Thoughts on Meeting with the Cuban President in New York

January 9, 2019

By R.O. Niederstrasser-Hernández

During the 73rd session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), I was invited by the Cuban Embassy to a closed event at the Permanent Mission of Cuba to the United Nations in New York. There, the newly elected Cuban president Miguel Díaz-Canel, on his first trip to the United States, addressed a limited audience of distinguished Cuban politicians, journalists, ministers, businessmen and women, generals, and top political analysts.

In his short speech (by Cuban standards), he reiterated the message that his government was open to continuing the normalization of bilateral relations with the United States that began with the Obama administration back in 2014. Similarly, he stated that Cuba was not going to be pressured on concessions essential to its sovereignty and independence, nor was it going to negotiate its principles or accept conditions from the United States. Díaz-Canel responded directly to President Trump’s comments the day before, where Trump told reporters that he “didn’t like what was happening in Cuba.”

The new Cuban leader also responded to the mysterious “sonic wave incidents” that affected the health of a dozen U.S. diplomatic staff members in the U.S. Embassy in Havana in 2017. Addressing the United Nations General Assembly, he stated: “The artificial fabrication with false pretexts, scenarios of tensions and hostility will benefit nobody.” Instead, he continued to offer the same channel of cooperation under the basis of equality and respect.

During my short, personal interaction with Díaz-Canel, he expressed at seeing young faces in the meeting, and encouraged us to “stand up for Cuba,” and to “participate in the debate.” The latter has been openly promoted by the government since the initiation of the new constitutional project. This attempt to interact with the Cuban-American community regarding the constitutional project has created an even bigger rift between the already irreconcilable sides of the Cuban community torn apart by polarizing political views.

Photo of R.O. Niederstrasser-Hernández with Cuban president Miguel Diaz-Canel

The New Constitutional Project as an Engagement Tool

Díaz-Canel comes to visit the United States at a pivotal moment. He is the new face of the political generational change at the helm of the state. The reforms started during Raúl Castro’s term has transformed significant aspects of the Cuban society in the last decade. Therefore, it is no coincidence that the new constitution comes as a necessity to solidify the changes and replace the antiquated Constitution of 1976.
However, in this new blueprint the Cuban government holds on to the political foundations of the socialist and revolutionary state. The socialist party remains the only political institution allowed; open to liberalization so long as the foundation of the system is maintained.

The new “Anteproyecto de la Reforma Constitucional” is being debated nation-wide before it goes to the National Assembly and is subjected to a referendum. Some of the most important and immutable changes include: to constitutionally ratify the importance of foreign investment for the economic development of the country; the recognition of private property; marriage equality; the reform of laws regulating licenses for small businesses; and in matters of justice and due process, the presumption of innocence.

At the municipal level, propositions will extend the mandate of delegates to five years and recognize municipal autonomy: this will allow local government to more effectively address local-level needs. Nevertheless, at the national level, the National Assembly of People’s Power will retain its status as the supreme organ of the state and the only one with constitutional and legislative power. Progress is coming on some key issues but in very slow steps. Díaz-Canel comes to the presidency at a crucial time for Cuba. The country is restructuring its own political system, also changing to adapt its socialist economy for greater capacity. It is difficult to tell just yet what direction all these reforms will take them.