Ever since President Raul Castro of Cuba replaced his ailing brother, the iconic Fidel Castro, in 2008, he has made clear that his overriding aim is to organize an orderly political and economic transition to ensure that the ruling Communist Party remains in power after both men die.
Progress toward that goal has been painstakingly slow, and sometimes crablike. Another step was taken at the opening of a newly installed National Assembly on Feb. 24, however, when Raul Castro began his second presidential term. He repeated that it would be his last, and also hailed the appointment as first vice president of Miguel Diaz-Canel, a former higher-education minister, saying that this represented "a defining step in the configuration of the country’s future leadership."
One Havana resident greeted the news with a blunt "Who’s he?" Diaz-Canel may not be exactly a household name in Cuba, but he has been in line for the top job for several years. He has stood in for the president on a couple of recent foreign visits. At 52, his elevation means that the Castros, both of whom are in their 80s, are at last passing the baton to a generation born after the 1959 revolution. Fidel Castro gave a short speech at the assembly, in a rare public appearance which could be read as giving his blessing to the new appointment.
Diaz-Canel is an electrical engineer who spent 15 years as a provincial party secretary before becoming a minister and, last year, vice president of the Council of Ministers. He is unexpressive in public, but is said to be affable and accessible, with a quick wit and a sharp mind. Until fairly recently he wore his hair long, another reminder of the fact that he is a child of the 1960s, not the 1930s. He is known to be a fan of the Beatles, an enthusiasm once frowned upon by the regime.
Whereas Fidel Castro liked to surround himself with young acolytes, his brother has long shown that he values the practical experience of provincial party officials, to whom he has devolved some powers. Another rising star, Havana party secretary Mercedes Lopez Acea, also was promoted to the rank of vice president.
As higher-education minister Diaz-Canel expanded a plan under which Cubans taught students from Venezuela, Cuba’s chief benefactor. He forged close ties with Venezuela’s leaders, including Nicolas Maduro, the country’s de facto president as President Hugo Chavez struggles with cancer. With Chavez seemingly dying, it is vital for Cuba’s leaders that Maduro should succeed him and continue to provide subsidized oil.
Raul Castro once praised Diaz-Canel for his "ideological firmness." The new man’s private views are unclear. In the 1990s he was linked to a group of communist reformers that surrounded then-foreign minister Roberto Robaina, who openly argued for economic liberalization in Cuba.
The current president has allowed Cubans to buy cars and homes, to lease farmland and to set up small businesses. Last year he scrapped curbs on foreign travel. As a result, this month Yoani Sanchez, a blogger and opponent of the regime, has been able to visit Brazil — though she has faced protests organized by the Cuban Embassy in Brasilia and by members of Brazil’s ruling Workers’ Party.
There are signs that Castro is running out of reformist steam. His tone in his speech to the assembly seemed at times almost resigned: "I was not chosen to be president to restore capitalism to Cuba," he stressed, as Diaz-Canel nodded in agreement. He announced no new economic reforms.
It will be Diaz-Canel’s job to get to grips with the "issues of greater scope, complexity and depth" that Castro said the government was grappling with. First among these is allowing private wholesale markets.
Various putative dauphins were raised up by Fidel Castro only to fall from grace, accused of corruption or of excessive ambition. One of them was Robaina, sacked in 1999. He now spends his days painting and running a restaurant in Miramar, an elegant district of Havana.
Diaz-Canel is presumably aware of the risks involved in his elevation. This time, though, it looks as if the chosen successor may be the one who actually succeeds.