On Raul Castro’s Retirement as President

Cuba is not a normal country

The generalized perception in the world that in April Raul Castro will leave power when he retires as President of the country is erroneous in its origin. Cuba is not a normal country.

The international community knows little about the structure and functioning of political power on the island. In Latin America, the Head of State and Government is the highest executive authority of the nation. In Cuba, Article 5 of the Constitution specifies that the Communist Party of Cuba “is the highest governing force of society and of the State.”

That is, the maximum political and executive representation on the island is not the President, but the Politburo (PB) of the Communist Party of Cuba (CPC) and its First Secretary. And that position will be held by Castro II until 2021, or until he dies, or until he feels like holding it. Therefore, the new President will be an administrator, not a ruler with real command.

Nothing will change even if the Constitution is modified before Castro II leaves office as president of the country and evev if the position of President of the Council of State and the Council of Ministers is separated into two independent offices. Above both presidents, important decisions would continue to be taken by the Dictator – even if he moves to Santiago de Cuba, as some are saying. Raúl Castro will continue to be the highest holder of not only political but also military power, as head of the Military Junta.

Military nature, the military are in command

But there is more to it: although “de jure” the Constitution so establishes, in practice (“de facto”), the highest holder of power in Cuba is not the Politburo of the CPC and its First Secretary, but the Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces and head of the Military Junta, along with an elite group of generals, colonels and comandantes that surround the Dictator, most of whom do not belong to the Politburo. The Military Junta, which does not appear often and rather operates behind the scenes, is in charge in Cuba.

Fidel and Raúl Castro have been the “strong men” not so much because they are the highest CPC leaders, but the highest military commanders since 1959. Both positions have always been held by only one person, until next April. And that will be an institutional incongruence that will occur for the first time. According to the Constitution, the President of the Council of State is responsible for “the Supreme Command of all armed institutions.”

The origin of this anomaly is that when the communist Constitution was enacted in February 1976, Fidel was 49 years old and Raul 44. Both knew that for decades either one would simultaneously be the absolute leader of the CPC, the State, the Armed Forces and the Military Junta altogether. “Then we’ll see,” they thought. And then is already here.

Now the Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces will not also be both First Secretary of the CPC and President of the country. If the Constitution is not amended earlier, General Castro will no longer be the Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces. Of course, he will continue to be the head of the Military Junta and that is what counts.

Fidel Castro never accepted – as was the case in the USSR and other socialist countries – that the Communist Party was above the military. His authoritarian leaning clashed with that Marxist-Leninist principle. His brother, who almost always follows Fidel, does not accept it either. That is why the real political power lies in the Armed Forces and not in the State, the government, or the CPC. As an institution, the latter only counts as an administrative and ideological appendix, for control, propaganda, and political repression.

Whoever is the new Head of State will receive orders from the Dictator, Vice-dictator José R. Machado Ventura (Second Secretary of the CPC), and from the Military Junta. And that will hardly change as long as the “historical” gerontocracy is alive.

As Jose Marti said that it should not be done

Cuba is the only country in the world with a military regime that presents itself as civilian and is accepted by all. In fact, the country is ruled as Jose Marti warned Generalissimo Maximo Gomez, in a letter dated October 20, 1884, it should not be done: “A nation is not founded, General, as a camp is commanded.” The motto of the sixties of unconditional support for Fidel Castro: “For whatever it is, Commander in Chief, command us,” could not be more anti Marti.

Cuban society is so militarized that it has fascist features, unlike the former communist societies in Eastern Europe, whose military aspects were less marked. A suggestive fact: Fidel Castro liked to be called “Jefe”. That is what high-ranking officers called him. Saying it in German, Fidel was the “Fuhrer”.

Since the very beginning, the main Castroist positions have been occupied by the military. Today, 5 of the 7 vice presidents of the Council of Ministers are generals and comandantes. Fulgencio Batista, in his eagerness to be seen as a civilian democrat, never dressed as a general. Fidel Castro never took off his uniform and his brother only wears civilian clothes when protocol so forces him.

Another complementary fact: Cuba is the Western nation without democratic elections for the longest time: 70 years, since 1948. And it is the only country in the Americas that has had two brothers as military dictators, for 59 consecutive years.

The pyramid of Castro’s political power

Democracy is firmly based on the independence of the three public powers (Executive, Legislative and Judicial), something that, returning to Plato and Aristotle, the Baron de Montesquieu formulated 270 years ago (“The spirit of the laws”, 1748).

In Cuba there are not three powers but six, without any independence, all controlled by Castro II, who is a tropical version of Louis XIV of France, the embodiment par excellence of absolute monarchy.

The Dictator rules aided by a Military Junta and unlike his narcissistic brother, Raul Castro does listen to and consult them. That is why now the MJ is more powerful than ever.

According to the amount of real power held, Cuba’s totalitarian structure is as follows:

1) Dictator (Commander-in-Chief, Chief of the Military Junta, First Secretary of the CPC, Head of State and Head of Government)

2) Military Junta

3) Politburo of the CPC

4) Central Committee of the CPC

5) Councils of State and of Ministers

6) National Assembly of People’s Power

Under Fidel Castro, there was a seventh governmental entity that was precisely the most important: the “Coordination and Support Group for the Commander in Chief“. That was the true government of the country. It no longer exists.


The condition of Dictator in Cuba is not conferred by being the Head of State, but by the military leadership and the CPC. Castro II controls all public powers, including the Judiciary. And without being president of the Parliament he dominates it with an iron hand.

The Military Junta: Cream of the Crop

The Castro Military Junta (MJ) does not formally exist. It works in the shadows. It looks like an occasional group for General Castro’s consultation and advice. Far from that, it is the true power. Above that group there is nothing.

In fact, the MJ is the praetorian guard of Raul Castro’s, made up exclusively by Raulistas. In the MJ, only Ramiro Valdes is not a Raulista, but a Fidelista remnant. But he is there as “number two” of the highest historical hierarchy of Sierra Maestra since 1959, behind Castro II (the other four have died: Fidel, Camilo, Che and Almeida).

The cream of the crop of Castroism is headed by the Dictator himself, his son Alejandro Castro Espin and comandante José R. Machado Ventura. They are followed by, in addition to Ramiro Valdes, generals Leopoldo Cintra Frias, Minister of the Armed Forces; Álvaro López Miera, first Deputy Minister of the Armed Forces and Chief of Staff; Luis Alberto Rodríguez López-Callejas, Tsar of the military corporations; and Julio Cesar Gandarilla, Minister of Interior.

Also included are Generals Ramón Espinosa and Joaquín Quintas Solá, Deputy Ministers of the Armed Forces; Onelio Aguilera Bermudez, Chief of the Western Army; Raul Rodriguez Lobaina, Chief of the Central Army; Lucio Morales Abad, Chief of the Eastern Army; and Leonardo Andollo, second Chief of the Permanent Commission for “updating” the socialist economic model.

Of those 14 military commanders, 8 are not members of the Politburo of the CPC. They do not need it.


The Politburo of the CPC has 17 members but only the six militaries count; and not by chance are all members of the MJ (Castro II, Machado, Ramiro, Cintra Frias, Espinosa and Lopez Miera). Those militaries decide. The other 11 members listen, speak if they are allowed to, and approve what the militaries decide. The civilians are actually there to confer them political stature vis-a-vis the organizations they preside over, and to project an image of racial integration in the top leadership.

Central Committee of the CPC

The Central Committee (CC) of the Party, with more than a hundred members, approves everything decided “above”. Its mission is to control the country through a multipurpose executive bureaucratic apparatus. Its heads of departments and sections run the ministries, the central agencies and the governing bodies of the CPC in the provinces, municipalities and the base cells, where the militants are constantly receiving threats. The foreign policy is not discussed in the Foreign Ministry, but in the Department of International Relations of the CC.

Many Cubans do not know the name of the president of the Provincial Assembly of People’s Power (governor) in their province or municipality, but they know well that of the First Secretary of the CPC. The governor has no power but the party leader can do anything.

Minor Hierarchy: Presidency, Government and Parliament

The Council of State, the Council of Ministers and the National Assembly of People’s Power do not decide anything important. They are subordinate to the political-military-party hierarchy and amount to a subordinate chain of command.

With 31 members, the Council of State acts on behalf of the Legislative Power (each legislature has a term of 5 years) during the 359 days a year when the National Assembly does not meet; and it represents the State.

The Council of State means absolutely nothing for the daily life of Cubans. The regime discusses its most important issues with the US, not with the Cubans, whom it ignores cavalierly. They settle accounts with and make proposals to a delegation of senators and congressmen from Washington, something they never do with the Cuban people. That is why the much vaunted presidential relay on the island is not of the interest of the Cuban people, who are the sovereign of the nation.

On the Council of Ministers it suffices to say that it only has bureaucratic and administrative functions, nothing strategic. It is in fact directed by the CC of the CPC. Its vice presidents are almost all in the military.

The National Assembly of People’s Power is a travesty of parliament, devoid of real content. So much so, that it only meets six days a year (record in the West). Its 612 “deputies” listen and raise their hands to unanimously approve what has already been cooked by the Dictator and his clique. Never in 42 years of existence, any deputy to the National Assembly has questioned anything coming from the Castroist top, or has proposed anything on their own initiative. It is the most faithful expression of the Orwellian Stalinist farm.

What changes, if any, will there be?

That General Castro II is no longer the President of the Council of State and of Ministers will be of little account in the bowels of Cuban totalitarianism, even if the Constitution is amended in advance and the figure of Prime Minister is created, at the head of the government, separate from the position of President and Head of State.

In any case, the President, and an eventual Prime Minister, will be subordinate to the Dictator, who will remain Raul Castro, officially until 2021. It is likely that, contrary to what many believe, Castro II will concentrate more than ever his military power vis-a-vis the Communist Party, to avoid possibly that the new Head of State “is tempted” to believe that he is really a ruler. All the bets point until now that the new “president” will be Miguel Díaz-Canel, who could be as decorative and ceremonial a figure as Osvaldo Dorticos was from 1959 to 1976.

Many political opponents on the island think that the most troglodyte Stalinist old guard, those who even with atherosclerosis make the decisions, could increase political repression to make it clear that as long as they live there will be no “perestroika” in Cuba. They already did it when Barack Obama put forward the “thaw”.

More pressure could force the change

Historical experience reveals that communist regimes collapsed with changes from above, but always with strong pressure from below. It was the combination of both factors that imploded “real socialism” in Europe.

In the Cuban case, the external factor also acquires vital importance, because with the amazing unproductiveness of Cuba’s economy, the country totally depends on foreign sources. Only Venezuelan subsidies (although very weakened), remittances, packages and trips from the US, and tourists from other latitudes, are preventing massive famines on the island.

The social and economic crisis is getting worse by the day. Regime officials, who only speak on condition of anonymity, assure that in 2018 everything will be worse than in 2017. The Caracas regime could even collapse; Moscow, Beijing, Tehran, Algiers, or the European Union, do not give away money, nor oil. Tourism from the US is falling. The Trump Administration’s policy has disrupted the military’s plans to install a model of state capitalism only for their own benefit.

And we could wonder here: if the European Union, the USA and many countries in Latin America and around the world have decided not to recognize the results of the elections in Venezuela convened by Nicolas Maduro, why not do the same to the electoral farce that will take place in Cuba in a few weeks?

The very fact that in Cuba, in the midst of such a harrowing socioeconomic crisis, there is a new President without the name of Castro must generate expectations among the population, who are losing fear of calling things by their names. Starting in April, political pressure could rise for substantial changes. The people could perhaps begin to demand more economic freedom, which would pave the way for greater demands.

It is well known that Castro II does not have Castro I’s ability to handle a crisis. He tends to hide his head in the sand like an ostrich, or get drunk for days, witnesses say. In addition, the socio-economic disaster is already putting a strong pressure on the “nomenklatura”. Many hierarchs perceive that changes must be made urgently.

In short, greater pressure from below, the fear above that if they do not make a move everything may fall down, a still stronger policy from Washington, and less European complacency with Castroism, would be key in this juncture of cosmetic changes on the island. It is what the nation desperately needs.

Special FHRC Report written by Roberto Alvarez Quiñones

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