Cuba a year from getting new, non-Castro president

Andrea Rodriguez and Michael Weissenstein
Associated Press
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Havana — If all goes as expected, in exactly one year President Raul Castro will hand responsibility for Cuba’s faltering economy and aging, disaffected population to a little-known, 57-year-old Communist Party official.

It will be the first time since its founding in 1959 that the Cuban state has not been led by a member of the Castro family. First Fidel Castro, then his younger brother Raul, wielded near-absolute power as head of the government and the ruling Cuban Communist Party. As founders of the modern Cuban army, each brandished unquestioned authority as the nation’s top military man.

The end of 85-year-old Raul Castro’s second five-year term will instantly push Cuba’s autocratic, single-party system onto unknown ground.

First Vice President Miguel Diaz-Canel, a stocky, laconic engineer by training who began his career as a provincial bureaucrat, is expected to assume only one of Raul Castro’s roles — the presidency. Castro plans to remain first secretary of the Cuban Communist Party, a potentially more powerful position, until at least 2021. The Cuban military, meanwhile, became the nation’s top economic power during Raul Castro’s decade as president and its top generals are expected to be less deferential to Diaz-Canel than they were to the Castro brothers.

“We’re entering a new stage, one that requires adaptation. We’re walking on new territory,” retired diplomat and academic Carlos Alzugaray said. “There’s no reason to think this transition can’t be, more or less, positive.”

The change at the top comes amid profound economic and diplomatic uncertainty. In 2016, Cuba saw its first recession in 23 years; Fidel Castro’s death; and the election of Donald Trump, who has promised to reverse President Barack Obama’s opening with the island.

Ordinary Cubans are uncertain about life in a time of unprecedented change, with a basically unknown figure following nearly six decades of the Castros’ leadership.

“Whoever emerges is the same to me, I don’t care,” said Joan Rafael, a 40-year-old entertainer. “We have to see if this all changes. If it changes, I’m fine with whoever it is.”

Cuba calls its system a unique form of democracy that allows citizens to freely express their views and influence government actions within the limits of a single-party system. Critics label it a one-man dictatorship that represses anyone who dares to protest.

The system in reality allows a limited range of expression and action, like complaining to officials about trash collection or bureaucratic inefficiency, while prohibiting any form of political organization or expression outside strict boundaries defined by Castro and his inner circle.

Every 2 ½ years, thousands of neighborhoods nationwide select representatives to local boards overseeing municipal affairs. A handful of dissident candidates have been defeated and publicly denounced with the help of block-level government committee charged with enforcing government mandates.

Every five years, a government body selects thousands of the local representatives to run for the National Assembly and those hand-picked candidates then go to a public vote. The roughly 500-member National Assembly then chooses the 30-member Council of State and the president.

The Cuban system theoretically allows any council member to become president, although many believe the outcome is predetermined in favor of Diaz-Canel.

Raul Castro began his second term on Feb. 24, 2013 with the declaration that he would not serve a third. He said in Mexico two years ago that he wouldn’t wait to become a great-grandfather before retiring “because Cubans will get bored of me.”

As Castro’s retirement date approaches, Diaz-Canel has assumed an increasingly high profile with visits to Cuba’s most important allies, including Russia, China and Venezuela. Still, his speeches rarely vary from time-tested Communist dogma, and he frequently punts when questioned about his country’s future, saying he’s not qualified to answer.

“I think he could take on the challenges that Raul leaves him, that is, if he really takes on power,” economist Omar Everleny Perez said.

The low wattage of Diaz-Canel’s recent unsmiling and monotone appearances has surprised longtime observers who remember him as a high-energy, charismatic provincial party official. Many speculate he is trying to avoid the fate of numerous Fidel Castro deputies who built high public profiles, then were sidelined without explanation.

“He was one person when he was a mid-level official and he’s another one now. He’s become completely closed-off and discreet,” said a European diplomat with long experience in Cuba, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter with the press.

Diaz-Canel doesn’t speak to the non-state media.

In recent appearances on state television, Diaz-Canel has placed particular emphasis on the legacy of Fidel Castro, who died on Nov. 25, 2016.

“We can’t talk about anything in education that doesn’t bear the stamp of Fidel,” the vice president said in a December meeting with teachers and school administrators in eastern Cuba. “He’s a model that we have to support every day if we want it to last.”

Born on April 20, 1960 in the central province of Santa Clara, Diaz-Canel performed two years of obligatory military service after receiving an electrical engineering degree in 1982, then was a professor at the local Central University of Las Villas. An acquaintance from that time described him to The Associated Press as a Beatles fan who wore his hair long, both trends that were viewed poorly and occasionally punished by the Communist authorities at the time.

Diaz-Canel’s sparse official biography says he joined the Young Communists’ Union in 1987 and traveled to Nicaragua, where Cuba supported Sandinista rebels against a U.S.-backed strongman. In 1994, Diaz-Canel was named top party official in Villa Clara, starting his ascent onto the national stage. After serving in the eastern province of Holguin, he was named Minister of Higher Education in 2012 and, later that year, vice president, appearing frequently at Raul Castro’s side but never assuming the spotlight.

“Next to Fidel and Raul, others have appeared a little faded and gray,” said Alzugaray, the former diplomat. “We have to see if once (the Castros) are gone, they take on brighter colors.”

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