As Raul Castro steps down, challenges await Cuba’s new leader

A frame grab from Cuban Television on March 11 shows Cuban President Raul Castro casting his vote at a polling station in Santiago de Cuba Province. Castro will step down next month, ending his family’s six-decade grip on power (Cuban Television via AFP)
Updated 14 March 2018
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As Raul Castro steps down, challenges await Cuba’s new leader

HAVANA: As Cuban President Raul Castro prepares to step down next month, ending his family’s six-decade grip on power, his successor will be faced with major challenges, including the implementation of economic reforms vital for the island’s future.
On Sunday, Cubans went to the polls to ratify a new National Assembly, who will choose the future president. That transition will take place on April 19.
“We have walked a long, long, long and difficult road,” Castro said after casting his vote in Santiago de Cuba, the birthplace of the 1959 revolution spearheaded by his brother Fidel, who died in 2016, 10 years after handing power to Raul.
Raul — who is now 86 — will remain at the head of the all-powerful Communist Party of Cuba until the next congress in 2021.
But his number two, Miguel Diaz-Canel, is poised to take his place as president.
If Diaz-Canel does indeed assume the role, the discrete 57-year-old vice president — the first Cuban leader to have not fought in the revolution — will be faced with a balancing act of reform and staying true to the principles of “Castroism.”
Diaz-Canel insisted Sunday that “the triumphant march of the revolution” would continue.
But economist Pavel Vidal, a former adviser to Raul Castro and now a professor at the Javieriana University in Cali, Colombia, said: “The new government will arrive with limited political capital, less popular recognition and without historical legitimacy.”
The road ahead will be littered with obstacles, as Cuba’s new leader will inherit reforms sketched out by his predecessor, while the economy struggles to take off — with an average 2.4 percent growth between 2008 and 2017.
“The key question is whether changes will make a difference to the economy — the most critical issue for many Cubans,” said Michael Shifter, president of the Washington-based think-tank Inter-American Dialogue.
Among the most urgent tasks is the elimination of Cuba’s dual currency system.
Experts say favorable exchange rates offered to the state sector distort an economy already weakened by its obsolete model and the US trade embargo in place since 1962.
At the same time, the new president must relaunch foreign investment and get people back to work in manufacturing, given that the island imports most of what it consumes.
Experts say Castro’s successor must also offer a real legal framework for small businesses, who are gaining ground and generate revenues far higher than the average $30 monthly state salary.
“If Diaz-Canel wants to convince young people, he will have to communicate that individual initiative and income inequality are now compatible with the aims of the revolution,” said the former British ambassador to Cuba, Paul Webster Hare, who is now a professor at Boston University.
In terms of diplomacy, the future Cuban leader will also have to face up to fresh antagonism from the US.
Since Donald Trump arrived in the White House little over a year ago, relations between the two countries have taken a nosedive in the wake of as-yet unexplained attacks on US diplomats that have left them with serious injuries.
“The Cuban government has vast experience in successfully resisting and deterring interventionist policies,” said Arturo Lopez-Levy of the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, adding he expected that policy to continue under the new leader.
In light of these daunting challenges, Castro has left nothing to chance, drawing up a party-approved roadmap that sketches out political and economic guidelines for the country until 2030.


US to withdraw from UN rights council: UN officials

Updated 43 min 8 sec ago
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US to withdraw from UN rights council: UN officials

  • Washington accuses UN Human Rights Council of bias against Israel.
  • UN rights chief: "The thought that any state would seek to deter parents by inflicting such abuse on children is unconscionable".

UNITED NATIONS: The United States will announce on Tuesday that it is withdrawing from the UN Human Rights Council, which it accuses of bias against Israel, UN officials said.
US Ambassador Nikki Haley will make the announcement at a press conference with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Washington at 5:00 p.m. (2100 GMT).
Haley has repeatedly threatened to quit the Geneva-based body, established in 2006 to promote and protect human rights worldwide.
UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric declined to comment ahead of the announcement, saying: “We will wait to hear the details of that decision before commenting fully.”
“What is clear, is that the secretary-general is a strong believer in the human rights architecture of the UN and the active participation of all member states in that architecture.”
UN officials privately confirmed they were expecting the US decision to quit the rights body.
The withdrawal followed strong UN criticism of Trump’s policy to separate migrant children from their families at the US-Mexico border.
UN rights chief Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein said Monday “the thought that any state would seek to deter parents by inflicting such abuse on children is unconscionable.”
Human Rights Watch criticized the move, warning that Washington’s absence at the top UN body would put the onus on other governments to address the world’s most serious rights problems.
“The Trump administration’s withdrawal is a sad reflection of its one-dimensional human rights policy: defending Israeli abuses from criticism takes precedence above all else,” said HRW’s executive director Kenneth Roth.
“The UN Human Rights Council has played an important role in such countries as North Korea, Syria, Myanmar and South Sudan, but all Trump seems to care about is defending Israel.”
US criticism stems from the fact that Israel is the only country that has a dedicated agenda item, known as Item 7, at the rights council, meaning its treatment of the Palestinians comes under scrutiny at each of the body’s three annual sessions.
The United Stated refused to join the body when it was created in 2006, when George W. Bush was in the White House and his ambassador to the UN was John Bolton, Trump’s current hawkish and UN-skeptic national security adviser.
It was only after Barack Obama came to power that Washington joined the council in 2009.
Since Trump took office, the United States has quit the UN cultural agency UNESCO, cut UN funding and announced plans to quit the UN-backed Paris climate agreement.