Fidel Castro today announced his retirement from formal duties due to continuing ill health. This means that the newly elected National Assembly will formalise Raul Castro as his successor when it meets on February 24. In the run-up, Raul has underscored his reformist line.
At the same time, a top-down call for debate has led Cubans increasingly to voice openly criticisms and demands, with the internet providing communications channels that evade the state media monopoly.
When he became ill in July 2006, Fidel delegated powers "temporarily" to Raul and a group of leading party cadres. Following Fidel's announcement that he would not seek a fresh mandate, the prolonged succession is ending. On February 24, the 614 members of Cuba's National Assembly will convene to elect the president of the Council of State and Council of Ministers for the next six-year period. Fidel has held both offices since they were created:
• Fidel's retirement means Raul will be unchallenged as his successor.
• Attention will focus on the selection of a first vice-president to replace Raul. While there have been no serious signals of who Raul will choose, since he became acting president, Carlos Lage has been the politician with the highest public profile.
• While Fidel has announced that from now on he will sign newspaper columns merely as "Comrade Fidel", for the time being he remains first secretary of the Cuban Communist Party (PCC). However, he is no longer in a position of power.
Probing debate. When Raul last July called for debate, this seemed to many to be empty rhetoric. However, instead, it has provided space for increasing openness:
• The workplace gatherings that followed Raul's call raised a series of complaints, but still followed the pattern Cubans term "elevator debate": complaints had to be worded carefully, voiced in closed meetings, and then were channelled upwards to the leadership.
• Recent meetings have become much more open and confrontational. The most notorious case occurred in the Cuban Informatics University (UCI), one of Fidel's prestige projects, which is supposed to train a new technological elite. In a meeting with students, National Assembly President Ricardo Alarcon faced questioning on issues such as the peso-dollar divide, ban on Google and Yahoo, freedom to travel and the electoral process. Video clips from this meeting were made available to the BBC and posted on YouTube, and enjoyed a worldwide audience.
• Similarly, a government meeting with workers from the state employment agency (ACOREC) through which Cuban labour is provided to foreign joint ventures and embassies, was filmed and leaked. It showed loud protests to startled officials after a new tax was announced on employees' informal hard-currency earnings.
Dodging media monopoly. While internet access is restricted in Cuba, electronic media are becoming increasingly important in challenging vertical state control of the media:
• Even though few Cubans have regular internet access, the UCI incident rapidly become common knowledge in Havana. More than the individual criticisms, the most noteworthy feature was ordinary citizens publicly voicing grievances directly to the authorities.
• E-mail, which is far more accessible than the world wide web, has become a key form of horizontal communication, bypassing state media hierarchies. For example, the ACOREC workers' meeting was followed with a written protest from German embassy employees, which was circulated by e-mail.
While dissidents for some time have sent articles to websites maintained in Miami and elsewhere, a new generation of blogs and magazines have generated a new dynamic:
• While hosted on servers outside Cuba, new websites like the irreverent Generation Y blog, or online magazine Consenso, are maintained from on the island.
• Vitral, a critical magazine, published under the auspices of Cuba's Catholic Church, was closed down last year, officially because of "lack of resources". Its director, Dagoberto Valdes, now has resurrected the project as a web-based magazine called "Convivencia".
• For official journalists and party functionaries, the left-wing Latin America-wide website Kaos en la Red has become a semi-official testing ground for opinion pieces that go beyond what is currently publishable in traditional media.