Months after his elevation to head of state, the new Cuban president, Miguel Díaz-Canel, largely remains a mystery. At most, we have just begun to catch glimpses of his long-term strategy and personality as a leader.
We can’t predict the future with certainty, but it seems clear that he has inherited a far weaker position than his predecessors, Fidel and Raúl Castro. He is beset on all sides by countless crises, with far less political capital than the Castros to face the challenges ahead. Whatever long-term solutions he may have in mind, for now he is keeping them close to his chest.
One factor that will undoubtedly play a role in the survival or shipwreck of his government is his ability to address a crisis of legitimacy that had already become noticeable under his predecessors.
The reason this is so important is simple. Since 1959 the Cuban government has based its rule not on democratic elections, but instead on a vertical command–style system with the head of state paternalistically shaping and implementing policy. Supporters of the Cuban Revolution had little effective means of controlling policy, but the government could count on their backing because Fidel Castro and the movement he led were considered legitimate due to their achievements and mythos. While the major crisis that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union and the rest of the Eastern Bloc shook Cuba to its core, the government was saved by the fact that it still enjoyed an important degree of public support from a significant part of the population. Cuba’s political system and leader weren’t foreign impositions, secured by threat of tanks, but instead were seen by many as a continuation of nationalist movements going back to the nineteenth century. The government’s supporters didn’t back it because it guaranteed great prosperity. They backed it because they saw it as the standard bearer of Cuban sovereignty, national pride, dignity, and the promise of a more just society.
This popular support and legitimacy was key, but not all Cubans embraced the revolutionary government. Cuba also used repressive mechanisms, including domestic intelligence services, to disrupt and disable any political opposition. Another significant sector of the population was most interested in having a normal life where they could raise a family. As time has passed and the fervor of the revolution has receded into memory, more and more Cubans seem to fall into this category.
Decorative democratic institutions exist in Cuba, of course—most notably the Asamblea Nacional del Poder Popular, Cuba’s legislature, which in practice has always been a rubber-stamp committee. But the government’s successful cultivation of its legitimacy by other means has allowed it to avoid either empowering these institutions or to turn to ruling purely through more repressive means. To illustrate Díaz-Canel’s relative weakness on this point, it is instructive to examine his two predecessors. (I am excluding President Osvaldo Dorticós Torrado, in office from 1959 to 1976, since in practice Fidel ruled Cuba during that period.)
Fidel Castro came to power after a guerrilla war. He had overthrown the dictator Fulgencio Batista, who had upended the constitutional order in 1952 and ruled the country through terror and bloodshed. While Fidel’s government failed in its promise to restore the constitution of 1940, it did fulfill many old popular demands, such as land reform, and it implemented programs directed at helping Cuba’s poorest. The failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961 was a boon to the revolution, allowing it to frame itself as the David to the United States’s Goliath—a true inheritor of the tradition of Cuban nationalism. Fidel’s foreign policy elevated the country on the world stage like never before, which delighted Cuban nationalists who had chafed under the neocolonial grip of the United States. These policies, in conjunction with mass public events like marches and public speeches, made his supporters feel like they were part of something greater than themselves, and that the government was on their side.
Parallel to these extra-institutional mechanisms, critics of the Cuban government were monitored and often blacklisted, berated, jailed, and otherwise mistreated by security and intelligence forces. The government achieved a large degree of control over access to information, including control of all media outlets and publishing houses as well as the importation of foreign literature. Censorship in the arts expanded under Fidel, reaching its zenith during the so-called “Grey Quinquennial” in the 1970s. Labor camps were used in the 1960s in an attempt to purge Cubans of homosexuality, religiosity, or other traits deemed a threat. While the camps closed after only a few years, people embodying those same traits were often blacklisted from good jobs.
Still, the government maintained legitimacy among many Cubans, rooted in Fidel’s interpersonal gifts, public events, and policies, and supporters forgave or even attempted to justify the state’s abuses and shortcomings. A good example of how this worked in practice is the famous “Maleconazo” in 1994, when Cubans took to Havana’s streets in desperation at the nadir of the post-Soviet economic crisis. Fidel personally marched out in the crowd with a group of supporters to defuse the situation. The decade would see mass migration, but not rebellion.
When Raúl Castro formally took control in 2008, his government abandoned marches almost entirely. He barely gave speeches; many Cubans joked to me that “Raúl no habla” (Raúl doesn’t speak). Instructions would come down from on high without much of an attempt to make supporters feel they were being taken into account. Many of the extra-institutional mechanisms that Fidel had used were abandoned.
Raúl had the luxury of permitting the government’s legitimacy to slowly atrophy because he could still lean on his family name, his leadership in the fight against Batista, his track record under Fidel, and the important personal networks he had cultivated over decades. He was already an established national figure in his own right, and his power didn’t only come from being Fidel’s brother.
Under Raúl’s administration, I noticed that while economic reforms—such as permission to open private businesses and contract employees—were often happily received, even supporters started to feel alienated from the government and its changes. Some felt the reforms didn’t go far enough or were being poorly implemented. Such misgivings were, for the most part, restricted to unhappy grumblings. Others argued that cutbacks to social programs, often referred to derisively as “gratuidades indebidas” (undue gratuities), signaled a turn towards austerity. In general, it seemed like the absence of Fidel’s personal touch and charm had laid bare the realities of power in a disquieting way.
Fidel’s political genius was to make his supporters feel like they had a stake in the government, even if in practice they lacked much power. Whether out of personal dislike for the spotlight or a desire to move away from personal legitimacy and toward institutionalism, Raúl experimented with mechanisms such as national public debates over the country’s new policy guidelines. Because major changes had to be made to the country’s economic system, Raúl utilized the debates as quasi-plebiscites, with the knowledge that they were nonbinding. Meanwhile, he continued to circumvent democratic institutions such as the national and provincial assemblies. The decision not to empower these institutions meant that while Raúl was moving toward a depersonalization of the government, he did not fundamentally change the vertical nature of Fidel’s system.
Contrary to his predecessors, Díaz-Canel isn’t a military man. He wasn’t even born at the time of the revolution, and he didn’t cover himself in glory in Angola in the 1980s. He is an administrator with no obvious pull among the army. In a heavily militarized country like Cuba, where the army runs much of the country directly, this poses a problem. He also doesn’t seem to have a significant base of popular support, having spent his years as heir apparent with limited engagement with the public.
In the early 2010s, Díaz-Canel’s official-unofficial status as dauphin inspired hope among government supporters I spoke to in Havana and a cautious neutrality among many working-class Cubans in Havana and the eastern provinces. In recent years, after speaking to the same people and new Cubans I met, there seems to be a growing rejection of Díaz-Canel, with previous supporters becoming more jaded. Díaz-Canel seems to be aware of this disconnect and has attempted to address it, among other ways, through more proactive engagement with the public, including through his new Twitter account. His visits to various parts of Cuba, such as areas recovering from hurricanes, are pretty standard fare for any head of state and shouldn’t be seen as a true emulation of Fidel’s strategy, but he also hasn’t shut himself off from the world like Raúl did. It’s a halfway, lukewarm solution that seems to do little to address the problem of the government’s ebbing support.
The Cuban government faces many challenges. It has lost its monopoly on information for good, with the internet and a semi-legal digital media distribution system known as “el paquete” (the package) inundating the Cuban media market. The achievements of the revolution—especially in healthcare and education—are slowly imploding due to being run on a shoestring budget for decades. Many young Cubans don’t seem to see a future in Cuba, preferring to emigrate, as many of my classmates who graduated with me in 2013 from the University of Havana have already done. Former government supporters I’ve spoken to have become more dejected about politics and more interested in focusing on meeting their immediate economic needs.
But the economy has been growing at a snail’s pace. The Cuban government, first under Raúl and now under Díaz-Canel, appears to be betting on economic reforms as a means to raise the standard of living and create a tax base with which to finance government spending. That strategy makes sense; it could reduce popular discontent and help the country’s chronically ailing finances. But it is also profoundly dangerous in the long-term if not paired with political reforms.
Capitalism is a system characterized by periodic economic crises. Even if the Cuban government wasn’t making major mistakes (it is), economic crises are bound to happen. Cuba is part of a broader international economic system. It depends on foreign trade and tourism for its prosperity. Eventually, a crisis will come to its doorstep, whether Cuba has a role in precipitating it or not. Fidel’s government weathered the 1990s in no small part because there was underlying commitment and support for the government among a significant section of the population. A government built on the prosperity of the moment would not have that same stability.
Díaz-Canel finds himself in a precarious position. The opening up of the economy over the last few years has been fairly popular, but it remains incomplete and unstable, with major policies being announced at the drop of a hat. Painful though necessary changes have fallen on him to implement, such as the long awaited unification of the country’s two currencies and the reform of its accounting system, both of which are required steps on the road to finally raising state wages but will bring a painful transition period that working-class Cubans will suffer from most.
To be fair, Díaz-Canel is still not entirely independent of his predecessor, so it is not clear what his policies will look like in the long term. While no longer head of state in name, Raúl Castro remains the power behind the throne as head of the Communist Party and would likely retain vast powers even if he formally stepped down from all government posts. In any case, if Díaz-Canel intends to set himself and his successors on a more solid footing by creating a true successor government capable of outliving any one man or family, it will need to be done in combination with a revitalization of more democratic institutions. (While the government’s domestic intelligence and police services are still quite strong, it is extremely unlikely that the current government could get away with implementing even half the repressive measures taken in the 1960s or 1970s, which government supporters now apologetically refer to as “errors” of the past.)
Just to name a few possibilities, the government could permit direct voting for political leadership; it could empower the national and provincial assemblies and keep them in session for more than two brief moments during the year; it could empower the Workers’ Central Union of Cuba so that workers actually control it and defend their interests through it. The possibilities are vast, even without considering the creation of entirely new institutions. The government would lose some of its seemingly limitless present reach, but in exchange for empowering its citizens and democratic institutions, it would encourage identification with the political system, bolster its legitimacy, and offer institutional mechanisms by which state excesses and abuses can actually be redressed.
The Cuban government finds itself at a crossroads. If it focuses solely on economic reforms and limits political reform to cosmetic or ineffectual changes, it will be like cast iron: hard but brittle. If instead it builds new mechanisms for legitimation, it would be able to build a more lasting foundation.
It is not clear to me that democratization is on the horizon. Nor is it clear whether Díaz-Canel could realistically implement such changes without Raúl’s blessing and the backing of a significant part of the existing government. We do not know how Díaz-Canel will govern once Raúl passes away or leaves politics. But democratization might stem the hemorrhaging legitimacy of the government. And it would help meet the still unfulfilled promise of restoring the Cuban people’s right to decide their country’s future—a promise made when the revolution was a handful of guerrilla fighters in the Sierra Maestra.
Andrés Pertierra is a Cuban-American historian currently living and working in Washington, D.C.