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Power and Change in Cuba’s Elite

March 23, 2016 The Cuban government, economy and security structures are facing uncertainty ahead.

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  • Last updated: March 31
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By Allison Fedirka

Summary Much has been written on the U.S.-Cuba bilateral relationship. The power dynamics within the Cuban government are less understood. Military and familial ties are prevalent among the elite power players in all sectors, and will likely have a strong influence on determining President Raúl Castro’s successor. So far, the elite have not been threatened by the U.S.-Cuba reconciliation and the slight opening of the Cuban economy, but the future remains unclear.

In Cuba, elite is synonymous with political power, which has been concentrated in the hands of a select few since 1965. In 1965, Fidel Castro consolidated control of Cuba and the current system of government was officially established. Today power remains concentrated among an elite circle of politicians and military officers loyal to Cuban President Raúl Castro. Raúl assumed leadership of the country in February 2008, when his brother Fidel stepped down due to health problems. In 2009, Raúl reshuffled the government, giving positions in ministries and other government offices to military officers and trusted individuals more loyal to him than Fidel. Some of these were comrades dating back to the 1950s and 1960s, while a small group of individuals from the next generation were included as well. Key to Raúl’s government and these reforms are the role of the military and his family.

Power Organization

Cuba’s current government was founded by the military, not the Communist Party. Fidel Castro used the army not only to gain power but to also maintain his control over the government and country. He did not trust the Communist Party and it played a subordinate role. As a result, the military remains a strong institution that dominates politics, security and economic activity. In the Cuban government, the main decision-making bodies – which were the main subjects of Raúl Castro’s government reshuffle – include a high concentration of military officers.

Raúl holds the rank of general in the army and serves as the head of state, head of the Council of Ministers and head of the Communist Party. The Political Bureau of the Central Committee (Politburo) serves as the main decision-making entity. Raúl leads the committee and also appoints its members. The party’s official website, last updated in 2014, shows 14 members of the Politburo, although one of these members died. Of the remaining 13 Politburo members, five are current military officers, two are retired military or intelligence officers and one served in the military. Military officers also have a strong presence in the main executive body, the Council of Ministers. They occupy key rolls in ministries like Armed Forces/Defense, Interior, Communications, Transportation, Economy and Tourism.

In terms of security, the Interior Ministry assumes the most crucial role. In addition to heading the ministry, military officers occupy the main second tier posts such as vice ministers and intelligence directors. Cuba’s most important intelligence apparatus, the Dirección de Inteligencia (DI), falls within this ministry. The DI is responsible for foreign intelligence collection and covert action. A second branch within the Interior Ministry, the Department of State Security, handles internal security, monitoring and domestic counterintelligence. Cuba’s National Police also answer to the Interior Ministry. Though not the highest ranking official, the most notable member of the Interior Ministry is Raúl Castro’s son, Alejandro Castro Espín. He holds the rank of colonel in the army and has been named an advisor to the National Security and Defense Council as well as head of intelligence coordination between the Interior and Armed Forces ministries.

Lastly, the government uses military officers and family members to run key components of the Cuban economy. Maj. Gen. Luis Alberto Rodríguez López-Callejas, son-in-law to Raúl Castro, serves as chairman of the Corporate Management Group S.A. (GAESA). GAESA is Cuba’s largest conglomerate, made up of 57 companies, and answers to the Revolutionary Armed Forces. It accounts for anywhere from 50 percent to 80 percent of revenue generated in Cuba and controls profitable sectors like tourism and sugar. It also provides employment to multiple members of important political families like the Castros. Most notably, López-Callejas oversees the Mariel Port Special Development Zone project, via GAESA. This government-contrived program is aimed at drawing in more foreign direct investment that will help build a production hub for strategic economic activities. The hope is that this project will help drive infrastructure and sustainable economic development throughout the island.

The future of Cuba’s government and economy have been a topic of great debate ever since Fidel passed power on to Raúl. The recognition of Fidel’s health problems reminded everyone that even great revolutionaries are mortal. Though younger than his brother, Raúl is no spring chicken – he turns 85 this June. He has already said that he does not plan to stay in power after his term ends in 2018.

Possible Successors

Though no formal successor has been named, the two main candidates appear to be Miguel Díaz-Canel and Alejandro Castro Espín. Díaz-Canel was appointed first vice president of the Councils of State and Ministers in 2013. This post is seen as the next-in-line for the throne, as Raúl occupied it for years before taking over for Fidel. Legally, the Cuban constitution says that the person in Díaz-Canel’s post would assume the presidency in the event that Raúl cannot complete his term. However, Díaz-Canel is a civilian, which puts in question his standing with the military – the country’s power and elite.

Castro Espín, on the other hand, had a military career that included a deployment to Luanda during Angola’s civil war, is very involved in the intelligence community and has a strong academic background in national security and defense. He also carries the Castro name and began assisting his father when Raúl assumed power in 2008. His behavior over the last year suggests he may be being groomed for more of a leadership role. In April 2015, he attended the seventh Summit of the Americas in Panama, the first time Cuba was invited to such a gathering since it began in 1994. He also was present for a September 2015 meeting in New York between Raúl Castro and U.S. President Barack Obama. Lastly, during Obama’s official reception by the Cuban government in Havana on March 21, Castro Espín was the second official to shake Obama’s hand after his father. He did so before Díaz-Canel and Raúl-appointed Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez. The Obama-Castro handshake at Nelson Mandela’s funeral in 2013 reminds us that such gestures should not go unnoticed.

It is no coincidence that little more than basic biographical facts are known about Díaz-Canel and Castro Espín. Maintaining a low profile tends to be a behavior necessary for success in the Cuban government, where the squeaky wheel does not get the grease, it gets replaced. This was particularly true when Fidel held power. He did not tolerate individuals who challenged him, garnered too much attention, spoke too boldly or drew attention to themselves in some other way. Even under Raúl, the government prizes those with the restraint to remain relatively unnoticed in the public eye. For this reason, clues to the potential successor will likely be seen more through subtle actions rather than public statements, save those made by Raúl himself. While there is time before 2018, the seventh Congress of Cuba’s Communist Party is scheduled for April 2016, during which we may see a clearer signal about who may follow Raúl.

Economic and Security Evolution

On the economic front, change has already started to slowly take place. Though a strong believer in the revolution and socialism, Raúl has a more pragmatic and flexible view of the ideology behind the government than Fidel did. Unlike Fidel, Raúl has allowed for some degree of perestroika-style reforms, economic restructuring aimed at making socialism and command economy more efficient. He, like many Cubans, was greatly affected by the country’s Período Especial (Special Period) from 1990 to 1993 when the economy contracted by 36 percent due to the end of large Soviet funding.

In 2010, the government announced plans for economic and social reform in coming years. Since then, the government has opened space for the creation of small private businesses such as restaurants, bed-and-breakfasts, taxi drivers, farms and others. The sale of homes and cars has been legalized, travel restrictions significantly loosened and cooperative business structures allowed. The aforementioned Mariel Port project also reflects the government’s desire to bring in foreign capital for modernizing and growing the economy. Critics of the Cuban regime will say such measures do not go far enough toward liberalizing the economy. While this is a legitimate assessment, it should be noted that the goal of the current Cuban government is not free market capitalism. Many European, South American and Asian companies and governments have found ways to invest and do business in the current framework of Cuba’s economy.

Looking forward, the least clear picture is that of the security apparatus in the country. Cuban intelligence is a very skilled and sophisticated entity. The information regarding security networks and structures is opaque at best. At this point, the most valuable information for evaluating the security structure’s future would be to better understand the standard of living of low- and mid-level security officials, especially in DI, compared to the rest of the Cuban population. The source of their income – whether from state funds, illicit activities or something else – would also be telling.

Conclusion

The initial phase of reconciliation between the United States and Cuba has not fundamentally threatened the standing of Cuba’s elite. The Cuban government has not made any grand concessions that compromise its current system of governing, economic planning or national security. Furthermore, we know that the Cuban government is conscientiously planning the inevitable power transition away from Raúl and gradual state-led reforms aimed at growing, developing and minutely opening up the domestic economy. We can only assume that similar planning is also taking place in the security sphere.

Moving forward, the main issue to monitor will be any potential resistance within the regime. Right now we do not observe resistance from the elite. This means there either is no resistance or any resistance is being kept behind closed doors. The current elites most benefit from the status quo. Therefore, the intensity and likelihood of resistance among the elite correlate with the intensity of any future reforms.