It was a momentous transfer of leadership and a continuation of the Cuban Revolution at the same time.
Miguel Díaz-Canel Bermúdez was elected President of Cuba on April 19 during the 9th Constituent Session of the National Assembly of Peoples Power. He succeeds outgoing president Raúl Castro, who retains his position as General Secretary of the Communist Party of Cuba until 2021.
Castro stepping down as president after 10 years represents the handover from the generation that fought in the Revolution — led by the two historic leaders Fidel and Raúl — to a generation that came after 1959. Díaz-Canel was born April 20, 1960.
A proposed two-term limit for the presidency was announced by Castro in 2011, and it is expected to be ratified into the Constitution in the near future.
Díaz-Canel has had a considerable preparation for leadership. He became second secretary of the national Young Communist Union, UJC, in 1992. He was first secretary of the Communist Party of Cuba (PCC) in his native Villa Clara province and later Holguín province, for a total of 15 years. Díaz-Canel is a member of the Political Bureau, the highest body, of the PCC. He is professionally educated and worked as an electronics engineer, and among other actions completed an internationalist mission in Nicaragua. He earlier served in an anti-aircraft military unit of the Revolutionary Armed Forces. In 2009, Díaz-Canel became Minister of Higher Education.
There was an expectation for some time that Díaz-Canel would likely be the next president, since he was First Vice-president of the Council of State for the last five years.
Now that it is certain, U.S. think tank commentators and the U.S. media are trying to discern whether the new president will shift direction, move away from socialism and accede to U.S. demands for its version of “change.”
Díaz-Canel firmly stated his outlook in his acceptance speech, as reported in Granma, the national daily and newspaper of the PCC. Following are excerpts:
“I assume this responsibility with the conviction that all of we revolutionaries, from whichever trench, will be faithful to Fidel and to Raúl, the current leader of the revolutionary process.”
And further, “I state before this Assembly that compañero Raúl will head the decisions for the present and future of the nation.
“I confirm that Cuban foreign policy will remain unchanged. Cuba will not accept conditions. The changes that are necessary will continue to be made by the Cuban people.”
Finally, to address those who harbor motives against Cuba’s socialism, Díaz-Canel said, “Here there is no space for a transition that ignores or destroys the work of the Revolution. We will continue moving forward without fear and without retreat; without renouncing our sovereignty, independence, development programs, and independence.
“To those who through ignorance or bad faith doubt our commitment, we must tell them that the Revolution continues and will continue. The world has received the wrong message that the Revolution ends with its guerrillas.”
Cuba’s National Assembly is modeled as a parliamentary system.
The president and first vice-president are elected from among the 604 delegates present, to be part of the 31-member Council of State, that governs the country between meetings of the National Assembly. The President of the Council of State is Cuba’s head of state.
The First Vice-President is Salvador Valdés Mesa, former Secretary General of the Confederation of Cuban Workers and currently member of the Political Bureau of the Communist Party.
Usually, the Council of Ministries is elected in the same session, which Díaz-Canel will also head. But it was agreed by the delegates that the selection of ministers will be postponed until the July session, to give time for careful consideration. Great responsibility is placed upon the Councils of State and Ministries in the business they will take up between full sessions of the National Assembly.
The ministries are Economy and Planning, Interior, Foreign Affairs, Justice, Revolutionary Armed Forces, Public Health, Labor and Social Security, Agriculture, Education, Energy and Mines, Culture, Higher Education, Central Bank of Cuba, Science, Technology and Environment, Informatics and Communications, Domestic Trade, Foreign Trade and Investment, Finance and Prices, Construction, Industry, Food Industry, Tourism, Transportation, Cuba Radio and Television Institute, Sports, National Hydraulic Resources Institute. In a socialist society, ministries play a far more critical role in the day-to-day lives of the people than do cabinet departments in the United States.
Roughly half of the current 605 delegates were elected at the base, in their respective municipalities. The remainder is nominated from Cuba’s mass organizations, women’s, university and high school youth, the labor movement, farmers and revolutionary defense committees, to assure that all sectors of society are represented. A National Electoral Commission has worked for the last two years in consultation with the population, the mass organizations, the 168 municipal assemblies and provincial assemblies, to oversee the nominations and proposals for the 12,000 candidates of all the country’s assemblies.
Today’s delegates represent the full breadth of society. A remarkable 53.22% of the National Assembly is women, ranking Cuba second among the world’s parliaments. In the U.S. Congress, 19.2 percent of the members are women. Some 80 young people between 18 and 30 are delegates. It is an assembly with a high rate of renewal, with 56% elected for the first time. According to Alina Balseiro Gutiérrez, president of the National Electoral Commission, 40.5% are Black or mixed race, and 524 of the 605 delegates hold university degrees.
Cuba has been immersed in an intense process of economic and social changes since the 6th Party Congress of 2011, to greatly increase the country’s economy’s growth and defend against the effects of the U.S. blockade.
It is an expansion of the economic orientation that actually began in 1993, in the depths of the economic crisis after the demise of its main trading partner and ally, the Soviet Union and the Eastern European socialist camp.
Those measures included allowing foreign investment, promoting international tourism, changes in agricultural forms of production, limited self-employment, and more, all intended to grow the economy. There were changes to the Constitution as a result.
The process for further change emphasizes greater self-sufficiency in agriculture, import substitution in other fields like pharmaceuticals, expanding employment in the non-state sector, and decentralizing service industries like taxis and small transport, restaurants, hair care, tire and car repair. Some 560,000 licenses for self employment have been granted, although new permits are suspended for now for reevaluation.
These are part of a sweeping mandate contained in several documents, including the Project of the Cuban Economic and Social Model of Socialist Development, as well as a national development plan through 2030.
All these economic proposals have been subjected to national discussion in all the workplaces, in the mass organizations throughout the country. They were drawn up, analyzed, critiqued and ratified in the National Assembly, but most importantly, with the mass consultation and approval of the people.
The greatest obstacle to Cuba’s development is the U.S. blockade. It weighs heavily on every Cuban, every institution — a blockade whose purpose for almost 60 years has been to strangle the economy and punish Cuba for its revolution.
To resist and overcome the blockade and advance, the collective spirit of input and decision-making will be more needed than ever.
Thus, President Díaz-Canel emphasized in his acceptance speech, “We will have to exercise an increasingly collective leadership, strengthening the participation of the people.
“I do not come to promise anything, as the Revolution never has in all these years. I come to fulfill the program that we have implemented with the guidelines of Socialism and the Revolution.”
Among the major tasks already underway which Díaz-Canel will assume are the difficult unification of the two currencies in the country, wage reform and economic growth.
It was an emotive National Assembly session for all who attended, to witness the end of the presidency of historic commander Raúl Castro Ruz. Yet, as a revolutionary who was only 22 when he took up arms against the Batista regime alongside his brother Fidel, then a youthful 26 years old, Raúl is a firm believer in the young generations of Cubans who are carrying on.
He expressed his full confidence in Díaz-Canel. “Comrade Díaz-Canel is not improvised, for many years he has demonstrated maturity, capacity for work, ideological solidness, political sensibility, commitment and loyalty to the Revolution. His rise to the maximum state and government responsibility of the nation was not a result of fate nor haste.”
In his speech to close the National Assembly session, Castro spoke at length of the progress in gender and racial composition of the National Assembly, while emphasizing that more progress is needed, “not just in numbers but in decisive posts.”
Finally, he recalled the message imparted by Fidel Castro in his central report to the First Congress of the PCC in 1975, “As long as imperialism exists, the Party, the State and the people will give maximum attention to the defense forces. The revolutionary guard shall never be neglected. History teaches too eloquently that those who forget this principle do not survive the error.”
Long live the Cuban Revolution!