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Cuba: The Beginning of the Post-Castro Era

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In 1960, when Cuba's new first vice president Miguel Diaz-Canel was born, Fidel Castro had already been ruling Cuba for a year. Neither the Beatles nor the Rolling Stones had conquered the rock 'n' roll market. Dwight D. Eisenhower ruled the United States, being the first of 11 U.S. presidents until Obama, who have applied the failed embargo policy against the Fidel & Raul Castro partnership and the political project they represent.

But there are no victories against the calendar. In 2006, Fidel Castro's illness forced the first transition in the Cuban leadership since 1959. Raúl, then age 76, replaced Fidel, who was almost 80. Despite that it was a succession between brothers of the same generation, the presidency of Raúl Castro has had important consequences for politics and the Cuban economy. Faced with the loss of Fidel's charismatic leadership, the Cuban Communist Party (PCC) began processes of economic reform and political liberalization, in order to rebuild their capacity to govern under the new conditions.

In the last five years, the government has created an important institutional foundation for the parallel transition to a mixed economy and a post-totalitarian relationship between the state and civil society. With the election of the new Council of State on Sunday, the last phase of the transition to the post-Castro era began. Raúl Castro was reelected to the presidency, but for the first time a leader born after 1959, Miguel Diaz-Canel, became the second in command. Although this transition is unfolding with the same party and president in power and is gradual and limited, new leadership and changing priorities are discernible.

If you look at the Communist Party as a corporation (an analogy that should not be abused) Diaz-Canel is a manager who, over time, has served at various levels of its production chain. He worked at its foundation, as a university teacher and youth leader. Later, in the strategic provinces of Villa Clara and Holguin, he administered the implementation of economic reforms and directed the opening of the economy to foreign investment and tourism -- all the while, maintaining party control over both processes.

Díaz-Canel is part of the network of provincial party czars who are very important in the implementation of the proposed changes, particularly decentralization. Having worked in central and eastern Cuba, the new first vice president has cordial ties with regional commanders of the Armed Forces, the other pillar, along with the Communist Party, of the current Cuban system. He is a civilian, the first in the line of succession to have little military experience. But he is steeped in the networks of power and well versed in the controlled management of reforms.
If Cuba implements the type of mixed economy proposed by the last VI Congress of the Communist Party and establishes a new relationship with its diaspora and the world, it will also transform politically. With the economy and society changing, the political environment cannot remain intact. The rise of market mechanisms and an autonomous non-state sector will reinforce the new pluralizing flows of information, investment and technology. The new social sectors will seek representation in the political arena. Citizens will have greater access to the Internet, and connect more horizontally.

This does not imply a transition to multiparty democracy over the next five years. Nevertheless, economic liberalization will force an expansion of the current People's Power system. Economic and migration opportunities will channel some of the energy in the direction of new businesses and travel, but it will not be enough. The party system will be reformed in order to remain at the helm of social and economic changes. Political liberalization will probably start at the lower levels of government, allowing citizens to vent their frustrations at that scale. However, the pressure will rise. Limiting leadership to two terms, at a time when the older generation is leaving power by attrition, will result in a less personalized and more institutionalized leadership that promotes upward mobility of new leaders in an orderly fashion.

Pressures for systemic political changes could increase as the economy recovers. A dynamic Cuban market would whet U.S. corporate appetites and put the U.S. embargo against the island in jeopardy. Ending an irrational relic of the Cold War would increase democratization demands. In the next five years, the central challenge facing Cuban leaders is to have the audacity, creativity and self-confidence to accelerate economic reforms, without losing control of the ongoing political liberalization.