Analysis. Trump’s aggressive policies hit Cuba while the reform process was effectively in mid-stream. While Miguel Díaz-Canel has begun to modernize the bureaucracy, a poor economy has hampered his first year as Cuban president.

One year in, Díaz-Canel struggles to modernize Cuba in the face of US pressure

One year ago, when Miguel Díaz-Canel was sworn in as the new president of Cuba—the first head of state since 1960 who did not bear the surname Castro. The task before him was clear: to modernize the country while maintaining continuity with the political line that his two predecessors had established, under the slogan “a prosperous and sustainable socialism.”

Díaz-Canel, 58, an engineer by trade, who spent most of his life climbing through the hierarchy of the Communist Party of Cuba, the country’s party-state, and who has significant experience in government, was considered the “most prepared” candidate to manage the transition toward a government run by the newer generation, that of leaders born after the 1959 revolution.

Díaz-Canel himself stressed this main objective on many occasions, saying that “we represent continuity, not a rupture” with the socialism proclaimed by Fidel in the early 1960s.

“Díaz-Canel has secured an important first success by moving forward with the renewal of the bureaucratic apparatus and the modernization of its structures,” the historian and analyst Enrique López Oliva tells us. “The new Constitution that came into force on April 10 represents the political framework for this renewal. Now, however, begins the phase of the concrete implementation of the grand principles of the reform, in the form of interpretive laws that will, in effect, give rise to a new historical era for the island: the fulfilment of the reforms started by Raúl Castro, which are not only socio-economic but also, first and foremost, political. This means a new electoral law, greater autonomy of the productive sector, although still within a planned economy, and a separation of powers between the president and the executive, and, I would even say, between party and state. All this must be achieved during a time of serious economic difficulties, made even more acute by the increasingly aggressive policies of the Trump administration.”

The Cuban president is well aware of these problems. “To put it in plain words: the difficulty of the present moment demands that we establish clear priorities, so that we don’t return to the dramatic moments of the ‘special period,’” said Díaz-Canel in a speech on April 13, at the end of the extraordinary session of the National Assembly (the Cuban single-chamber parliament) that officially approved the enactment of the new Constitution.

The “special period” is the euphemistic term that Fidel Castro coined to describe the situation in which the country found itself in 1991, after the dissolution of the USSR, which caused Cuba’s GDP to fall by around 30%. For his part, Raúl, in a speech before the National Assembly in his role as First Secretary of the Communist Party, has also said in no uncertain terms that it is necessary to be prepared for a possible worsening of the country’s situation, in connection with the latest measures taken by US President Donald Trump aiming to strangle the Cuban economy. The foreign policy hawks in the US administration still consider Cuba as the true ideological and social foundation upon which the socialism adopted by the governments in Venezuela and Nicaragua has been built—regimes which Trump seems to believe are a danger to the security of the United States.

Last week, the US government introduced more severe restrictions on remittances sent by Cuban-Americans to their families in Cuba and on American travel in Cuba, measures aiming to block the supplies of Venezuelan oil to the island, and, finally, permission for US citizens to sue international companies for damages if they are using property that belonged to US citizens before being nationalized by the Cuban Revolution after 1959. These are just the latest sanctions imposed by Trump, in addition to the ongoing embargo against Cuba that has lasted more than 60 years.

The consequence of this aggressive US policy is the “deterioration” to which Raúl Castro alluded in his speech. Facing a liquidity crisis, the government has reduced imports, and, as a consequence, there is a shortage of basic necessities: oil, eggs, flour, chicken and beef. Across the country, supermarket shelves are half-empty. Even the newspapers—all state-owned—have had to reduce their page count. When products finally arrive in stores, there are long lines of people trying to buy as much as possible, fearing that the situation might get worse still.

“On the streets, there is an atmosphere of extreme concern and anxiety about the future. Especially among retirees and young people,” López Oliva tells us. The former are worried “because they can’t cope with the rising prices, while the young people fear that the situation may worsen and thus leave them with fewer opportunities.”

Trump’s aggressive policies hit Cuba while the reform process was effectively in mid-stream, says Camilo Condis, a young entrepreneur known for his activism on Twitter, where he has been openly criticizing the decisions of various state officials. “I really hoped there would be more changes and faster reforms, fitting with the needs of the times,” he says. Condis believes the new president’s policies have unfortunately prioritized continuity over the urgent need for reforms—an opinion shared by the small groups of the opposition.

“In these conditions, the political leadership of the country is trying to revive a kind of alliance with the Catholic Church, as Raúl himself did when he took office,” López Oliva tells us. “One of the state television channels broadcast Pope Francis’s Via Crucis in full, whose criticism of neoliberalism fits well with Cuba’s policies.”

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