In Brief

Cuba: the end of the Castro era

Cuba at a crossroads as National Assembly prepares to vote for first president outside the Castro family in over 60 years

After more than 60 years, the end of the Castro era in Cuba is finally in sight.

On Sunday, eight million Cubans voted to ratify a new National Assembly whose job it will be to elect a new president when incumbent leader, Raul Castro, steps down next month.

The election was the first since the death of Cuba’s revolutionary leader Fidel Castro in 2016 “and marks the beginning of major change at the top in Cuba”, says Al Jazeera.

The new members of the 605-seat National Assembly will elect a new Council of State on 16 April, who will then determine the country’s new president.

Castro was expected to step down in February, but pushed the election back by two months following Hurricane Irma, which caused $13bn in damages across the island nation.

While Castro plans to stay on as first secretary of the Communist Party to oversee a smooth transition, a “job with almost as much power as the incoming president”, says The Independent, whoever replaces him will be the first non-family member to lead Cuba since Fulgencio Batista in the 1950s.

Julio Cesar Guanche, a professor of law and history, said on the OnCuba website that the legitimacy of the country’s next president would come more from “institutional performance” than personal history such as involvement in the 1959 revolution.

“This is important symbolically because it’s the passing of the baton from the historic figures led by the Castros to the next generation,” Ted Piccone, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, told Bloomberg.

Favourite to succeed the 86-year-old Castro is his current vice president Miguel Diaz-Canel. A former higher education minister, Diaz-Canel’s profile has increased in recent months and he has become the face of the government abroad on official trips.

He is described by the Financial Times, as “a burly party functionary from the provinces” of whom “little is known of what he believes”. But a leaked video that showed him taking a traditional hard line in a private meeting of Communist Party members, “has unsettled nerves”, says the paper.

In public, Diaz-Canel has has toed the party line. After voting on Sunday, he said: “The triumphal march of the revolution will continue [towards] peace, liberty, independence and the sovereignty of the people...”

He later went on state television to engage in some classic America bashing, lambasting the United States, and accusing it of “resuming Cold War rhetoric”.

Cuba’s Foreign Ministry tweeted: “The next president may not have that surname, but he will undoubtedly be a son of the Revolution.”

The new leader will inherit a country at a crossroads. After years of economic stagnation and isolation, the lifting of economic sanctions and an opening up to the US had raised hopes the country could be on the road to recovery.

Yet the island’s economy is “stumbling amid vanishing support from its principal benefactor, Venezuela, and the souring of relations with the US”, says Bloomberg. The state has also begun to crack down on small businesses and Cubans are increasingly unhappy with healthcare, education, and basic living conditions.

However the new leadership “is unlikely to further embrace major new market reforms on the island”, says DW.

Its current predicament has led to Cuba seeking investment and support from its old Cold War ally, Russia, raising the prospect that the old fears of the past, of a hostile neighbour just 90 miles off the Florida coast, could once again come back to haunt the US.

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