Cuba Delays Historic Handover From Castro to New President

December 21, 2017 Updated: December 21, 2017

HAVANA—Communist-run Cuba extended the term of its current leadership to April on Thursday, signaling a two-month delay in the historic handover from Raul Castro to a new president, while announcing tighter regulations on the non-state sector.

Castro, 86, had said he would step down in February after two consecutive terms, ending nearly 60 years of Castro brothers’ rule and marking a transition from the leaders of the 1959 revolution to a new, younger generation.

The National Assembly said, however, that devastation wrought by Hurricane Irma in September had caused a delay to the start of the political cycle in which voters and electoral commissions pick delegates of municipal, provincial and national assemblies who then select a Council of State and president.

The assembly, which is holding one of its twice-yearly meetings, had therefore extended its term through to April 19, state-run media reported, meaning Castro would likely remain president until then.

A view of the National Assembly in Havana, Cuba, Dec. 21, 2017. (Irene Perez/Courtesy of Cubadebate/Handout via Reuters)

Castro, who officially took over the presidency from his late, older brother Fidel Castro in 2008, is set to remain head of the Communist Party, the only legal party in Cuba and its ‘guiding force.’

His heir apparent, First Vice President Miguel Diaz-Canel, 57, was born the year after the revolution but has argued for the need to defend its achievements and provide continuity.

Analysts say he is unlikely to reveal his true colors until he is designated president, and even then, his room to maneuver could be limited by the need to establish himself as a legitimate successor to the “historic generation.”

Hopes that the next president might deepen market reforms to the centrally-planned economy introduced by Castro were dampened on Thursday by the announcement of new regulations on the fledgling private and cooperative sectors designed to limit wealth accumulation and the growth of inequality.

State-run media cited Marino Murillo, chief of the commission charged with carrying out reform, as saying that income distribution at cooperatives would be more closely regulated and private sector licenses would be limited to one per person.

Tricky Economic Outlook

Cuba’s political transition comes as it faces a host of challenges from declining aid from its socialist ally Venezuela to U.S. President Donald Trump’s partial reversal of the U.S.-Cuban detente and tightening of the decades-old U.S. embargo.

A cash crunch has left Cuba behind on payments to its foreign providers, thereby affecting imports, Economy Minister Ricardo Cabrisas told the assembly.

Hurricane Irma also caused damage worth the equivalent of $13.2 billion, Cabrisas said. Cuba evaluates damages from natural disasters in dollars on the assumption that a peso is equal to the dollar. Many other official exchange rates exist in Cuba, valuing the peso at much less.

Cabrisas said the centrally planned economy nonetheless recovered this year from recession in 2016 – the first in nearly a quarter century – growing 1.6 percent.

That growth was driven by expansion in the tourism, transport and communications, agriculture and construction sectors, he said.

Tourism Minister Manuel Marrero told parliament earlier this week that despite Hurricane Irma and a renewed U.S. crackdown on travel to Cuba, the number of foreign visitors grew 19.7 percent on the year to 4.3 million in the first 11 months of 2017.

Cabrisas said the economy would grow around 2 percent next year.

By Nelson Acosta and Sarah Marsh

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