They sat in places of honour at the huge rally in Revolution Square on Tuesday night, faces wrinkled by time but olive-green uniforms neatly pressed. The veterans of the rebel army that defeated the forces of Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista 56 years ago are now a dwindling band of octogenarians.
President Raul Castro, 85, is one of them. And as he listened to his brother’s eulogies, he surely knew as well as anyone that an era is coming to an end.
Raul Castro has acknowledged as much, announcing that he will leave the presidency on Feb. 24, 2018, after Cuba holds its next elections. (The actual voting is, of course, something of a formality in a one-party state.)
Diaz-Canel offers a new look
The appointed successor is already known: Vice-President Miguel Diaz-Canel, who represents the next generation of Communist Party leaders.
A 56-year-old lover of rock music in a country where it was once officially frowned on as degenerate, Diaz-Canel represents the Cuban Communist Party’s best hope for the future. He dresses office casual, carries a tablet and knows how to interact with ordinary people almost like a politician who has to campaign for votes.
But Diaz-Canel also cultivated the leaders of the old generation, particularly the Castros, and never deviates from party dogma in his public statements.
Others who have seemed to be favoured have had mysterious falls from grace, such as former foreign minister Felipe Perez Roque or party economist Carlos Lage. One Castro protege, Arnaldo Ochoa, ended up in front of a firing squad accused of drug trafficking.
Cuban Kremlinologists agree Diaz-Canel has the inside track to become president. A more important question, say those who know the system from the inside, is how much of a difference it will make. There are reasons to believe it won’t mean much.
Tall poppies get their heads chopped off
Miriam Leiva Viamonte was a member of the party elite. As a senior official of the Foreign Ministry, she travelled the world, sometimes in the company of the “maximum leader,” as Castro was sometimes called.
She was expelled from the party when she failed to take a hint that she should divorce her economist husband, Oscar Espinosa Chepe, then considered a “counter-revolutionary” for questioning Cuba’s economic model.
Though subjected to years of intense official harassment, privations and many detentions, she has remained in the country.
She says she believes a kind of paralysis is gripping the party’s next generation. People want to position themselves to benefit from the transition and not be left behind but know there are also risks to standing out in a party that prizes conformity.
“You never really know who’s going to be the successor. Because when they express what they shouldn’t have said, they are put aside, or in prison, or even shot,” she said. “That’s what has trapped the country, and them.”
Is the presidency overrated?
Leiva Viamonte says Diaz-Canel is being handed an empty chalice by Raul, who plans to hold on to his posts as first secretary of the Communist Party and commander of the armed forces, leaving the president with no real power base of his own.
“The Communist Party is the most important institution in Cuba, and by the constitution, it’s the party that rules in Cuba,” she said. “Who has the party is the ruler, and, of course, he has the military to support him. He’s only going to step down from his executive leadership.”
As Cuba’s top general, Raul will also control much of the economy. While he was minister of defence, Raul launched various business projects and de facto gave the military control over much of Cuba’s economy, including many of the hotels that welcome Canadian tourists to the country.
And so Raul will remain in power after 2018, assuming he is still alive.
The real question for communist rule in Cuba is: what happens when Raul dies?
Offspring a mixed group
Fidel Castro was always intensely private about his family life. He has at least seven children, and probably several more. Earlier this month, three of his sons came to see Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at his Havana hotel to inform him that their father was too sick to receive him.
But Fidel’s offspring have shown little ambition for power.
Raul’s progeny are a different story.
Alejandro Castro is Raul’s son and was groomed for power from an early age by his uncle Fidel. When foreign leaders visited the ailing comandante at his home (precise location a closely guarded state secret), it was Alejandro who snapped the photos.
Alejandro is believed to have taken command of Cuba’s shadowy security agencies, giving him a real advantage in any contest for power.
Raul’s daughter Mariela runs Cuba’s national centre for sex education.
Raul’s son-in-law Luis Alberto Rodriguez Lopez-Callejas — the husband of his daughter Deborah — is also a contender. Raul has allowed both his son and his son-in-law to rise to the rank of colonel in the country’s armed forces.
Little is really known about relations between the next generation of the Castro family, although things are rumoured to be tense and competitive.
Raul Castro purged Fidel’s closest collaborators from top jobs when he assumed the presidency in 2008, replacing them with his own.
Some Cubans believe that Diaz-Canel is just a placeholder, designed to buy the Castro family time to manoeuvre. The fact he is not related helps to dispel the impression that Cuba is ruled by a family dynasty, but the real intention is that after a few years, a Castro will replace him.
But of course, the real inner workings of Cuba’s Communist Party are opaque to all but a few insiders.
And there is another factor that may make all of the jockeying and power games irrelevant. That is the Cuban people, now mostly living on official salaries of between $ 20 and $ 40 a month, and increasingly impatient for real change.