Domingo, 20 de Mayo de 2018
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Politics

Cuba, towards an institutional pragmatism?

Miguel Díaz-Canel and Raúl Castro leading the 'March of the Torches.'

"Here there is no room for a transition that ignores or destroys the work of the Revolution," said the new Cuban president, Miguel Díaz-Canel, in his first speech before the National Assembly after having been officially enthroned.

It was a revealing slip, if there has ever been one. It is not unusual for a denial to actually trip on itself, revealing the reality of what is being denied, which seems to be the case here. Returning to the words of the fledging ruler: "there is no room for a transition" that ignores the work of the Revolution – which mean that there is for another type of shift. 

In recent times there has been much talk about the possible democratizationof the Cuban regime. Perhaps the Gordian Knot here is just what is meant by “democratization.”

If this refers to the establishment of the mechanisms that define a contemporary democracy (freedom of association and press, a plurality of parties, the division of powers, etc.), then this outcome is highly unlikely. 

The relationships between power holders do not point to this: dissident groups and Cuban civil society are, as a force, still too weak to be considered pressure groups with sufficient pull. And there is no consensus within the international community regarding the policies necessary to exert influence in this regard.

Nor is there evidence, despite the inherent fragility of the Cuban economy, that there is an impending economic crisis similar to that at the beginning of the 90s, of the type that would shake the very foundations of the regime. 

An end to one-man power 

What it does seem to show, however, is that the monopolization of power in the hands of a single person could have its days numbered in Cuba. And this is simply because a distribution of real power is beginning among the successors of the "historic leadership," the same people who are a "product of the Revolution" and who, as such, the "transition" cannot ignore.

According to Raúl Castro himself, henceforth the exercise of power should be based on the following formula: two five-year terms for the leader of the country, mediated by a “transitional period” between the handover of power.

This stage would consist of a period of three years during which the Presidency of the Communist Party and that of the Councils of State and of Ministers would be occupied, as now, by different people. In this way the strongman, now fading into the background, would maintain control of the Party, while his successors would begin assuming only the maximum representative and executive functions of the State.

Initially this calculated variance would allow the old guard – in particular Raúl Castro – to ensure that the new president toes the line and implements policies that safeguard the status quo, thereby establishing a kind of regency.

But it would also better enable Díaz-Canel to implement the initiatives he considers (pending his mentor’s endorsement) indispensable for the survival of the "Cuban model" and which may spark resistance across different strata of the regime, monetary unification being the most prominent example of these kinds of challenges.

An institutional framework tailored to the new leadership

This procedure would, of course, guarantee a (more or less equitable) transfer of power between possible factions in the upper echelons of Cuban politics and between its various blocks (Party, Army, etc.). 

The term limits and the three-fold division of powers (between the President and the two Secretaries) would be designed to promote consensus and avert the definitive triumph of one of the elite groups once the "historical leadership" is no longer present to resolve conflicts.

In the medium term it is no trivial matter that the Presidency of the nation and the Secretaryship of the Party are not to be held by the same person for a certain period of time. 

With the veteran leadership still around, a clash between the different officials in power seems unlikely, but a confrontation cannot be entirely ruled out, though it would probably be to the detriment of both parties.

Despite the Constitution’s consecration of the Party as the highest body of power in Cuba, the Council of State, and not the Secretary of the Party, is the only entity that can enforce its "representative" character, being the result of an "electoral process" that engages the citizens and not only the members of the Communist organization; although, at both bodies, of course, the "elections" border on farce. 

Here two ultimate scenarios seem possible. The first would be to anticipate the period of shared power as a time for leaders to become familiar with the framework and the policies that are possible within it.

With all power concentrated in the president’s hands, he would not head down roads that could derail the system, endangering the common destiny of its elites. We would have, again, an almighty president, but with an expiration date.

The other outcome would be the disappearance of the infinite monopoly on the State's resources, rendering it difficult for future Cuban presidents to wield the discretional use of power like their predecessors did.

In this case, the term limits and the three-year phase regulating the succession would mean an institutional straitjacket on the President.

If the "new Constitution project" mentioned by Raúl Castro during the last session of the National Assembly ends up endorsing this mechanism, would the institutions amass so much clout that they became –­ for the first time since the triumph of the Revolution – decisive on the island?

It remains to be seen if this may mark the beginning of the democratization of the Cuban political arena. Skepticism towards this possibility is more than understandable. Rather, we should see this strategy as a scheme designed to perpetuate the elites in power through the relatively effective management of possible infighting.

For now, we are witnessing an in-house transition, and not signs of a future liberalization.

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