Though Raul Castro may no longer occupy the president’s office, he is anything but a has-been. He still controls the island’s power centers: the Communist Party and the armed forces. Article 5 of Cuba’s constitution lays out the party’s supreme authority, stating, “the Marxist-Leninist Communist Party of Cuba … is the leading force of society and of the State.” And Cuba’s Revolutionary Armed Forces have been led by the younger Castro since its creation in 1959. (Incidentally, Diaz-Canel is not the first non-Castro president to serve the regime. From 1959 to 1976, Osvaldo Dorticos Torrado held that title. But many today are unfamiliar with his name, because the presidency in Cuba is a powerless role when occupied by someone who doesn’t control the party and the military.)
Much like in the case of Che Guevara, romanticized recollections of Diaz-Canel as a long-haired, bicycle-riding youth are at odds with the facts. Only a shrewd political operative could have survived the bare-knuckled world of Cuban politics and emerged as president.
Immediately after assuming office, Diaz-Canel ended speculation that he would be an agent of change. “I affirm to this assembly that comrade Raul will head the decisions for the present and the future of the nation,” he announced. “Raul remains at the front of the political vanguard.” Diaz-Canel also vowed to prevent the restoration of capitalism.
The last 59 years of Cuban history demonstrate that the government exists to serve the Castros’ desire to advance communism. For years, Raul Castro fooled many into believing he was a pragmatic reformer. He pushed surface-level economic changes—enough to provide Cubans with cash, but not so much as to risk inspiring political change. Restrictions were loosened for Cuban entrepreneurs, but only under the strictest of conditions. A license was required for all commercial activity, including driving a cab and repairing a mattress. Government dissidents were excluded for obvious reasons.
While regime apologists insisted Raul would open Cuba to the world, he was busy making other plans. Under his leadership, control of Cuba’s state-run economy was slowly transferred to Raul loyalists. His ex-son-in-law, General Luis Alberto Lopez-Callejas, took over GAESA, the Armed Forces Business Enterprises Group. GAESA is run as a state-owned-and-operated holding company of over 50 business entities, from airlines to currency exchange services.
GAVIOTA, the military’s tourism company, is the crown jewel in the GAESA empire and the backbone of the Cuban economy. National Review editor Rich Lowry compared the setup to the Pentagon owning the Radisson, Marriott, and Hilton hotel chains. Throw in the auto rental industry, tour guides, and other enterprises that make money off various travelers, and you get the idea.