In Cuba, likely Castro successor keeps a low profile
By TRACY WILKINSON
February 7, 2015
– Heir apparent to Cuban leadership has advocated for greater Internet
– Miguel Diaz-Canel, expected to run Cuba after Raul Castro steps down,
has had little chance to make a mark
– Young, well-liked, highly educated but little known: Miguel Diaz-Canel
likely to be Cuba’s next leader
The man expected to run Cuba after Raul Castro steps down is nearly 30
years the president’s junior and is regularly on Facebook in this
He is considered personable, with a certain charm, but has been careful
to keep a low political profile.
Miguel Diaz-Canel’s appointment as first vice president is the most
concrete signal that a generational change of leadership may hover on
the horizon in Cuba, matching a demographic shift that makes the
island’s population one of the youngest in the hemisphere.
Castro, 83, plucked Diaz-Canel from relative obscurity and appointed him
to his new position in 2013 as he announced that he planned to leave
office in 2018. That set Diaz-Canel up as heir apparent, especially
after other possible candidates were unceremoniously dumped when they
were secretly recorded talking about their ambitions.
That is still a no-no, and Diaz-Canel has taken pains not to steal the
limelight from Castro or the president’s 88-year-old brother, Fidel, the
legendary revolutionary commander and former president who has not been
seen in public in months amid rumors of failing health. A new set of
photographs of Fidel Castro popped up this week in official media.
The circumstances mean Diaz-Canel has yet to make much of a mark. On an
island where around 80% of the population has never known a president
who wasn’t named Castro, many Cubans are struggling to figure out who he is.
Asked who he thought would be the next president of Cuba, Jose
Hernandez, 83, a retired farm worker in the Cuban city of Mariel, said:
“It will be Raul.”
Diaz-Canel, Hernandez said, “is a good negotiator who will help our
community. But Raul is the president. There is nothing but Castro in our
Cuba’s younger generation is more receptive to new leadership, but many
agree that whoever comes next has a herculean task to court the powerful
military, restructure the economy and guide the normalization process
with the United States that was announced in December.
“We’ve lived many years with a dynasty,” said Katrina Morejon, a health
worker in her 20s from Havana. “People are tired of what’s happening.”
Key leaders of the army, of which Raul Castro is still the supreme
commander, control several segments of the economy and will have to be
carefully cultivated if Diaz-Canel is to work well with them. Diaz-Canel
was born more than a year after the Cuban Revolution led by the Castro
brothers ousted dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959.
Raul Castro is expected in the final years of his government to continue
with slow but important reforms in the economy, allowing a measure of
free enterprise and lifting some restrictions on trade and travel.
Whether it is enough as relations with the United States change will be
the big test.
His work on behalf of the state has included teaching at the university
level, running local governments, serving as a minister of education and
holding regional Communist Party leadership posts. He was assigned
management of what Cuban officials consider major areas of
accomplishment by the revolution: education, sports and biotechnology.
He also did an all-important stint in Nicaragua, representing the
Communist Party before like-minded Sandinista leaders.
Much of his personal life has been kept private. He is thought to be
married with children. Tall, with strong features, he is well-liked by
Cubans in the provinces, many of whom see him as down-to-earth and
His Facebook page has photographs of Diaz-Canel with workers, Raul
Castro and others during visits to factories in Villa Clara and
elsewhere. He is usually shown in a white guayabera, or a sports jacket
and open-collar shirt. Someone has posted items calling him MDC, and at
one point nominating him to run the country, saying, “MDC rocks!”
“He is well-liked, young, well-educated, and he’s gone through all the
different hoops,” said Rafael Betancourt, a professor at the University
of Havana. That he is admired in the often snippy world of university
circles, Betancourt said, “is very significant” and shows he has talent
for handling people.
It appears the Cuban leadership is gradually, gingerly trying to elevate
his profile. He has been sent abroad representing Castro, especially to
friendly nations like Venezuela and Laos.
It’s always a delicate balancing act, however. In a speech in Mexico in
December, he managed to mention both Castros in the first three
paragraphs of his comments, then quote Raul twice more.
Communist-controlled press on the island has started to run fairly
regular articles about Diaz-Canel’s activities: his trip to Santiago de
Cuba, his visit with workers in Santa Clara.
But there are no big billboards promoting Diaz-Canel; most such public
advertising is still limited to a Castro or, especially, the five Cuban
intelligence agents who were recently released from jail in the U.S.,
two because they finished their sentences and three as part of the deal
to jump-start detente with the U.S. They are regarded as heroes in Cuba;
the posters are out-of-date, still demanding freedom for the men.
Diaz-Canel is nowhere to be seen.
“He is too much in the shadows of Raul,” said Arturo Lopez Levy, a
former Cuban intelligence agent who knew Diaz-Canel in their hometown of
Santa Clara and who now teaches in New York. “A good signal to send to
the world now that things are changing would be to give him a more
If he were the son of a corporate boss brought into the firm, Diaz-Canel
would fit the bill, having been assigned to Communist Party leadership
posts in important provinces like Holguin and Villa Clara. There, people
who know him say he cultivated good relationships with local military
officials, some of whom have recently been promoted to key leadership posts.
His real distinction, people say, has been in social media and computer
technology, an area where Cuba lags notoriously behind the rest of the
world. Few Cubans have open access to the Internet, but Diaz-Canel knows
its importance to any future growth in business, trade, tourism and
education, analysts say.
“The development of information technology is essential to the search
for new solutions to development problems” in Latin America, Diaz-Canel
said in the Mexico speech. “But the digital gap is also a reality among
our countries, and between our countries and other countries, which we
must overcome if we want to eliminate social and economic inequalities.”
Later, however, when he listed Cuba’s successes, he did not return to
the theme of information technology.
“He understands that to prevent a brain drain, you have to give [Cubans]
an opportunity to participate massively in the expansion of the
Internet,” said an American analyst of Cuban affairs who did not want to
be quoted speaking about Diaz-Canel. Whether such an expansion project
is yet allowed remains unclear.
Diaz-Canel is also often praised as a hands-on problem solver, someone
who could get things done at the grass-roots level and understands the
politics of persuasion. He once defended a gay theater group against
local officials who wanted to shut it down, earning respect among some
of Cuba’s most marginalized citizens.
Diaz-Canel’s gradual ascension comes with a little-noticed, still-slight
change in the Cuban political hierarchy.
Rafael Hernandez, a political commentator and editor of Temas magazine
in Cuba, said conventional wisdom often holds that “the Cuban leadership
is the same, you have Fidel and then Raul, and it’s more or less the
But, he says, closer examination shows a changing leadership that
includes more women and Afro-Cubans, long excluded, than ever before.
That may bode well for Diaz-Canel’s future leadership, but many
Cuba-watchers agree that it will ultimately be the military that calls
“The military may not be a threat, but it will always be there,” Lopez
Levy said. Diaz-Canel “has an arduous road to walk.”
Source: In Cuba, likely Castro successor keeps a low profile – LA Times