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What’s in store for Cuba after the Castros?

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Since 1959 Cubans have known nothing but the Castros at the helm of power in a one-party communist state. Reuters

Analysts say little will change as Miguel Diaz-Canel is expected to take over the presidency in Cuba. The country’s economy is in desperate need of reform and US-Cuba relations are on the rocks after a brief honeymoon.

BONN (DW) – It has been nearly 60 years since Fidel and Raul Castro descended from the Sierra Maestra mountains with a band of communist guerrillas to oust US-backed authoritarian President Fulgencio Batista.

Since then, Cubans have known nothing but the Castros at the helm of power in a one-party communist state, first with Fidel, then for the past decade Raul after his older brother fell ill and died in 2016. That is likely to change today, when Vice President Miguel Diaz-Canel, 57, is widely tapped to assume the presidency as 86-year-old Raul steps down.

A trained engineer who worked his way up the party apparatus, Mr Diaz-Canel would become the first Cuban leader born after the 1959 Communist revolution. But analysts question if he will implement significant changes, including badly needed economic reforms and the lifting of political restrictions.

“We should not expect dramatic policy changes as a result of Diaz-Canel’s succession,” said William LeoGrande, a professor at American University specialising in Cuban politics. “If he was not in substantial agreement with Raul Castro’s policy agenda, he would not be the designated successor.”

Eduardo Gamarra, a professor of Latin American politics at Florida International University in Miami, said Mr Diaz-Canel is neither a progressive nor liberalising politician. “He has no interest in rushing through any kind of opening that might lead to a more liberal regime,” he said.

Raul is expected to remain head of the Communist Party until 2021. While that means he could hold significant sway over policy, it may also help Mr Diaz-Canel if he decides to pursue economic reforms opposed by entrenched interests in the government and party bureaucracies.

“If Diaz-Canel makes a bold or difficult but good decision, Raul can say, ‘I support him’, and help smooth the way,” said Jorge Dominguez, a prominent Cuba expert at Harvard University.

When Raul came to power in 2008, he implemented a number of economic reforms, but was either unable or unwilling to eliminate a dual-currency system and multiple exchange rates despite his calls to do so. The system has one type of Cuban peso worth 1:24 against the dollar for ordinary Cubans, who receive subsidies, and another, the CUC, that is 1:1 for state-run firms, giving those with access to the CUC significant hard currency advantages.

“Diaz-Canel’s likely policy focus is what should be Cuba’s monetary and exchange-rate policy,” said Mr Dominguez. “For economic management, it is imperative to unify the currencies and the exchange rates.”

Talking about monetary problems but doing nothing about them “would doom the Cuban economy to yet another decade of economic stagnation, one of the least attractive features of Raul’s legacy,” he added.

Reforming the monetary system would be redistributive, creating winners and losers that could unleash political uncertainty.

“Resistance to the reforms comes in part from fear of its political ramifications, as well as the self-interest of bureaucrats,” said Mr LeoGrande.

But both Mr LeoGrande and Mr Dominguez said that the military, which controls everything from state-farms to factories and hotels, supports economic reforms and would likely benefit.

Meanwhile, the urgency of economic reform and attracting investment comes as Venezuela’s dual political and economic crises have hit Cuba hard. As Havana’s main political ally in the Americas, the socialist regime of Venezuela has significantly cut back subsidised oil shipments in a blow to Cuba’s economy.

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