The shift in power away from Cuba’s Raul Castro is finally afoot.
The country’s Communist Party hierarchy on Monday selected Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel to the powerful position of First Secretary, replacing Raul Castro after he announced his retirement last week.
As head of state and leader of the only political party permitted by law on the island, Diaz-Canel must chart the course forward for the Cuban revolution, now that the guerrilla comandantes who seized power in 1959 have all died or aged.
“Comrade Raul will be consulted on the most important strategic decisions of greatest weight for the destiny of our nation. He will always be present,” Diaz-Canal said of Castro, as he accepted the new position.
Born in 1960, the same year the Castro family nationalized all US-owned property in Cuba, Diaz-Canel exudes neither Fidel’s charisma nor Raul’s authority. While he did a three-year stint in the army, unlike the Castros, Diaz-Canel is a pencil-pushing bureaucrat rather than an olive-green-uniformed revolutionary. That said, he will make history as the first Cuban at the helm of the government and communist party not named Castro.
And knowing how to navigate Cuba’s dysfunctional bureaucracy may prove to be a more vital skill than commanding a battalion as even many of Raul Castro’s signature proposals—remaking the port of Mariel into a manufacturing hub and unifying Cuba’s two currencies—became ensnared in the bog of red tape that seems to plague every endeavor pursued by the Cuban government.
The new Cuban leader has made climbing the ranks in the communist-run system his life work, while enjoying Raul Castro’s enduring full-throated support.
“Diaz-Canel is not the fruit of improvisation but a thought-out selection of a young revolutionary with the conditions to be promoted to superior offices,” Castro said in his speech on Friday at the Communist Party Congress, which was convened to select the aging revolutionary’s replacement.
The Castro legacy
Since taking over the Cuban presidency in 2018, Diaz-Canel has put forward the image of a younger, more dynamic leader‚ one who posts messages on social media and reads from a tablet at government meetings. His policies, however, have been as conservative if not more so than Raul Castro’s. It’s a strategy bent on assuring the elder generation still occupying key political positions that he will not undermine their revolution.
He will need that political backing to address widespread discontent over a slumping economy, increased US sanctions and increasingly tech-savvy anti-government dissident groups.
Addressing opposition activists who he called “mercenary lumpen,” Diaz-Called warned that “the patience of the people has limits.”
Some critics of the Cuban government say the transition is really a smokescreen.
“The Castro regime is trying to fool the international community by saying, ‘Oh now the Castros are not in power anymore, now a new guy has the reins of the country and is really going to run the country in a different fashion. BS!” said Rep. Maria Elvira Salazar (R-FL), a Cuban-American Congresswoman who won her seat in 2020 promising harsher sanctions on Cuba.
“The Castros are still in power,” she said.
Even if no members of their family hold top leadership positions, there is little doubt the Castros will continue to wield great influence as long as the communist-run government and powerful military they built remains intact.
On Monday, General Luis Alberto Rodríguez López-Calleja, son-in-law to Raul Castro, who heads a sprawling military company that controls state-owned hotels, marinas and infrastructure projects, was for the first time named to the Politburo, the executive committee of the Cuban communist party.
A retirement years in the works
Raul Castro has said for years his retirement was in the works.
Unlike his older brother Fidel, who was head of state for 49 years and planned to stay in office until he died, Raul Castro implemented measures to restrict Cuban presidents to two five-year terms and require them to be under age 60 at the start of their first term.