BY: KATIE DOBOSZ-KENNEY
The last week of international media headlines have fully explored what Cuba will look like without a Castro at the helm. Though there is no doubt that the foreign and domestic policy implications of a new Cuban president are vast, varied, and largely unknown, there also exists a complex and nuanced narrative of how Cubans perceive this change.
The news of the Miguel Díaz-Canel presidency is not really news to the people of Cuba. Appointed as Cuba’s first ever vice-president in 2013, Díaz-Canel has been assumed the hand-picked and natural successor of the Castros for some time. But like many changes in Cuba, the power exchange is being met with cautious optimism by the Cuban people, whose list of concerns and hopes extends beyond, and yet are part-and-parcel with, who occupies the presidential position.
Unearthing this complicated narrative is no easy feat as journalism is far from free and open in the communist state. Article 53 of the Cuban Constitution outlines that, “Citizens have freedom of speech and of the press in keeping with the objectives of socialist society.” As a result, the global Cuban narrative has been driven by a combination of state-sponsored content from PCC newspapers like Granma, robust anti-state rhetoric from the papers like the Miami Herald, and political journalism, which does not capture the full spectrum of Cuban thoughts or capture their most pressing day-to-day concerns.
However, through the introduction of internet access to Cubans in 2013, wi-fi hotspots in 2015, and greater access to information as part of reforms by Raúl Castro, more independent media outlets including blogs and magazines have emerged in the last few years, allowing better insight into Cuban lives. According to a 2014 report by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism an estimated 2,000 blogs about and by Cubans are currently in operation, as well as a number of independent digital newspapers.
Though these publications are not without bias, ultimately, what can be gleaned from reading a number of these sites, is a consistent, but complex story of the simultaneous hope and skepticism of this transition of power and the changes it may or may not bring.
A prevalent and resounding theme expressed in many articles is that though there is new leadership, nothing, or little will change. Though Díaz-Canel is taking over the presidency, much of the old leadership remains in positions of power; this is best exemplified by the fact that Raúl will remain the head of the PCC until 2021. With Diaz-Canel being the first civilian president, not having participated in the 1959 revolution, he will have to prove his legitimacy through his actions in office, not his surname.
Cuba’s structure of government and constitution have also come under further scrutiny by Cubans, as the institutions were tailor-made to legitimize the power of Fidel and the PCC. An article by OnCuba remarks that the Cuban system of government is difficult to classify; it is comprised of an elected National Assembly of Popular Power (ANPP) and an appointed Council of Ministers, but the head of both has always been the same person, meaning the ANPP has never truly run state affairs. As El Toque puts it, the new president emphasized “continuity, not rupture or modification,” which does not really signal change. The notion of continuity was further perpetuated by state media through the trending of #somoscontinuidad on election day.
A more pressing concern of the Cuban people is how the new president will manage to fix the many issues of the Cuban economy. A long history of economic distortion through central planning and the “arbitrary” values of goods and services is the foundation for needed economic reform. Though many Cubans have benefited from economic reforms of privatization, increased tourism, creation of cooperatives, and remittances from abroad, many more Cuban still crave opportunities for greater economic participation.
Limitations on economic involvement are compounded by Cuba’s two currencies: pesos, used by Cubans and highly regulated with the prices of goods; and convertible pesos (CUCs), used by tourists and worth 25 times the value of the peso. In an interview with the Havana Times, one woman stated that she hopes Diaz-Canel will diversify the economy since the lack of wholesale markets forces her to spend more on food for her restaurant. On the other hand, some Cubans fear that the same privatization and introduction of wholesale markets could lead to greater economic inequality.
One recurring theme of particular fascination is the excitement regarding Liz Cuesta, director of Academic Services Department and wife of new president Miguel Díaz-Canel, and her new role as the nation’s first lady. The lives of the Castro’s were always kept extremely private, so Cubans seem eager to embrace her as a forward-facing extension of the Cuban people, as she has already accompanied Díaz-Canel on official state trips. Though women constitute around 50% of the ANPP according to the World Bank, women and minority communities (i.e. LGBTQI) still battle restrictive views on traditional gender and identity roles.
Miguel Díaz-Canel has promised to build a better relationship with the Cuban people. Their needs, hopes, and wants are being voiced digitally indicating that this change in leadership will bring concrete solutions. As the Castro era comes to an end in Cuba, the possibility of domestic change and grassroots narratives are missing from Western media. The overwhelming majority of what is portrayed by news media outlets internationally is Diaz-Canel’s impact and approach to foreign policy. However, the internal complexities and livelihoods of the Cuban people cannot be ignored as they are the ones who feel the most direct impacts of these changes, or lack thereof.
Katie Dobosz Kenney holds an MS in Global Affairs from New York University with a concentration in Peacebuilding. An educator for almost 10 years, Katie had developed global and peace education curricula in Florida, Mississippi, and Timor-Leste. Katie currently works as a graduate program administrator at NYU’s Center for Global Affairs and has co-led study abroad programs to South Africa and the UAE.
Please note that opinions expressed in this article are solely those of our contributors, not of Political Insights, which takes no institutional positions.