As I am writing this, the Cuban President, Raúl Castro, will step down from his post to allow the current vice-president, Miguel Díaz-Canel, to become Cuba’s new president (and the fifth president since the revolution of 1959). This will form the culmination of a meeting of Cuba’s National Assembly, which convened on Wednesday and named Díaz-Canel as the sole candidate to take over from Castro. Significantly, Díaz-Canel will be the first president since 1976 that is not a Castro, and the first president since 1959 that is not considered a figurehead for a Castro-run government.
Raúl Castro, who is now 86, and who took over as president from his brother, Fidel Castro, in 2006, is thought to be stepping aside to ensure the stability of the transition in the midst of a growing economic crisis and increasing dissatisfaction among Cubans, particularly the younger generation. Raúl oversaw a number of liberalizing economic reforms from 2008 on, which expanded Cuba’s private sector, but which also have also increased inequality among Cubans. At the same time, the state productive sector has remained mired in over-employment and productivity problems.
At 57, Díaz-Canel is the first leader since the revolution that is not part of the revolutionary guerilla generation – he did not march down from the Sierra Maestra with Che Guevara or Fidel. In contrast, his political experience mostly stems from the period of economic crisis in the 1990s, after the Soviet Union collapsed and stopped purchasing Cuban sugar at preferential rates and subsiding Cuban oil consumption, and he gained a reputation as an able technocrat in Villa Clara province. His support for LGBT rights, his use of an iPad, and his defense of disgruntled blogging teachers, are thought to signal a modernizer but nearly all analysts point to a likely continuation of the status quo, at least in the short to medium term. And if reform does occur, it will be of a gradual nature, given that Díaz-Canel is effectively a hand-picked and trained internal successor.
What is more, this is still far from a break with the past. Raúl Castro will still remain as head of the Communist Party of Cuba, arguably one of the most powerful positions in the country, while the vice-president has been named as Ramiro Valdés, an 85 year old veteran of the revolution who was with Fidel at the famous and symbolic attack on the Moncada Barracks in 1953.
In fact, this current period in Cuban history, as Díaz-Canel assumes the presidential office, is analogous in many ways to the period of the 1990s, when he first cut his teeth as a Cuban politician. The economy is faltering and the US embargo, long hailed as a Cold War hangover, is very much back in vogue under the current Trump administration after the liberalizing reforms of the Obama administration. US embassy staff in Havana have been called home amidst allegations of covert sonic attacks on the embassy. The Venezuela government under Hugo Chávez, which had reprised the old Soviet Union role of economic subsidizer and source of cheap oil, is now no longer able to play this role as their own economic and political situation descends into chaos and crisis. All of this, leaves Cuba under significant economic and international pressure.
Díaz-Canel will need to address the economic stagnation, Cuba’s problematic dual currency system, and the debt overhang, much of which has already been restructured by China. In addition, increasing hostility from Miami and the US government will only make the task of stepping out from the Castros’ shadow even more difficult.