A Change of Nameplate in Cuba

The end of the Castro era in Cuba is an unarguably historical event. The retirement of Raul Castro, the brother of Fidel, who became president of the island in 2013, and the ascension to that position of Miguel Diaz-Canel, a 58-year-old bureaucrat born after the 1959 revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power, marks the first time in more than a half-century that a non-Castro stands at the communist country’s helm.

Stepping into the role of president without having participated in the revolution, Mr. Diaz-Canel is expected by many to seek legitimacy through economic reforms and a continued slow opening of its markets, as well as other reforms.

But whether the change of nameplate will herald any change in the country’s infamous abuses of the rights of its citizens remains to be seen, and grounds for optimism are sparse.

The 86-year-old Raul, for starters, is remaining as first secretary of Cuba’s ruling Communist Party (and Mr. Diaz-Canel’s win of 99.83% of the Cuban National Assembly vote is a good indication of the party’s unity). Raul Castro will also remain head of the military, which controls not only the country’s armed forces but also much of its economy.

In his speech after becoming President, Mr. Diaz-Canel declared, “We will remain faithful to the legacy of Fidel Castro … and the example, bravery and teachings of Raul Castro, the current leader of the revolutionary process.”

What is more, titles in Cuba are somewhat interchangeable; Fidel in fact ruled Cuba from 1959 to 1976 with the title prime minister, with a figurehead as official president.

And while the new president is reportedly a supporter of market reforms and an advocate for opening up Cuba to the wider world, it is far from likely that Raul’s handpicked successor will stray far from the path forged and fortified by the Castros.

In fact, last summer, Mr. Díaz-Canel denounced the independent media and foreign embassies as saboteurs, and called President Obama’s 2015 diplomatic opening — lifting the ban on Cuban cigars, facilitating American exports, allowing American banks to do more business in the country and upgrading the Cuban and U.S. “interests sections” in Washington and Havana to embassies — a plot to “destroy the revolution.”

Still and all, there has been some progress in recent years in the realm of market reforms, allowing growth in the private sector. And even though Mr. Obama’s 2015 overture has been rejected by President Trump, who has put new restrictions on trade and travel between the U.S. and Cuba, Mike Pompeo, Mr. Trump’s nominee for secretary of state, told the Senate last week that he wants to improve ties with Cuba and “build out a team there.”

That may be a wise approach, both in the interest of intelligence-gathering and in advancing human rights in Cuba.

Currently, though, in Cuba’s dismal economy, salaries average $30 per month. And there is systematic abuse of such rights, including arbitrary imprisonment and show trials. Cuban law limits freedom of expression, association, assembly and movement. And, although there has been a loosening of enforcement of the official state atheism, the government still maintains tight control on religious institutions, affiliated groups and religious individuals.

The Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, an independent human rights group that, lacking official authorization, is considered illegal by the government, received more than 7,900 reports of arbitrary detentions from January through August 2016, the highest monthly average of detentions in the past six years.

There are also reports of discriminatory layoffs by state agencies with the aim of silencing citizens’ criticisms of the state. That is particularly significant considering that three-quarters of the work force is employed by the state. And, although the Center for Democracy in the Americas reports that entrepreneurial activity in Cuba now accounts for more than half a million jobs, about 12% of the workforce, harassments of the self-employed is also not unusual.

Cuba, moreover, remains mostly closed to independent human rights monitors.

So, while hope may spring eternal that true change will come to Cuba in the wake of the Castros’ ageing out, less optimistic observers will wonder if the country will any time soon make measureable progress in human rights and respect for the country’s citizenry, or if it will remain a relic of Cold War communism, complete with food shortages, rusted 1959 automobiles, a cripplingly centralized economy and a repressed citizenry.