As expected, Cuban leader Miguel Díaz-Canel will continue holding the title of president of Cuba, according to the results of a vote in the National Assembly on Thursday. However, some “historical” members of the Fidel Castro-led revolution lost their positions in the government.
Salvador Valdés Mesa, currently the first vice president, was reelected. But the body reduced the previous count of five vice presidents to only one, stripping Ramiro Valdés of the title. Valdés, 87, is one of the commanders who accompanied Castro in the guerrilla fight leading to the Cuban revolution. Valdés maintains his seat in the influential Political Bureau of the Communist Party.
Another of the historical commanders, Guillermo García Frías, 91, was not reelected to the State Council, the National Assembly’s executive branch. Recently, García Frías provoked a wave of criticism by advocating on national television for ostrich breeding to alleviate food shortages on the island.
Over the past few years, Raúl Castro, Fidel’s brother who passed the presidency to Díaz-Canel in April 2018, had hinted that a generational change was needed to guarantee the continuity of the island’s socialist system.
On Thursday, the nearly 600 deputies also kept Esteban Lazo and Ana María Machado as president and vice president of the National Assembly. Both will chair the State Council. Homero Acosta Álvarez, the current secretary of the Council of State, remains in his position and will also be secretary of the National Assembly.
Only one candidate for each position, including that of the president, was nominated by an electoral commission composed of members of mass organizations controlled by the Communist Party.
Díaz-Canel’s title changed from “President of the Council of State” to “President of the Republic,” reflecting a new power division at the top of the government that weakens the presidency. He will remain as head of state but will not be head of government or preside over the Council of Ministers, functions that will be taken by a prime minister.
Díaz-Canel will now have up to three months to appoint a prime minister.
Members of the Cuban opposition quickly criticized the vote, which was broadcast several hours later by Cuban television channels.
“It is a theater play poorly represented, that lacks the minimum conditions required to be called an electoral process,” said Rosa María Payá, who heads Cubadecide, an initiative that seeks to hold a referendum on the political system in Cuba. “The generals in charge of the dictatorship did not even worry about publishing the names of the alleged candidates beforehand.”
The changes in the government’s structure, the most significant in several decades, were introduced in a new Constitution approved in February in a referendum in which almost two million Cubans voted against, abstained, or annulled their votes.
Although government functions were divided, the most important decisions will continue to be dictated by the Communist Party, headed by Raúl Castro. Article 5 of the new Constitution establishes that the Party “is the leading political force of society and the State.”
The commission that drafted the constitutional text — also led by Castro — decided that the Assembly should reappoint a president and a vice president from among its deputies this year, without calling new general elections.
Cubans can elect their representatives before parliament but not the president.
The deputies also selected on Thursday the members of the State Council, the assembly’s executive branch, which was reduced to 21 members. The new Constitution also fused the leadership of the Assembly and the Council into one team. With the reduction, the State Council also loses influence because ministers, officials in the judicial branch, members of the electoral commission, and the public comptroller cannot have seats at the Council.
After climbing up the Party career ladder, Díaz-Canel succeeded Castro as president in 2018 after a vote in the Assembly; he was the only candidate. Castro said he had been preparing Díaz-Canel as his successor for several years.
While the prime minister will make executive decisions on a daily basis, as president, Díaz-Canel will still be the head of the armed forces.
But as long as Castro is alive and dozens of high-ranking generals with historical ties to Fidel Castro control most of the economy, experts do not believe that Díaz-Canel has real power over the armed forces.
Payá asked the international community not to recognize the government headed by Díaz-Canel as legitimate.
“The world cannot accept as good what we Cubans have not chosen,” she said. “The ‘new government’ is subordinated to the dictatorship, and together they constitute a usurpation government. They must be treated as such by democracies around the world.”
Follow Nora Gámez Torres on Twitter: @ngameztorres