Miguel Díaz-Canel Is the New Cuban President: Who’s Really Running Cuba?
The National Assembly confirmed that Cuba would get a brand new president on Thursday. He’s not a Castro, but don’t expect anything to change.
The Cuban Revolution has, at last, a new president with a new name and a new face, the gray-maned 57-year-old Miguel Díaz-Canel, who wears the uniforms of a businessman, not a soldier.
Fidel Castro is dead. His 86-year-old brother, Raul, is stepping aside. But nobody should believe the Castros are gone, or that there’s a new revolution in the Revolution. Raul remains the head of the Communist Party, which is the body that determines all political life in the country, and behind him is a coterie of military officers whose power is matched only by their anonymity.
“We know there are senior figures in the leadership,” says the eminent Latin America scholar William LeoGrande at American University, “we just don’t know who they are.” These officers are “the ones who protect Cuba from the U.S.,” says LeoGrande, and they were the ones who never really trusted the thaw in relations offered by U.S. President Barack Obama, which President Donald Trump is doing his best to thwart.
Díaz-Canel is first and foremost a product of the Cuban Revolution. Born soon after Fidel Castro triumphantly entered Havana in 1959, he studied electrical engineering. Steeped in revolutionary ideology, he quickly rose through the echelons of the Communist Party in his hometown of Santa Clara, famous as the site of the mausoleum that holds the remains of the iconic Argentine revolutionary Che Guevara.
As Cuba’s first vice president, Díaz-Canel was less a contender for power than the anointed poster boy for the “new” Cuba that Raul had under construction, one seemingly more open to the world and, especially, to business. “Raul is very much in favor of building institutional strength and doing things by the book,” says LeoGrande. He added that if Díaz-Canel had not been approved by the National Assembly on Thursday—as he was by 603 votes from 604—it certainly would have upset the apple cart.
But who will really be running the show? The situation is in some respects similar to other nations where revolutionary soldiers came to power in the 1950s and ’60s and constructed civilian façades, while the real power lay with the intelligence and security apparatuses. In Algeria, for instance, the question of who rules the country often has been answered by the enigmatic designation “Le Pouvoir”—The Power. And in Cuba there is a particularly good reason for anonymity.
In the 1980s, in the wake of the Nicaraguan Revolution and at the height of renewed efforts to spread Cuba’s influence in Central and South America, Fidel and Raul personally authorized cartel drug-running operations from Colombia to the United States using Cuban territory and territorial waters to evade U.S. Coast Guard vessels. The payoff was supposed to be funding for communist revolutions around the world. But the operation eventually was busted by the FBI, which apprehended the facilitators—the runners, couriers, speedboat drivers—who talked.
By then, the Castros were in trouble on other fronts. At the end of the 1980s, the hard-pressed Soviet Union was loosening its grip and reducing its support even for its satellites in Europe; Cuba, once the center of its ambitions in the Western Hemisphere, now looked more like a needless burden.
So the Castro brothers, caught red-handed and aware that they needed to adjust their regional alignments, had to find a high-level scapegoat. Gen. Arnaldo Ochoa, a much-decorated hero of the revolution who had fought side by side with Fidel, and former commander of Cuba’s expeditionary forces in Angola and Ethiopia, became their victim.
At Ochoa’s trial, along with with 13 alleged accomplices, testimony about cocaine smuggling corroborated accusations already made in U.S. courts. As The New York Times reported, “The indictments charge that a Cuban admiral was involved in drug trafficking, that smugglers’ vessels were escorted out of Cuban waters by the Cuban coast guard and that Mr. [Fidel] Castro mediated a dispute between Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega of Panama and the Medellin drug cartel in Colombia.” (Noriega was overthrown and imprisoned by the United States a few months later.)
The Cubans’ execution by firing squad of Ochoa and three other officers raised an outcry in some circles where they were believed to be innocent or to have been involved in only minor black-market activities in Africa—but it was a carefully calculated move by the Castros. Even before Ochoa was shot, Cuban officials were offering “dialogue” with the United States to combat drug trafficking. At the time, U.S. officials regarded this as the fox offering to guard the henhouse.
In the years since, Cuba has struggled to find new sources of revenue, especially since the ailing Fidel stepped down a decade ago. But Raul Castro’s so-called reforms for what he calls “market-oriented socialism” are another masquerade crafted to benefit the military. And like other leaders of repressive governments, he knows largely symbolic gestures can go a long way toward winning good press in the West.
Raul has been championing a so-called opening that includes the use of cellphones, the internet (still slow, regulated, and costly), and the concept of Cuban private businesses and foreign investment—all formerly taboo. But he has given the military control of up to 80 percent of the country’s economy and its crown jewel, the tourism sector.
The identifiable face of the military-tourist complex is Gen. Luis Alberto Rodríguez López Callejas, president of GAESA, the Grupo de Administracion Empresarial, SA, a conglomerate that controls the Revolutionary Armed Forces’ business assets, from five-star hotel ventures to car-rental agencies and gas stations. López Callejas is one of the island’s most powerful men.
Foreign investors have found that they can’t operate unless they make deals with GAESA. And now, late in the game, U.S. businesses—barely 95 miles away and champing at the bit for a piece of the new Cuban pie—are slowly coming around to Raul’s rules of the game.
Enter Col. Alejandro Castro Espín (in Spanish usage, he has both the surname of his mother and his father). He is Raul’s only son and personal adviser, and he is also an important part of what LeoGrande called the apple cart as liaison between the intelligence agencies of the military and the interior ministry.
In 2014, President Obama restored diplomatic relations with Cuba—the last bastion of the Cold War. Castro Espín personally orchestrated the secret talks between the U.S. and Cuba, via the Vatican, that led to the breakthrough. The opening allowed travel between the two countries and, for the first time, tens of thousands of Americans tourists were able to flock to the island, fueling the cash-strapped island’s economy. But this Castro is no friend of the U.S. Barely two years before engineering the secret negotiations, he had published Empire of Terror, a 300-page history of U.S. expansionism and imperialism. Apparently that raised no eyebrows when he accompanied Raul Castro on two trips to meet Barack Obama.
But last November, President Trump went after Obama’s achievement—the restored ties with Cuba—and put a bullet through it. That is not likely to make anything better for the average Cuban, however. Trump’s reversal has played straight into the hands of Raul’s macabre public-relations game and strengthened the hand of the mostly anonymous powers behind the throne.
Occasionally names do surface, but it is hard or impossible, based on open sources, to judge their real influence. There are aging die-hards of the Revolution, literally foot soldiers, like 75-year-old Gen. Leopoldo Cintra Frias, who are really standing props to publicly extol the virtues of Cuba’s leaders. And there are those who were very suspicious of Obama’s opening in the first place, as LeoGrande points out. Indeed, “Fidel was the first in line to oppose it,” LeoGrande told The Daily Beast. More broadly, he says, they are “people in charge of counterespionage and intelligence.”
One of these whose name is known is Col. Mario Méndez Mayedo, head of the Identification, Immigration, and Foreigners Departments at the Ministry of the Interior, or MININT. Since the late 1990s, Cuba and the U.S. actually have collaborated on issues concerning immigration, human trafficking, narcotics interdictions, and even environmental preservation. And in February 2016, Méndez led a delegation to meet with U.S. officials in Miami to discuss how to best combat human trafficking and travel-document fraud.
A Cuban statement said the two countries had agreed on “the need to approve bilateral instruments to formalize exchanges with the goal of more effectively neutralizing people-smugglers.”
But is that good news for Cubans trying to escape their island? The truth is that Cubans have been fleeing to the U.S. in droves since Obama eased restrictions in 2013. More than 40,000 Cubans without visas entered the U.S. that year, representing an 84 percent increase, according to Cuban-American members of Congress who met with Obama to discuss the Cuban migration crisis.
According to Cuba expert and former Pentagon official Francisco Mora, Cuba’s Revolutionary Armed Forces (FAR) “basically absorbed” MININT after the Ochoa affair. Gen. Abelardo Colomé—a close ally of Raul—had taken over the ministry in 1989, but resigned as vice president of the national assembly in 2013 and then as minister as 2015. His direct subordinate, Gen. Carlos Fernández Gondín, replaced him, but potentially more interesting is the rise to the No. 2 slot in the ministry of Vice Admiral Julio César Gandarilla Bermejo, head of military counterintelligence of the Ministry of the Armed Forces.
As with the old Soviet GRU and KGB, military intelligence and MININT reach outside Cuba’s borders, and have been especially active, albeit with a very low profile, in Venezuela.
So, Raul Castro might be moving to the easternmost side of the island, Santiago, but he’ll still remain the secretary-general of the Communist Party. The notion that a new face in Havana means a new Cuba would be, sadly, misplaced.