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.


Indian sailor rescued from yacht stranded off Australian coast

Updated 23 min 10 sec ago
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Indian sailor rescued from yacht stranded off Australian coast

  • The sailor, Abhilash Tomy, called for emergency assistance on Saturday after the yacht was badly damaged in a storm
  • He became the first Indian to circumnavigate the globe in 2013

SYDNEY: An Indian sailor injured in a solo round-the-world race has been rescued, the Indian Navy said on Monday, after Australian authorities said a French ship was nearing his storm-damaged yacht off Australia’s west coast.
The sailor, Abhilash Tomy, called for emergency assistance on Saturday after the yacht was badly damaged in a storm about 3,500 kilometers west of Australia, leaving him with severe back injuries.
“Tomy rescued safely,” the Indian Navy said on Twitter, without giving further details.
Earlier, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority, which is coordinating the rescue, had said it expected a French fisheries patrol vessel to reach Tomy’s yacht as soon as 0700 GMT.
“All indications are the vessel is upright and floating high in the water but at any moment, a wave could push one of the damaged masts into the vessel and compromise its integrity,” Phil Gaden, a search and rescue official, told reporters in Canberra, the Australian capital.
The mast hanging precariously over the yacht stoked fears it could become dislodged and damage the watertight body of the boat, Gaden added.
Despite the nearness of the French ship, Gaden had cautioned that rescuers might not be able to evacuate Tomy because of the damage to his yacht, in which case an Australian naval boat, positioned further away, might have had to undertake the rescue.
Tomy, whose website says he became the first Indian to circumnavigate the globe in 2013, was a contestant in the grueling 48,000-kilometer Golden Globe Race.


The Indian-built yacht, ‘Thuriya’, left the seaside town of Les Sables-d’Olonne in western France on July 1 in the roundtrip race.
Participant crafts, similar to those used 50 years ago in the first such race, which features a solo circumnavigation of the globe, are barred from using modern technology, except for their communications gear.