, bottom left, and Vice-President Ramiro Valdés, bottom right, attend the National Assembly’s session to present the new Council of Ministers and discuss the draft of a new Constitution on July 21, 2018. JORGE BELTRAN AFP/Getty Images

The fact that Ramiro Valdés, 86, one of the “comandantes históricos” of the revolution was recently ratified as vice president by the National Assembly suggests that some members of the old guard are resisting their departure from power.

“Raúl has said that keeping some of the historical generation in place during the current generational transition is intended to assure stability. But the message is clear: a road is clear for a new generation,” said LeoGrande.

The proposed limits on the presidency are also viewed by some analysts as a thinly veiled acknowledgment that the dictatorial model of government installed by the late Fidel Castro, who ruled well into his 80s and who concentrated power in the hands of a few 80-year-olds, is increasingly unpopular among Cubans.

“The establishment of term limits, proposed by former president Raúl Castro Ruz, shows that ‘something was not right’ with ruling in perpetuity,” commented Yoandy Izquierdo, editor of the independent Convivencia magazine.

“I prefer to give the benefit of the doubt and believe that, whether it’s because of internal and external pressures, which do exist, or just to signal some light changes — which must be deeper, broader and with the participation of everyone — Cuba’s top leaders also must clearly believe that the situation, such as it is, is unsustainable,” Izquierdo added.

It would not be the first time that Raúl Castro has distanced himself from the legacy of his brother. After replacing an ailing Fidel in 2006, Raúl dismantled the so-called “Battle of Ideas,” replaced several Fidelistas with his own people and agreed to establish diplomatic relations with the United States, an offer that his older brother had rejected several times.

Raúl Castro, known for his pragmatism and admiration for political models like China’s, “is thinking about the Cuba of his children and his grandchildren, and he realizes that a future Cuba needs a young and dynamic president who can adapt to that context,” said one source close to the government who asked for anonymity to be able to talk about the issue frankly.

“These people (the historic leaders) fulfilled all their short, medium and long-term goals,” said the source. “What future can they have, when they are nearly 90 years old?”

Follow Nora Gámez Torres on Twitter: @ngameztorres
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