On Sunday 11th March, Cubans will go to the polls and elect a new parliament. The successful candidates will then, in turn, appoint the first president in sixty years to enter office from outside the Castro dynasty. Despite the gravity of this milestone, this is no ‘Caribbean Spring’, and optimism for a flourishing new era of Cuban politics and prosperity must be kept in check. Nevertheless, a leadership change could prove significant for regional relations, if not domestic developments. In this piece, Jonny Elswood examines the upcoming ballot and Cuba’s potential future.

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The electoral process in Cuba is conducted in a unique fashion, and it is engineered to directly contrast against its financially saturated American counterpart. Campaign exposure is intentionally limited; party affiliation is ostensibly outlawed; and local citizenries are given the opportunity to scrupulously investigate their candidates’ ethical and personal histories. On the other hand, the Communist Party of Cuba (PCC) remains the only recognised political body, and, regardless of who emerges victorious this year, Raúl Castro will retain his influence in some capacity until at least 2021. Indeed, depending on which sources are consulted, the entire set-up is either a shining example of decentralised democracy, or a nefarious and pointless exercise of thinly veiled autocracy. Many policymakers in the West maintain a narrative of Cuba as either an ideological adversary, or a near-failed state (a judgement fuelled by Cuba’s unavoidable participation in recent Venezuelan affairs). On the global stage, it seems, you either love the Cuban code of conduct, or hate it.

This election, which was justifiably postponed by a particularly vicious hurricane season, will see 612 seats contested in the National Assembly, and a number of domestic and international issues may formulate voters’ decisions. Not least, 70% of Cubans want closer ties with United States to counteract a severe brain drain and the inhibitive bloqueo [embargo].

Candidate Profile: Miguel Díaz-Canel

The most likely person to pioneer the first post-Castro government is the current Vice President: a 57-year-old from Villa Clara named Miguel Díaz-Canel. His comparative youth in the Cuban establishment shows he is a part of the first generation of national leaders not to have actually fought in, or at least witnessed, the 1950s revolution, but his political leanings are just as anachronistic. As a staunch Marxist-Leninist, this probable contender disapproves of even Chinese movements towards the global free market.

Díaz-Canel worked alongside the Nicaraguan Sandinistas in his youth, and rose to the position of Minister for Higher Education in the Communist Party. Education in Cuba is a strong national asset and the envy of much of the hemisphere (albeit for many more reasons than Díaz-Canel’s three year ministerial tenure). While this internationalism may benefit cultural ties with mainland Central America, Cuba is not powerful enough to galvanise regional cooperation and pull its peers away from American hegemony any time soon.

If 2017 was a slow but generally positive year for Cuba in terms of economy, the next five years could potentially see exponential improvement.

Recently, the candidate has been recorded voicing support for increased censorship, which in all likelihood will be met with disappointment from a public that is becoming gradually more connected through technology. Enterprises such as OnCuba, Cuba Possible, and the Cuba Emprende Foundation are prospective targets of state-led censorship.

Analysis

For obvious reasons, ‘the new Cold War’ is a deeply controversial term, and in few places is it more historically loaded than Cuba. Nevertheless, the Caribbean nation remains a microcosm of great power rivalry: Russia and the EU are indeed vying for economic influence in the region, and will exploit every opportunity that the Trump administration’s diplomatic retractions permit. For the new government, though, challenges of geography and economics will arise the quickest.

Thinking long-term, a nation’s most basic and unshakeable characteristic – its geography – is the very first thing any risk analyst would consider. As Cubans will be all too aware,  and as the electoral postponement demonstrated, their country sits in a highly volatile climate. A rogue cyclone could potentially undo months or even years of economic growth – an exhausting reality of work in the policy offices of the world’s central belt. With this in mind, the next premier’s potentially decade-long administration will be forced to look to stabler energy sources and safer transport infrastructure before long.

The new President of Cuba will be given his first serious exposure at the Summit of the Americas in Lima this April, the G8 Summit in Quebec this June, and the G20 Summit in Buenos Aires in November.

If 2017 was a slow but generally positive year for Cuba in terms of economy, the next five years could potentially see exponential improvement. But, that would rely on the acceptance and acceleration of  two current trends: trickling low-level privatisation in Havana, and greater telecoms & internet usage nationwide. The former will require an bold executive staff willing to push the President’s politics towards the centre: Díaz-Canel’s staunch Marxist-Leninism underlies a natural aversion to market reform and the embryonic entrepreneurial ventures in the capital. The latter demands a comprehensive overhaul as well as fresh political will, and ‘Nauta Hogar‘, Cuba’s first large-scale online access project, has been by any measure a miserably unsuccessful project so far.

One could argue that although Raúl Castro’s days are numbered – he is, after all, 86 years old – the fact that his successor is likely to be his closest companion suggests that his family  legacy will not die swiftly. If the coming years hold any surprising leaps in Cuban prosperity, it will more likely be down to bottom-up and subversive small business owners than the incoming president.

Suggested books for additional reading on this topic:

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Jonny Elswood is a Scottish security analyst with expertise in counter-narcotics and non-state groups. Jonny has degrees in Political Science from St Andrews and Glasgow University, and recently completed a NATO Military Security course in Lithuania. He has contributed policy research for a political group in the Central African Republic, and currently focuses on organised crime analytics for Intelligence Fusion.

For an in-depth, bespoke briefing on this or any other geopolitical topic, consider Encylopedia Geopolitica’s intelligence consulting services.


Photo credit: Jvlio

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