When you think of Cuban politics, you think of one man. Fidel Castro.
However, it is more than a decade since the cigar smoking communist ran the Caribbean island nation, with his brother Raul assuming responsibility in 2008 and Miguel Diaz-Canel becoming the first non-Castro leader in more than half a century, becoming the Cuban president in 2019, although serving as president of the council of ministers (making him the Cuban leader) since 2018.
Cuban politics is unlike almost any other nation on earth, you must throw out all existing knowledge you have of politics; none of it will apply here. And even then, unlocking the Cuban enigma is an implausible task without spending time in the heart of the country itself.
The Cuban Economy
Firstly, the Cuban economic system must be tackled. Cuba is pretty much the purest socialist system you will find anywhere in the world. Neurosurgeons will earn not a peso more than the taxi drivers ferrying the hordes of tourists around in their classic cars, with almost every aspect of Cuban production and commerce coming under the direction and control of the state.
In many cases, what we consider high-value professions – teaching and healthcare – will earn a Cuban less money than being in an ‘unskilled’ job as a hotel cleaner or a taxi driver. In these jobs much of the tourist money (CUC) – Cuban tourists use a different currency from the natives – will pass into Cuban hands with little record, allowing them to increase their 80 pesos a month salary quite significantly through tipping.
Although much of this still finds its way to the government, the perks of working in tourist-heavy industries enable some Cubans to get ahead – not that being ahead means much in the streets of Havana. Some workplace bonuses now exist for more high-value professions, with traditionally white-collar jobs still being held in high reverence amongst the Cuban people, but a decade of capitalisation since the departure of Fidel Castro has caused little more than a scratch to the underbelly of the socialist state.
The United States’ trade embargoes on Cuba have stunted economic growth in the country, which has inevitably taken its toll on the island. Particularly in Havana, you see this toll, with buildings falling to pieces and held together by sheer willpower more than anything else.
Throughout the period following the Cuban revolution in 1959, the Cuban government have had to place emphasis on certain aspects of the economy over others, as a result of stunted economic growth. Tobacco production and tourism are subject to significant investment as they are the most successful means of bringing wealth into Cuba; healthcare and education also receive significant portions of the Cuban income, with Cuba regularly exporting their doctors during global health crises. However, this leaves little left to repair the buildings or boost food standards, leaving Cuba a heavily contrasted nation.
The Cuban People
The outward-looking Cuban citizen presents yet another contrast, that almost no Cuban will ever travel abroad. As an island people, Cubans have a certain rosy view of travelling overseas, but the government rarely permit Cubans to hold passports, with only sports stars and government officials getting regular clearance to leave the country.
Cuba is clearly a country of contrast. Of secular approaches to religion and a relatively free speaking population, free healthcare (and a high life expectancy); curtailed travel and restricted internet along with poor food quality and terribly decrepit buildings. Even if a Cuban gets an internet card (a one-hour internet card costs around 10% of a week’s wage) many social media platforms are blocked with many websites’ bandwidth being so low that they are reduced to an almost unusable speed.
The Cuban Revolution
In 1958, a group of Cuban revolutionaries, led by former lawyer and communist idealist, Fidel Castro attacked the armed forces of the Cuban government near Sierra Maestra, beginning a revolutionary civil war that would see the lawyer lead the nation for five decades. They had landed on the beach of Granma two years earlier, but were mostly killed; three notable men to escape were Fidel Castro, Raul Castro and Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara. They spent the next few years raising revolutionaries throughout Cuba, which was in an almost constant state of civil war, before the tide turned in favour of the revolutionaries at Sierra Maestra in 1958.
Castro developed a hatred of the Cuban government throughout his life, with the country being led by the military Junta of Fulgencio Batista, that was heavily corrupt and allowed American tourists to privatise most of the island, exploiting the Cuban citizens to create a popular holiday destination for rich Americans.
The 26th July movement – named after Castro’s first attack on the government led by Fulgencio Batista back in 1953 – would become the most important organisation in the guerrilla war, which was one of the most successful communist revolutions in history. Initially, Castro and his movement received as much as $50,000 in support from the American government, which was aimed at winning their sympathies, although once Castro was in power, the Americans would try no less than several hundred times, to assassinate Castro.
Although throughout the revolution the Cuban military remained loyal to Batista, the guerrilla fighters appeared to be better equipped with weapons – often due to international support – and were able to gain the loyalties of the Cuban people. Under the command of Che Guevara, a rebel force won a decisive battle in Santa Clara on 27th December 1958, seizing a train full of arms that was vital for the Cuban army to continue the fight.
With the army left incredibly weak, Fulgencio Batista saw that continuing on was futile, vacated the presidency on 1st January 1959 and fled to the Dominican Republic, later flying to Portugal, where he would spend the rest of his life in exile.
On 3rd January Che Guevara – an Argentinian revolutionary, who would later be shot in Bolivia whilst inciting further revolutions across South America – led an unopposed unit of the revolutionary army into Havana. Fidel Castro arrived in the city five days later, forming a government that he would go on to lead for 49 years.
The Cuban Government
It is impossible to ‘explain Cuba’ without talking about its government. It will not come as a surprise that Cuba is a one-party state, with the communist party exercising complete control over national affairs.
The government is led by a President, although power technically rests with a 31-member Council of State, which largely adheres to the communist ideal of rule by council, rather than by individual. The council of ministers also acts as a de facto cabinet for the Cuban president, enabling Cuba to respond effectively to international politics with a more traditional executive branch.
Until 2019, the Cuban government was not led by a president in the same way as in most nations, but by the chair of the Council of State (known as the president), who served as the de facto president of the nation. However, this was changed in 2019, when a referendum approved, by a 90-10 margin, a change that would re-create the position of prime minister, who would lead the council, removing the president from this body.
The prime minister of Cuba now serves as the head of the Council of Ministers, separating them from the council and making them more akin to a head of state. The current prime minister, leading the Council of Ministers, is Manuel Marrero Cruz.
El Capitolio, the home of the National Assembly – with its dome being an exact replica of the US Capitol building, except one square meter larger – stands like a shining beacon amongst the crumbling buildings of Havana. On approach, however, you cannot fail to notice the pothole-ridden roads that carpet the approach, or the crumbling tenements that surround El Capitolio on all four sides. The building stands as the perfect metaphor for modern Cuba.
Elections to the National Assembly are held every five years in Cuba, with any citizen over 18, who has held full political rights for at least 5 years being eligible to vote for their Assembly representatives. Half of the candidates are nominated by a direct vote within the municipality they are seeking to represent (akin to a primary in the United States), whilst the other half are proposed by local ‘nominating assemblies’, which are interest groups within the municipality.
The Cuban people are then able to vote for which of the (Communist Party) candidates they believe best posses the skills and experience to represent them in the assembly, which is made up of 605 representatives. The final list of candidates is drawn up by the National Candidature Commission, giving the government significant control over who the candidates are, with the number of candidates responding to the number of vacant seats to be filled. If a candidate does not receive at least 50% of the votes in that municipality they are not elected; in 2018 turnout was over 85%.
The system is confusing, but essentially means that candidates are appointed by the government, in consultation with the people, who then give a final seal of ‘approval’ to the candidate who will represent them in the assembly.
The Cuban Judiciary is headed up by the Supreme Court of Cuba, with the judicial system based heavily upon communist judicial theory. Professional judges are elected for unlimited terms of office, largely selected by the executive branch, giving them significant control over the judicial system.
Trials occur usually with one Professional Judge, flanked by two Lay Justices, who serve five-year terms and only serve for around one month per year, continuing with their usual careers whilst serving.
Judicial autonomy over criminal cases appears to be strong in Cuba, however, the executive are believed to have significant influence over the higher courts within the nation. It is only since the 2019 Constitutional Referendum that the judicial system began criminal trials with the presumption of innocence, once again showing the heavy contrasts between a system that is both forward looking, yet heavily authoritarian and anti-liberal.
Move towards Capitalisation
Throughout the period since Fidel Castro left office in 2008 Cuba has started to capitalise its economy, fuelled partly by improved relations with the United States during the Obama presidency. Since the ascension of Miguel Diaz-Canel to the presidency, Cuba has started to quicken the pace of transformation, with recent permittance of Wi-Fi routers in the home, alongside some limited home trading, which has seen the beginning of a market in Cuba.
The 2019 referendum in Cuba opened up some aspects of the economy further, recognising private property for the first time since the Castro government nationalised all property following the revolution. The referendum also meant Cuba recognises foreign investment, enabling the future permittance of foreign private property for the first time since all American owned Casinos and hotels were nationalised in 1959.
Although Trump’s administration has tightened restrictions on the country and has slowed down this reform once again – banning US cruise ships from docking in Cuba – the Caribbean nation is likely to slowly reduce its contrasting appearance and bring itself into the global political economy more, allowing for strong growth and heightened wealth.