THE mills of God grind slowly, yet they grind exceeding small. So it is with the history of Cuba, which has long moved forward at a barely observable speed. The announcement by Raul Castro, aged 81, that he will retire in 2018, and that his likely successor as eventual president will be Miguel Diaz-Canel Bermudez (now appointed vice-president), aged 52, suddenly catapults the half-century-old revolutionary process into new and unfamiliar waters.
Four questions immediately pose themselves. What is the nature and character of the new leader? What will be his impact on the internal Cuban scene? What will be the future of the all-important economic relationship with Venezuela, which provides cheap oil in exchange for Cuban developmental aid (in terms of doctors, security advisers and sports instructors)? And how will a new Cuban leadership affect relations with the United States which has maintained an economic blockade of the island for the past half century?
For supporters of the Cuban revolution, there are reasons to give optimistic answers to all four questions. Diaz-Canel may have an unfortunate physical resemblance to a Soviet-style Bulgarian apparatchik of yesteryear but he has proved to be a competent administrator and a genial party chief in two provinces, Villa Clara and Holguin. Plucked from relative obscurity to be the youngest ever member of the politburo, he has been minister of higher education and has recently taken on important foreign roles. With a background as a university professor and an enthusiastic cyclist, he has also served in the armed forces, a significant and necessary detail in the biography of a future leader.
As a protégé of Raul Castro, Diaz-Canel has been a supporter of the current programme to introduce market forces into some aspects of the economy and there is no reason to suppose that this would not continue. The list of reforms is impressive: the introduction of co-operatives outside the agricultural area; the creation of private farms and businesses; the sale of private houses and cars; and the availability of visas for foreign travel.
Diaz-Canel has also been a strong advocate of the existing close relationship with Venezuela which will continue for the next six years under the likely Venezuelan presidency of Nicolas Maduro, the chosen successor of Chavez. An important feature of this relationship, aside from its economic benefits, is that Cuba is now respected and welcomed throughout the continent, not just with Venezuela’s close ideological allies like Bolivia and Ecuador, but also with Brazil and Argentina.
In this context it is now the US that is the odd man out. Indeed the most intriguing question now concerns Cuba’s future relationship with the US. Many people have expressed the hope that Obama, with no re-election problem to worry about, might feel emboldened to make conciliatory noises towards the existing Castro government.
The road to a new friendship remains a possibility, yet one of the stumbling blocks has been the continued existence of a Castro in power. Under the terms of the Helms-Burton Act, imposed by the US Congress in 1996, the US cannot contemplate recognising a Cuban government in which one of the Castro brothers has a continuing role. By 2018, this will no longer be relevant. There seems little doubt that under a future President Diaz-Canel, Cuba would be able to forge a new and beneficial relationship with the US. — The Guardian, London