An observant spectator may notice the glint of steel scaffolding barely visible amidst the crumbling facades along the Malecón, the prevalence of a new fleet of public transit buses known colloquially as “camels,” or the existence of new government-sanctioned cyber cafes in Havana. Any hint of change in Cuba sparks sizable excitement among journalists and academics, who view the island nation as a modern case study in the shortcomings of socialism.
This year has given rise to three “revolutionary” indications of change dictated by Cuban President Raul Castro, the latest figurehead in a line of communist Castro deities. These changes have the potential to do away with Cuba’s Old Gods, Old Guard, and Old Gold: the Castro brothers, the aging members of the communist apparatus, and the costly dual currency system, respectively.
First, Raul Castro has announced an end to his presidency in 2018 and suggested that he will also apply term limits to other positions of leadership. Second, he ordered the removal of several prominent members of the Communist Party’s central committee in order to make room for new and younger loyalists. Finally, Raul reiterated the importance of getting rid of the dual currency system in his latest biannual speech in front of the parliament on Sunday.
The Castro brothers have held power since the 1959 ousting of dictator Fulgencio Batista. Many assumed that he would pass power to a younger member of the Castro family. Instead, Raul promoted Miguel Diaz-Canel to be his top lieutenant, and is supposedly grooming him for power.
Raul also praised two aging revolutionaries for offering to leave their positions to make room for the next generation of communist leaders. In fact, ever since Fidel handed him the presidency in 2008, Raul has been replacing older members with allies and younger loyalists.
Last week, Raul announced that he was removing Ricardo Alarcón, former Parliament chief, from the Communist Party’s central committee, along with several others. Alarcón was one of the original revolutionaries that aided Castro’s guerrillas in the take down of Batista, as well as Fidel Castro’s longtime friend. A true member of the old guard, Alarcón also served in the 15-member Politburo, the Communist Party’s policy-making body, for 16 years. He was often considered the third-most powerful figure in Cuba.
Nevertheless, there are those who view the shift from the old guard to the new as negligible. Newer loyalists do not mean newer policies. Furthermore, the Castro brothers have traditionally promised high and delivered low, as is to be expected from a rhetorical regime.
In his speech this weekend, Raul trumpeted the importance of disbanding the dual currency system, a move that would amplify long-term economic growth and move to free the shackled economy. This is particularly vital because Cuba’s economic growth consistently falls short of projections.
Cuba’s dual currency system is an outdated extension of government-mandated social and economic oppression. The value of the Cuban Convertible Peso—money used by foreigners at a value tied to the U.S. dollar—is 24 times the value of the Cuban Pesos paid to Cuban workers. Therefore, ordinary goods end up costing the average Cuban prices equivalent to multiple days or even weeks of work. For example, a desk fan which would cost foreigners 20 CUC, or roughly $22, costs a Cuban worker the equivalent of nearly $500.
Equalizing the two currencies would allow all Cubans access to imported goods, lower the social barriers between foreigners and the Cuban people, decrease the gap between the rich and poor, simplify business transactions, and dramatically increase incomes. However, as Cuba Standard points out, any transition to a single currency system will have to be slow, because immediate shock in the form of abruptly equalizing the values would cause sharp inflation and scarcity of goods.
Politics is often synonymous with unfulfilled promises, especially in fiscal fiefdoms like Cuba. Therefore, critics are rightly wondering: Will Castro walk the talk? Will the new guard usher in new policies? Or will that famous English proverb hold true: You can’t teach an old guard dog new politics.