- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 30, 2018

For the first time since 1959, Cubans will soon have a president not named Castro, but there is a surprisingly cloudy forecast over what comes next.

Raul Castro, the 86-year-old president who succeeded his brother Fidel a decade ago, originally planned to step down in February but delayed his exit, claiming the need to deal with damage wrought by Hurricane Irma. In a fit of political uncertainty that Cubans have not known for decades, it is not clear that his long-presumed successor — 58-year-old First Vice President Miguel Diaz-Canel — has the job locked down.

Major questions remain over the amount of power Mr. Diaz-Canel will have if he gets the job because Mr. Castro will still head the Cuban Communist Party. Even less clear, analysts say, is how the party plans to respond to longer-term challenges of the Trump administration’s increasingly hardened line toward the island, after the historic thaw in relations during the Obama years.

“Cuban politics are among the most opaque in the world,” said Michael Shifter, who heads the Inter-American Dialogue think tank in Washington. “Very little filters out of the highest echelons of the Cuban Communist Party or the military.”

“No one outside of the ‘inner circle’ has much information or insight about what is happening,” Mr. Shifter said in an interview.

Concern in Havana over the policy shift in Washington away from the Obama-era charm offensive that brought an easing of U.S. sanctions on Cuba appears to have factored into Mr. Castro’s decision to delay his retirement.

“It is likely that Raul decided to extend his mandate to give the powers that be more time to build a consensus on the path forward,” said Mr. Shifter. “There appears to be a lot of uncertainty and nervousness about this transition. There are new factors in the mix, including a frostier relationship with the Trump administration and lack of clarity about future relations.”

The regime seems particularly concerned that the administration in Washington may seize on the uncertainty surrounding the transition to foment political unrest in Cuba. Party paranoia over the matter spilled into the open last week after the State Department announced that it had created a Cuba Internet Task Force to advance “the free and unregulated flow of information” on the island.

A day after the announcement, an article appeared on the website of Granma — the official newspaper of the Central Committee of the Cuban Communist Party — declaring that the task force was clearly “aimed at subverting Cuba’s internal order.”

Despite the Castro regime’s nervousness, Christopher Sabatini, a Columbia University lecturer who heads the Latin America research firm Global Americans, said there are real indications that the Trump administration plans to ramp up U.S. funding toward an opening of civil society inside Cuba.

“Mr. Castro and the people directly around him are likely waiting to see what kind of agitation the U.S. may be trying to ramp up on the island,” Mr. Sabatini said. “It could be they don’t want to rush a new guy into the presidency after all these years if Washington is on the verge of ramping up this agitation.”

The movement over the past year of several Cuba hard-liners into key policy positions within the Trump administration has added to Havana’s uncertainty over “what the giant in the north could be up to,” Mr. Sabatini said.

Those advisers include Mauricio Claver-Carone, an administration official in the Treasury Department seen to have influence over Office of Foreign Assets Control decisions on potential sanctions against Cuba.

Tougher U.S. stance

In November, the administration tightened rules for U.S. citizens seeking to travel to Cuba, banning financial transactions between Americans and dozens of Cuban hotels, shops, tour companies and other businesses suspected of ties to the military and Cuban intelligence services.

The stricter rules marked a return to the tougher U.S. stance that existed before Mr. Obama and Mr. Castro restored diplomatic relations in 2015. That thaw led to the reopening of the U.S. Embassy in Havana for the first time in more than a half century. Many saw the development as a major step toward ending hostility that had persisted since the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.

Trump administration officials say the Castro government’s continued human rights abuse record is a key reason relations are back on edge. The situation is also complicated by the confusion over whether U.S. diplomats are victims of a mysterious “sonic attack” while serving in Havana.

Some two dozen diplomats and their spouses have reported hearing loud, mysterious sounds followed by hearing loss and ear-ringing, a development that led some to believe the Cubans or a foreign power may have been engaging in a strange sabotage campaign against the embassy. Although the FBI has cast doubt on the notion that the diplomats were hit by a “sonic attack,” Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson said in early January that the United States would be “putting people intentionally in harm’s way” if it sent diplomats back to Cuba.

The Castro government denied any knowledge of what caused the attacks.

Mr. Sabatini, meanwhile, stressed that it is not entirely clear what drove Mr. Castro to postpone his retirement. He said behind-the-scenes internal politics are as likely as anything else to have played into the decision.

“This is a regime that’s highly risk-averse,” Mr. Sabatini said. “It seems like a fiat accompli that the presidency will be passed to Diaz-Canel, but it will be a very, very managed transition.”

“You have to remember that charismatically created regimes have difficulty in renovating leaderships,” he said. “You can’t pass on the mantle of legitimacy that’s been created by a revolutionary.”

Mr. Diaz-Canel, an engineer by training, is a longtime party stalwart and former minister of higher education who was tapped as first vice president by Raul Castro in 2013. Once seen as a relative moderate in the government, he has taken a more hard line on U.S. relations and economic liberalization in speech and private talks more recently.

Sensitivity around the idea of a “post-Castro” Cuba means Mr. Diaz-Canel “is going to be very beholden to those who picked him, including Raul Castro and Raul Castro’s son,” said Mr. Sabatini.

That son would be Alejandro Castro Espin, a 52-year-old colonel in Cuba’s interior ministry. He is just six years younger than Mr. Diaz-Canel and is widely seen as a guardian of the Castro family legacy. His role in the next administration will be closely watched, even if Mr. Diaz-Canel gets the top job.

The next president now is scheduled to be officially named in April, after local elections to appoint a Cuban National Assembly that ultimately selects the president.

Economic factors also may be delaying the process.

In recent months, Cuba has secured major investment deals from China and Russia. Mr. Sabatini said Havana likely wanted to lock in those agreements before moving forward with a presidential transition.

Mr. Shifter noted that the “sharply declining support from Venezuela — because of that country’s deepening crisis — has also unsettled Cuban officials.”

“The odds are that Vice President Miguel Diaz-Canal will succeed Raul Castro as president, though that is by no means assured,” Mr. Shifter said. “Even if Diaz-Canal is designated, he will have to be tested and try to gain recognition and legitimacy. A struggle over the direction of politics and economics policies in Cuba can be expected.”

• Guy Taylor can be reached at gtaylor@washingtontimes.com.

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