Cuba’s National Assembly has ratified another five-year term for incumbent President Miguel Diaz-Canel, in a move expected to result in few changes as the country struggles with an economic crisis and an exodus of citizens.
“We must assume this gigantic challenge without slowing down,” Diaz-Canel, 62, said in a speech following his victory on Wednesday. He called upon his cabinet to “face up to obstacles and resolve inefficiencies” over the next five years.
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Diaz-Canal won reelection with votes from 459 of the 462 legislators present. He first assumed the presidency in 2018 and has largely rejected proposed structural changes to Cuba’s political and economic system.
“He has proclaimed himself a president of continuity when what the country is asking for, and even the agenda of the Communist Party itself, is an agenda of continuous change,” Arturo Lopez-Levy, an analyst at the Autonomous University of Madrid, told the AFP news agency.
The legislators who voted to extend Diaz-Canal’s mandate only recently faced elections themselves last month for Cuba’s 470-member National Assembly.
Critics point out that Cuba’s government does not allow opposition challengers. Half of the candidates in March’s legislative election came from locally elected municipal assemblies, with the other half nominated by groups representing other segments of society such as labour unions.
However, all candidates are analysed by election committees with ties to the Communist Party, which critics allege does not allow true opposition.
In recent years, the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic and strong inflation has devastated the Cuban economy. Its gross domestic product (GDP) fell by 11 percent in 2020, and prices surged by 40 percent from January through October of last year, according to the Associated Press.
The United States has also had the island under a trade embargo since the 1960s, which critics say has contributed to its already dismal economic situation. The US, meanwhile, has defended its decades-long sanctions on the basis of Cuba’s human rights record.
Cuba’s economic crisis, however, has pushed many citizens beyond what they can endure, with thousands attempting desperate trips to reach the US.
In 2022, the US estimated that about 306,612 Cubans — about 2 percent of the island nation’s population — crossed its southern border with Mexico.
Some Cubans also attempt to reach the US by sea in ramshackle boats, a dangerous gamble that often costs them their lives. Between August 2022 and January 2023, officials said at least 65 Cubans had died trying to make the crossing.
However, Cubans who reach the US often face deportation and detention. In January, the administration of US President Joe Biden announced it would automatically expel Cuban asylum seekers attempting to enter the US from Mexico — a decision condemned by immigrant and refugee rights groups.
Instead, the administration unveiled a new “parole” programme that would allow Cubans and citizens from three other countries to come to the US for up to two years, provided they meet certain conditions — including having a sponsor who can support them financially.
“If you’re trying to leave Cuba, Nicaragua or Haiti … do not just show up at the border. Stay where you are and apply legally from there,” Biden told reporters from the White House in January.