Younger party official faces test as Cuba’s next leader

Andrea Rodriguez and Michael Weissenstein
Associated Press

Santa Clara, Cuba – Raul Castro travels in motorcades of gleaming imported sedans. Rings of grim-faced bodyguards protect him, pistols under crisp guayabera shirts. The 86-year-old president of Cuba arrives at official events moments before they begin, and the audience rises to applaud.

A different style was on display March 11 as a crowd of reporters, voters and nervous provincial apparatchiks waited outside a voting station in the central city of Santa Clara for Miguel Mario Diaz-Canel Bermudez, the Communist Party official widely expected to take Castro’s place as Cuba’s next president this week.

An hour passed, then another. Suddenly, the crowd stirred. A half block away, a tall, bulky figure in an untucked white button-down shirt walked with his wife and a few bodyguards down the street toward the polling station. Shaking hands and hugging voters, Diaz-Canel took his place in line.

“We’re building a relationship between the government and the people here,” he said after voting for members of Cuba’s next National Assembly. “The lives of those who will be elected have to be focused on relating to the people, listening to the people, investigating their problems and encouraging debate.”

Then Diaz-Canel left for Havana, ending an unusual bit of political theater neatly scripted to send a single message: A new type of Cuban president is coming.

Castro has pledged to step down Thursday and hand the presidency to a successor most Cubans believe will be the man Castro named in 2013 as his first vice president.

Diaz-Canel, who turns 58 on Friday, would be the first non-Castro to hold Cuba’s top government office since the 1959 revolution led by Fidel Castro and his younger brother Raul. The new president will confront a stagnant economy, decaying infrastructure, a hostile U.S. administration and widespread disenchantment with a centrally planned system that can’t provide state employees with a living wage, but forbids most forms of private enterprise.

Raul Castro will remain first secretary of the Communist Party, a potentially more powerful position. And since power in Communist Cuba has long flowed from personalities more than institutions, how much influence Diaz-Canel will actually wield is an open question that has many observers looking at his past for clues.

Most Cubans know their first vice president as an unremarkable speaker who initially assumed a public profile so low it was virtually nonexistent. Until March, Diaz-Canel had said nothing to the Cuban people about the type of president he would be. The white-haired, unsmiling Diaz-Canel had been seen at greatest length in a leaked video of a Communist Party meeting where he somberly pledged to shutter some independent media and labeled some European embassies as outposts of foreign subversion.

That image has begun to change slightly this year as Diaz-Canel stepped into the moderate limelight offered by Cuba’s Soviet-style state media. With his public comments in March, many Cubans got a glimpse of him as a flesh-pressing local politician, an image familiar to residents of the central province where he was born and spent nine years in a role akin to a governor.

As first vice president he has mostly stayed out of view, but many observers see that as a wise strategy for survival in a system run by aging revolutionaries.