In totalitarian regimes, the road to bureaucratic success is not through hard work but through loyalty.
Dressed in an impeccable, custom-tailored suit and a Versace tie, instead of his usual military fatigues, General Raul Castro addressed the Cuban Parliament on February 24. He did not discuss political or economic reforms. Instead, he announced he would be stepping down from power at the end of the five-year term for which he had just been elected. If the Pope retires, "I can also retire," he explained. Yet the Cubans would have to wait for the "younger" brother to reach 87 years of age to see the end of the Castro dynasty.
But not so fast. There are other Castros in the wings. In particular, Raul's son, Alejandro Castro Espin, a colonel in Cuba's intelligence apparatus, could be groomed in the future by becoming a general and a member of the Communist Party Politburo, Cuba's ruling body. In the meantime, Raul appointed a younger Communist, Miguel Diaz Canel, as first vice president among five other vice presidents. A hardline party apparatchik, Diaz Canel, a 52-year-old engineer and former Minister of Education, grew up under Fidel's and Raul's shadow as an obedient and disciplined Marxist. A protégé of Ramon Machado Ventura, an old communist and (till Sunday) first vice president, Diaz Canel mirrors the ideological rigidity of his mentor.
"I was not chosen to be president to restore capitalism to Cuba. I was elected to defend, maintain and continue to perfect socialism and not to destroy it."
A second appointment followed. This one for President of the National Assembly (Cuba's Parliament). Raul picked another old and loyal Communist, Esteban Lazo. Lazo has been the only prominent Cuban black to occupy any high-ranking position in the predominantly white-controlled Cuban government. A bland, obedient bureaucrat, Lazo will follow the Parliaments' tradition of rubber-stamping the laws issued by the leadership.
The two appointments seemed more symbolic than significant. Raul Castro wanted to send a double message: that the octogenarian Cuban leadership was now giving way to a new, younger generation of leaders. Also, aware of the unhappiness among Cuba's black population, impoverished and neglected by the regime, Castro wanted to elevate a loyal supporter to the ceremonial position in the Parliament. It is doubtful that the majority of Cubans (more than 60 percent of whom are black and mulatto) will be appeased by these appointments or renew their belief in the Cuban revolutionary leadership. Similarly, the appointment of a young hardline bureaucrat is unlikely to gain much favor with Cuba's youth, hoping for deeper political and economic changes.
Raul Castro seemed to have overlooked legal requirements in his own constitution, which calls for the Party's Political Bureau to be the key group to recommend a post-Castro successor. If Raul dies or becomes incapacitated, the Politburo will recommend and the Council of State will decide who will be Cuba's new president. Since the Politburo is dominated by the military, it's obvious who will make the final decision. Not only does the military control the Party's Politburo, but more than 60 percent of the island's state enterprises, including the all-important tourist industry, are in the hands of the military.
Diaz Canel's tenure as first vice president may follow the fate of other younger leaders promoted earlier by Fidel Castro. Former Czars of the economy Carlos Aldana and Carlos Lage and former foreign ministers Roberto Robaina and Felipe Perez Roque were all promoted in the past to those key positions, only to be removed by Castro when he doubted their loyalty or resented their prominence.
It is one of the ironies of totalitarian regimes that the road to bureaucratic success is not through efficiency or hard work but through loyalty. Perhaps Diaz Canel has learned this lesson in his short career. Without any popular support or base of power in the military, his future may be as precarious as those of his comrades fired from their jobs and now living in oblivion.
In the meantime, Raul Castro will still rule with an iron fist. Some Cuba observers expect that Raul will open up the economy and even provide some political changes. Not so soon. With Fidel alive, or even when he is dead, it would be difficult for Raul to reject his brother's legacy of political and economic centralization. His legitimacy is based on being Fidel's heir. Any major move to reject Fidel's "teachings" would create uncertainty among Cuba's ruling elites - party and military. It could also increase instability as some would advocate rapid change, while others cling to more orthodox policies. Cubans could see this as an opportunity for mobilization, demanding faster reforms.