Cracks showing in Cuba’s leadership

Nora Gamez Torres –
Six months after taking office as president of Cuba, Miguel Diaz-Canel will preside over ceremonies marking the 60th anniversary of a revolution while facing a stagnant economy and growing citizen protests. Six decades into its socialist experiment, his government is still trying to figure out how to satisfy the basic necessities of its population.
With minimal economic growth in 2018 and continuing shortages of basic staples like flour at year-end, experts say the government is failing under his leadership.
Unlike his predecessors, who ruled with almost absolute power, Diaz-Canel exposed internal conflicts this year when his government reversed unpopular regulations to increase control over the private sector.
“By revising the regulations governing the private sector and making concessions to the artists on the decree law regulating the arts, the government has shown a responsiveness to organised public pressure that is unprecedented,” said William Leo Grande, a Cuba expert at American University.
“This pragmatic response indicates both the government’s flexibility and its recognition that the Cuba of 2018 is not one in which people will simply accept whatever the authorities dictate.”
Six decades after the January 1, 1959, triumph of the revolution led by Fidel Castro, Diaz-Canel stands as the figurehead of a country that only recently gave mobile phone users access to the Internet.
Limits on the number of permits for private-sector work that any one person can have and the number of chairs allowed at private restaurants, which were included in a decree published in July, also sparked discontent among the so-called self-employed.
After months of criticisms, Labor Minister Magarita Gonzalez announced in early December that those two measures had been erased.
Diaz-Canel defended the decision. “There’s no reason to believe corrections are steps backward,” he wrote.
But the tribulations of Cuba’s new leader — he succeeded Raul Castro in April — did not stop there.
Cuban artists put up a united front to criticise Decree 349, which legalised works of art and requires artists to obtain government work permits. The protests drew support from dissident artists like Tania Bruguera and even icons of the revolution like singer Silvio Rodríguez.
“Decree 349 is something they put in front of our president to sign, without any discussion among the artists,” Rodríguez wrote in his blog.
Although the decrees were made public in July, after Diaz-Canel was named president of the Council of State, many were signed by Raul Castro, who remains head of the ruling Communist Party of Cuba. Diaz-Canel signed the decree.
Diaz-Canel “does not hold the same historical legitimacy of Raúl or Fidel or the same ultra-concentration of power, and the people know it,” said Ted Henken, a Baruch College professor who follows Cuban affairs.
Experts agree Diaz-Canel will have to offer tangible improvements in the daily lives of Cubans, which seems unlikely in the short run because of the island’s complex economic and political situation and an administration in the US that has promised to step up pressure on Cuba.
Cuba’s gross domestic product rose slightly in 2018, but the growth “still does not help the people like what we need,” Diaz-Canel told the National Assembly.
Cuba has still not recovered from the economic crisis in the 1990s known as the Special Period, “but it must be acknowledged it is a system that has proven to be effective at avoiding economic collapse”, economist Pavel Vidal said.
Diaz-Canel’s visits to Russia, China, Vietnam and other Asian countries did not bring the expected benefits. For 2019, the confirmed foreign investments will account for barely 6.2 per cent of all planned investment in the country.
Sugar production dropped so much that Jose Ramón Machado Ventura, the No 2 in the Communist
Party, complained, “Why do we want sugar mills if we don’t have any sugarcane?” — dpa