By Ron Shillingford
Cuba’s proximity to the Cayman Islands means that changes in politics there are monitored with acute interest. Cayman has strong connections with the island through Cubans settling here and Caymanians having children and marrying their neighbours. The hope generally is that the 11.5 million Cubans will soon have a better life through regime change.
Scrutiny has increased significantly recently because for the first time in nearly 60 years Cuba will soon not have a Castro officially in charge. Its National Assembly holds elections on Thursday, April 19.
The forthcoming shift in power may be heralded as a new era, but realistically, a new president in name will not translate into meaningful change for the island.
As for Cuba’s relationship with the Cayman Islands, the new president is not expected to have too much effect on the issues of illegal migration and human trafficking.
Cuban officials and the Cayman Islands government met in bilateral talks in Havana last April to discuss migration between the two islands. Cayman’s Deputy Governor Franz Manderson met with Cuba’s Director of Consular Affairs Ernesto Soberón Guzmán. Mr. Manderson said the meetings were successful.
Migration from Cuba stems from the unhappiness of its citizens with their quality of life. Many who land in Cayman are on their way to places like Honduras where they hope to settle.
The biggest problem for families in Cuba now are the financial difficulties caused by the continuing US blockade. It has not been removed even though diplomatic relations were established following former President Barack Obama’s visit to Cuba before he left office.
President Donald Trump gave a speech in Florida last June, especially directed to the Cuban exiles in “Little Havana” in Miami. He said that the money from tourists travelling to Cuba goes directly to Cuba’s military and because of that he will not open up US tourism to the island. Consequently, Mr. Trump did not lift travel restrictions and trade with Cuba is still prohibited.
Any hopes of a dramatic transition in the one-party communist state cannot be expected as Raul Castro has orchestrated his successor since he announced he would step down from the presidency five years ago.
Despite expectations for dramatic change from the Cuban diaspora, there will be a continuation of the political system started by Raul’s late brother Fidel in 1959.
Raul is 86 and his stepping down in the next few weeks is a biological necessity rather than an ideological one. This is not in its most remote sense a historical transition.
Raul is expected to remain as first secretary of the Communist Party, which in practical terms makes all key policy decisions. And as the only four-star general in the Cuban military, Raul is also likely to continue to yield unparalleled influence over Cuba’s Revolutionary Armed Forces which since the mid-Nineties has controlled most of the island’s economy.
Raul is given credit as a progressive leader but realistically nothing much will change. The Castro stamp is embedded in Cuban culture and his successor will toe the party line.
Most analysts point to the likely ascendancy of Miguel Diaz-Canal, 57, who is the current first vice-president and former minister of Higher Education, trained as an engineer. He is loyal to the party’s philosophy and to the Castros and is expected to execute policy on their behalf.
There is also the remote possibility of Alejandro Castro-Espin, Raul Castro’s only son and now a colonel in Cuba’s Interior Ministry charged with overseeing intelligence services, succeeding his father. He is also thought to be a hard-liner but, unlike Diaz-Canal, has had little public visibility and therefore seems a less suitable choice.
For all his adherence to Fidel’s strident socialist policies, Raul recognised the inherent shortcomings of the socialism Cuba adopted from the Soviet Union. As armed forces minister, he mandated the use of market-oriented business practices in the military enterprises under his command and sent officers abroad to business school. When the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 threw Cuba into deep recession, Raul pushed for the pragmatic use of market mechanisms to jump-start the economy. He overcame Fidel’s reluctance by framing economic recovery as a matter of national security, famously declaring: “Beans are more important than cannons.”
For Cayman observers of Cuban culture even under a new president the status quo will probably remain for decades to come. Free education and high levels of literacy will remain, the excellent healthcare system is still in place, there is little crime, the sports standards are excellent which is why Cayman boxers often go to training camp there and the island had not been spoilt by Western-style commercialism.
But the negative aspects arguably outweigh all that, including grinding poverty where half the population survives on less than $1 a day, a poor public transport system and a regime which imprisons political dissidents, harasses homosexuals and that has been reported to restrict freedom of speech, assembly and movement. Nevertheless, huge swathes of the population remain loyal to the Cuba the Castros created.
However, there is another side to Cuba which may threaten the Tourism industry in the Cayman Islands. Many Europeans still flock to this Caribbean nation and in recent months the Chinese have been arriving.
Look out for our article in coming weeks, titled the other side of Cuba written by our publisher, Ralph lewis.
The distance from Grand Cayman to Cuba is only a short plane ride but even under a new president the quality of life in the gulf will remain light years apart.