HAVANA (AP) — Cuba’s National Assembly on Wednesday ratified President Miguel Díaz-Canel for a new five-year term, in a decision to maintain continuity as the island faces a deep economic crisis.
More than 400 representatives to the assembly who were ratified by voters in March took office early Wednesday and then convened the chamber to elect the government’s leadership and the president. Díaz-Canel obtained the votes of 459 of the 462 legislators present.
Vice President Salvador Valdés Mesa also was ratified, by 439 votes.
In his new term, Díaz-Canel must deal with a severe recession prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic, soaring inflation triggered by a series of financial policy decisions and strict sanctions imposed by the U.S. He also must grapple with discontent among many Cubans expressed in part through record rates of emigration to the U.S. and elsewhere.
Among the measures his team will be focusing on “immediately,” Díaz-Canel said, are food production, an increase in exports, and the development of the “socialist-state enterprise.”
He added that controlling inflation is a priority in the country’s “economic battle.”
Díaz-Canel, a slow-talking, gray-haired former engineer who turns 63 this week, also heads the party.
In 2018, he became Cuba’s first leader in six decades not surnamed Castro, after Raul Castro went into semi-retirement following his stint as president. He had taken over from his brother, Cuba’s revolutionary leader Fidel Castro, in 2016.
The country had “hopes of political and economic changes” at the time, but Díaz-Canel instead has become the standard bearer of continuity, said Luis Carlos Battista, a Cuban-American analyst and lawyer living in Washington.
“The president, five years after being ratified by the National Assembly, has not yet managed to convey to the public an idea of progress,” Battista said.
In recent years, the economy has collapsed, with GDP falling 11% in 2020 after the pandemic struck. Inflation from January to October of last year was 40% at official rates — and even more when the black market it taken into account.
In July 2021, Díaz-Canel faced the country’s first major wave of protests in at least two decades, which left one dead, stores vandalized, and cars destroyed and which the government accused groups in the U.S. of fomenting.
Cuba saw some 330,000 islanders leave for the United States between October 2021 and December 2022, a record number. Others departed for other countries in Latin America, and in Europe.
“The panorama is quite bleak,” said Michael Shifter, a member of the Inter-American Dialogue organization and an adjunct professor at Georgetown University. He said the president’s “main challenge will be to activate the economy.”
“The energy system has collapsed. The level of unrest has risen dramatically, emigration is among its highest points in history,” Shifter said.
Delegates to the National Assembly were chosen in an election in March in which there were no opposition challengers and in which voters essentially were being asked merely to endorse the candidates.
Half the candidates came from municipal assemblies chosen in local elections in November, while the other half are nominated by groups representing broad sections of society, such as workers unions. All are vetted by election committees with ties to the party.
Critics of the Cuban political system maintain it does not accommodate opposition voices and that the parliament supports the Communist Party’s wishes without substantial discussion. But authorities defend the model as a form of participatory government that incorporates all social sectors.
In addition to Díaz-Canel and other top leaders of Cuba, the assembly delegates also include well-known personalities such as Elián González, who as a child in 1999-2000 was at the center of a custody dispute between the United States and Cuba.