Analysis. As Raúl Castro steps down as president, the hottest contender for the position is Miguel Díaz-Canel, who is 'young' but whose worldview remains shaped by the Revolution.

In Cuba, the end of the Castro era at a time of uncertainty

One day in advance of the set date—because of the extraordinary importance of the decisions which must be taken—the National Assembly of People’s Power (Cuba’s single-chamber parliament) will commences Wednesday the procedures and discussions for the appointment of the new President of Cuba, who, for the first time since 1976, will not have the last name ‘Castro.’

The current head of state, Raúl, has chosen to retire, respecting the law that he himself proposed, which prohibits a candidate from running for the highest office more than twice.

The 605 deputies, elected in March after a long process, required for the election of the representative organs of the National Assembly on the local, provincial and national level, will appoint a commission that will decide on the candidates (chosen from among parliamentarians) for the leadership of the Parliament and the Council of State (i.e. for the office of President of Cuba). According to Article 93 of the Constitution, the President of the Council of State also leads the Council of Ministers, the highest executive and administrative body.

Miguel Díaz-Canel, 57, the First Vice President of the Council of State and a member of the Politburo of the Communist Party of Cuba, is the official that the most prominent analysts are pointing to as the most likely successor. In addition, Raùl himself was the one who decided to promote him to the ranks of the leadership of the country and the Party, aiming to “prepare” him for the highest office.

If the forecasts prove accurate, it will be a historic decision for the island: the new head of the state and government, unlike the Castro brothers, will not also be the First Secretary of the Communist Party, a position Raúl will keep until the next Congress in 2021. According to Article 5 of the Constitution, the Communist Party is “the highest ruling force of society and the State.”

It is likely that the appointment of a new president will also result in a “generational renewal” of Cuba’s political leadership, which is also a goal that was touted by Raúl on several occasions. Other legacy leaders, all octogenarians who fought together with Fidel Castro in the guerrillas which defeated the dictator Batista in 1959, such as Vice President Ramon Machado Ventura and comandante Ramiro Valdés (a veteran of the Revolution), seem likely to retire, while other officials, in their 50s, are on the rise—such as Murillo, the “Tsar” of economic reforms.

Although he has been a part of the political machinery of the Party and State for 30 years, while steadily climbing the hierarchy, and has been for a good number of years a fixture of domestic and international political events, Díaz-Canel is not a character who has captured the attention of the population.

He is a leader from the generation of those who are now in their 50s, born and raised in a world shaped by the Revolution, like many of his colleagues. While he has the advantage of being “young,” this is counterbalanced by lacking the charisma of those who made the Revolution happen, such as the current military-political leader. However, certain sections of his biography make him an “unorthodox item,” as the historian López Oliva put it.

He married twice and is the father of two sons, an electrical engineer by training and a university professor, and a fan of the Beatles, the first band to be banned on the island, then later “cleared” by Fidel. In 1994, he was appointed provincial secretary of the Communist Party in Santa Clara and impressed his fellow citizens, who often saw him going around on his bicycle: an image of a popular leader well suited to the times of the periodo especial, a time of great scarcity of goods because of the end of the Soviet Union, Cuba’s main source of funds. In the elections in March, Díaz-Canel aimed to revive this image of a popular leader by standing in line together with his wife in front of their polling station.

In terms of his political views, he has gradually moved from open stances—for instance about Internet use, or in pushing for a more critical press and a more prominent role in leadership for young people—to more hardline attitudes, including harsh criticism against dissidents and opponents of the regime, as the date of the election of the new president approached.

Once elected, Díaz-Canel (and the same applies for any other representative of the political elite) will find himself governing the island in one of its most difficult moments: the reform of the Cuban socialist system is still an ongoing process, and there has been a serious economic crisis following the decline of 2016, with difficulties in attracting foreign investment and the collapse of Venezuela, Cuba’s greatest ally and oil supplier.

And even more: the geopolitical situation is challenging, with US President Trump and his new team of hawks (Pompeo and Bolton) who are determined more than ever to return to the times of the Cold War, and with the “progressive cycle” in Latin America in crisis. And the next president will necessarily have to act in the shadow of Raúl, who remains first secretary of the Communist Party and leader of the powerful Revolutionary Armed Forces.

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