Cuban leader Raul Castro announced last weekend that he will step down as President in 2018, transferring power to his appointed “dauphin,” Vice-president Miguel Diaz-Canel (left), who – if he takes office – would be the first leader not to be a veteran of the Cuban revolution.
“For the first time the party is clearly trying to put a younger face on the government’s highest echelons,” said Christopher Sabatini, senior policy director at the Americas Society/Council of the Americas. “While overdue, it is clear that they’re trying to lay the groundwork for the continuation of the government post [the] Castro[s].”
Mr Diaz-Canel, who looks stern but well-groomed on television, trained as an electrical engineer and earned his spurs in Communist youth groups. He won a series of party posts in the provinces before becoming minister of higher education in 2009 and, last year, vice-president for the council of ministers.
This slow and steady ascent, which analysts said was in keeping with the deliberate military tastes of Mr Castro, former head of Cuba’s armed forces, is in contrast to other potential younger leaders in the past – such as former economics tsar Carlos Lage or former foreign minister Roberto Robaina – who were held out as reformers and promoted quickly, only to fall suddenly from grace.
The regime has adopted a series of anemic reforms in an attempt to kick-start a sclerotic economy which is now more dependent on Venezuelan aid that it was on Soviet subsidies before 1991.
“Regardless of what happens in Venezuela, the Cuban regime needs to ‘update’ the revolution,” said Sabatini, a former Latin America program officer at the National Endowment for Democracy. “Even with the 100,000 or so barrels of oil the regime receives every year it is still struggling fiscally, is still strapped for hard currency and is still failing to meet people’s basic needs.”
But Cuban democrats question whether the handover will take place.
He views recent moves by the Castro government as political gamesmanship and still speculates that Fidel Castro’s daughter, Mariela Castro, could eventually assume power. Others think it could be one of Raul Castro’s sons, Alejandro.
“The Castro family has no intention of letting go,” said Gutierrez Boronat. “They keep power within a very close familiar group, together with the people who’ve been helping them in the state apparatus for the last 53 years.”
“They’re giving up power too late and five years is too long to wait for them to actually do it,” said Francisco “Pepe” Hernandez, president of the Cuban-American National Foundation, a group that has long lobbied in Washington against the Castros.
“‘They’ve already done so much harm to the Cuban people. And the nerve to think they can name a successor, as if Cuba was their personal farm. The successor they named better be careful; those guys sometimes just disappear,” he said.
On his blog, Mauricio Claver-Carone, the Executive Director of Cuba Democracy Advocates, wrote: “Here’s a novel idea — how about letting the Cuban people choose their ‘new generation’ of leaders?”
The Obama administration takes a similar line, suggesting that Cubans deserve the right to choose their own leaders in free and fair elections.
“Absent the fundamental democratic reforms necessary to give people their free will and their ability to pick their own leaders, it won’t be a fundamental change for Cuba,” said State Department deputy acting spokesman Patrick Ventrell.
The activists’ skepticism is echoed by independent analysts.
“I don’t think Diaz-Canel has any base of power,” said Professor Jaime Suchlicki, a Cuba expert at the University of Miami. “He’s not military. He doesn’t have any tanks or a regimen. Right now, he’s the man of the hour. Two years from now, he may not be.”
Since inheriting power from his brother Fidel, Castro has initiated a series of tentative micro-reforms, designed to promote a China model of limited private enterprise while maintaining the ruling Communist party’s political monopoly.
“The government has chosen its dauphin,” tweeted Yoani Sánchez, the celebrated Cuban blogger. “He is absolutely faithful to Raúl Castro, has little charisma of his own but is indubitably younger than the ‘historic’ generation.”
This marks “the start of the post-Castro era,” Cuba affairs analyst Arturo Lopez-Levy of the University of Denver told AFP.
Lopez-Levy said Diaz-Canel stands out in Cuba for three reasons: his relative youth, his gradual rise by working in the party and not through revolutionary war credentials, and for being a civilian with little military experience. A careful speaker, the lanky Diaz-Canel also has been a leader of the Communist Youth Union, and went on an international “mission” to Nicaragua during the first leftist Sandinista government. He rose up the ranks, leading the party in Villa Clara in central Cuba, before being chosen to lead it in Holguin province in the east.
But some observers believe Diaz-Canel’s credentials will be little compensation for his lack of charisma.
“No one can govern Cuba like Fidel and Raul Castro have,” said Cuban political scientist Carlos Alzugaray. The new leadership generation lacks “the charismatic legitimacy which is the key to historic leadership.”
In any event, the machinations within the Communist party elite are no reason for any policy changes towards the regime, say democracy advocates.
“Fidel and Raul Castro are still in charge,” said Gutierrez Boronat of the Directorio.* “U.S. law commands that the United States not resume full financial, economic and political relations with Castro regime while the Castros are still in power and while there are still political prisoners. None of that has changed.”
*A grantee of the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.