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Cuba's anointed president could lose more power with constitutional reforms supported by Castro

Cuba is preparing a new constitution that proposes a division of powers at the top tier of government, an initiative that analysts say is designed to guarantee the preservation of the socialist system in a post-Castro era.

The constitutional reforms, which have not been approved but were broadly outlined in the official Granma newspaper, were prepared by a commission headed by former ruler Raúl Castro. They include creating the post of prime minister, who would be in charge of the Council of Ministers and the administration of the government, in collaboration with a president and vice president.

The current government is made up of a president of the Council of State and the Council of Ministers and several vice presidents.

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“The changes indicate they are splitting up the political control in order to improve the socialist system,” said Andy Gómez, an academic who recently retired from the University of Miami.

One of the key questions raised by the proposed reforms, as outlined in Granma, is how much power Miguel Díaz-Canel, recently selected as president of the Council of State and the Council of the Ministers, would retain in the new government configuration.

The newspaper vaguely suggests that under the new constitution, the president, the vice president and the secretary of the legislative National Assembly “also serve as such in the Council of State, to achieve more continuity and linkage between the two institutions.”

That description implies that the president would not be directly in charge of the Council of State or the Council of Ministers.

The reforms also indicate that more people would be sharing power in the new government structure, which could avert an internal fight for power after the death of Castro, 87, who remains first secretary of the Communist Party of Cuba.

“I think this has to do with a necessary recognition and adjustment to the passing of the Castro caudillo rule and the need to introduce a more shared and balanced administrative structure with at least the illusion of the separation of powers,” Ted Henken, a Baruch College professor who specializes on Cuba issues, wrote in an email to el Nuevo Herald. “But more than a separation of powers, I think it could be better described as a separation of duties.”

The constitutional reforms are designed to create “a system that is less personal, more institutional, and with the appearance of more legitimacy in the eyes of Cubans,” said Richard Feinberg, a Cuba analyst with the Brookings Institution in Washington. The creation of the post of prime minister — as well as the posts of provincial governors — seeks more efficiency in the governance of the country, he added.

But while the reforms seek to create the impression of “more normal” institutions and a separation between the Communist Party and the government, Feinberg said, the Granma article “inadvertently admitted that all the reforms had to be approved by the Political Bureau” of the Communist Party before the National Assembly started the official process to reform the Constitution in June.

There are not a lot of surprises in the proposed constitutional changes, which should be submitted to a referendum “to create a sense of popular participation,” Feinberg added.

The new constitution “affirms the socialist character of our political, economic and social system, as well as the lead role of the Communist Party of Cuba as the ruling force of society and the state,” the Granma article said.

The proposed changes also rule out the possibility of direct elections for president, which has been demanded by Cubans in several public forums. The president will still be appointed by the National Assembly deputies. Díaz-Canel was selected president with less than 1 percent of the votes cast in local elections.

“It does not fix (the problem) … that the people can really elect their president and not the deputies of the National Assembly. The president should be accountable to the people who elect him,” a person identified as Juan Lancara wrote on Granma’s digital page.

But the proposal for a system where the president shares power with a prime minister who runs the government, and a president of the National Assembly who runs the Council of State, has raised questions even as experts caution that it’s too early to understand the magnitude of the proposed changes.

The Cuban government had previously announced it intends to strengthen the power of the legislature, Feinberg noted, and that might be the goal of uniting the presidencies of the Council of State and the National Assembly.

“We don’t yet know how the prime minister will be chosen. If the president appoints the prime minister, then the president will remain the most powerful government official,” said William LeoGrande, a professor at American University in Washington. “This is how the relationship between the president and prime minister works in France, China and Russia.”

Castro may have given a hint on the future before he retired, saying that Díaz-Canel will succeed him as the head of the Communist Party in 2021.

A president who is also first secretary of the party would definitely have the last word on any government decisions, several analysts agreed.

The proposed constitutional reforms include changes that Castro already had suggested in recent years, such as limiting the presidency to two five-year terms and creating the post of prime minister.

The post of prime minister is not entirely new for Cuba. The late Fidel Castro held that title from 1959 until 1976, when the current constitution was approved and he was named president of the Councils of State and Ministers.

LeoGrande said more clarity is needed to determine if Díaz-Canel’s power will be diminished.

“There is no doubt that Díaz-Canel is in charge of the government. He is on the front page of Granma daily. ... And, of course, he was vice chair of the commission that wrote the new constitution, so it isn’t likely that he wrote himself out of a job,” he said.

Gómez said the proposed changes nevertheless weaken Díaz-Canel, who rules under the protection and approval of Castro. He added that the proposed reforms are full of contradictions.

“They are talking about a socialist state and party control, so how can they talk about political freedom and individual prosperity?” he said. “That does not exist.”

Follow Nora Gámez Torres on Twitter: @elnuevoherald

This story was originally published July 18, 2018 5:03 PM.

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