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Cuba names a prime minister, for first time in over four decades

It “is a mechanism to have a more collective government and not have power concentrated in one person,” said a former Cuban diplomat.
Image: Manuel Marrero Cruz
Cuban Prime Minister Manuel Marrero Cruz embraces Cuba's President Miguel Diaz-Canel during the closing session at the National Assembly of Popular Power in Havana, Cuba, on Dec. 21, 2019.Ramon Espinosa / AP

HAVANA, Cuba — Cuba has named a prime minister for the first time in over four decades during a parliamentary session on Saturday, further dividing political roles in a country that, not long ago, was ruled by one person.

Tourism Minister Manuel Marrero Cruz, 56, was named by President Miguel Díaz-Canel for a five-year term. He has been tourism minister for 16 years and has overseen Cuba’s boom in visitors, an essential part of the island’s economy. The National Assembly, ratified Marrero as required by Cuba’s recently revised constitution. He was also confirmed by the Communist Party, headed by 88-year-old Raul Castro.

His brother, the late revolutionary Fidel Castro was the last person to hold the position until it was terminated in 1976. However, during this period, Fidel Castro held absolute power in the country.

In this case, the role of prime minister “is a mechanism to have a more collective government and not have power concentrated in one person,” said Carlos Alzugaray, a former senior Cuban diplomat.

In April 2018, Raul Castro, stepped down as Cuba’s president and was succeeded by Díaz-Canel.

Fidel and Raul Castro directly shaped the country’s history and its role in power dynamics across the globe for over half a century.

Raúl Castro remains chief of the Communist Party of Cuba, the most powerful political position in the country and one that, since 1976, the two Castros have held. Raul Castro will leave the powerful position in 2021 and Diaz-Canel will take the helm. He began a two, five-year term as president in 2018.

Alzugaray underscored that Raul Castro stated in 2006 the Cuban government would be restructured because Fidel Castro could not be substituted by a single person, but rather by everyone.

Arturo López-Levy, assistant professor at Holy Names University and a former analyst with Cuba’s interior ministry, said the additional role of prime minister is a result of the Cuban government adapting to the absence of a charismatic revolutionary leader like Fidel Castro. “Without charismatic leadership, it’s important to distribute government roles,” he said.

Most urgent task: Economic reform

López-Levy says this is more of an attempt to separate functions within Cuba’s one-party system, rather than a division of power. Relations with the U.S, a top strategic priority, will be kept under the control of Díaz-Canel. The prime minister will be in charge of the day-to-day running of the country and right now, the most urgent task is economic reform.

The new primer minister will be facing an island with economic stagnation and a population that is increasingly looking for a better standard of living.

Cuba, with one of the world’s last communist governments, has averaged only about 1 percent annual growth for the past few years, though the government reported 4 percent growth in 2015 – the year after the U.S. normalized relations with Cuba, which created a boom in U.S. travel. Its centrally-planned economy imports over two-thirds of its food.

President Donald Trump’s administration has tightened the screws on the embargo. He has cut back on U.S. visits to Cuba by banning cruise ships from docking on the island, ending commercial flights from landing outside Havana, and eliminating unguided educational travel, the most popular form of travel from the U.S. Americans whose properties were confiscated after the 1959 Cuban revolution are now allowed to sue companies profiting from those assets in U.S. courts, potentially alienating foreign investors.

At the same time, aid from its ally, Venezuela, has hit a low due to the political and economic turmoil in the South American country. The island’s medical exchange program, a major source of revenue, has also taken a blow with countries like Brazil, Bolivia, and Ecuador suspending the program.

Cuba will have to make significant economic reforms to adjust to the current circumstances.

“Cuba still has a command economy with some pockets of market-oriented structure. But now Cuba will most likely move to a more comprehensive mixed economy,” said López Levy.

One of the tasks the prime minster will tackle is unifying its dual monetary system that many speculate is slated for 2020. The concept of two currencies, the peso and the convertible peso (CUC) was created in the 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union, which had been subsidizing the country until that point. The idea was to help absorb the shock of the collapse but at the same time, the dual currency distorted the economy and never revealed the real economic situation of the country.

López Levy says the most difficult challenge will be the political consequences that economic reform will bring to Cuba’s economic system. “People don’t think the same way when they live in a market economy than when they live in a command economy in which the government controls almost everything,” he said.

“If there is a significant period of market oriented economic growth, in the end, it will impose pressure for democratization, or at least liberalization,” said López Levy. “And in the case of Cuba, you can say that, even now, it’s happening," he said. "This is having an eroding role in the pillars of the communist system. The seeds of capitalism are already planted in Cuba everywhere.”

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