Cuba's New President Won't Be Named Castro. But Will Anything Else Really Change?

Apr 17, 2018

On Wednesday, Cuba may have a new president, elected by the National Assembly. (The election session had been scheduled to start Thursday, but the government moved it up a day.)

“Election” is a relative term here – Cuba is a communist state – but something does set it apart.

For the first time in 59 years, Cuba’s head of state will not be named Castro. Since 1959, the late Fidel Castro and then his younger brother Raúl Castro have led the island. But Raúl is 86 – so he’s all but selected 57-year-old Miguel Díaz-Canel, Cuba’s first vice president, to succeed him.

READ MORE: 'The Corporation' Tells the Other Dark Bay of Pigs Story: The Cuban-American Mob

Even so, if you were thinking Díaz-Canel’s likely election as president means change in Cuba, a video leaked to YouTube last summer may make you think again. In it, Díaz-Canel addresses Cuban Communist Party officials and talks about censoring Internet publications. About barring opposition candidates from running for office. About stonewalling the U.S. as the two countries try to normalize relations.

In other words, Díaz-Canel sounds like any other Cuban communist hardliner. And thanks to the video, that’s the impression most Americans and other non-Cubans have of him. But it’s incomplete – and maybe a bit mistaken.

We're told he's a very logical engineer who likes to build consensus and get other people's opinions and ideas. –Andy Gomez

“You tell me 15 years ago this was a person that Cuba will be passing the baton to, I would’ve said, ‘Nah, you’re crazy,’” says Andy Gomez, former director of the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies at the University of Miami.

Gomez, a Cuban exile critical of the Castro regime, has done his own research into Díaz-Canel, including conversations with current and former Cuban government officials. And while he says the probable new president is an orthodox communist, he believes Díaz-Canel – who was born after the Cuban Revolution – does represent not just a transition of generation but also of attitude.

“He’s an engineer – a very logical man who likes to get other people’s opinions,” says Gomez. “He likes to govern collectively, looks for consensus-building. And, I’m being told, open to other people’s ideas.”

It's inconceivable that he can be an agent of change. He's not his own man. –James Cason

Cuban exile Pedro Freyre echoes that observation. Freyre, who heads international practice at the Akerman law firm in Miami and visits the island often, has spoken to Cubans who knew Díaz-Canel in his provincial hometown of Santa Clara. They describe him as a modest, accessible civilian in contrast to Fidel Castro and the Revolution’s rigid military icons.

“Much more approachable than the ordinary communist administrator,” says Freyre. “This was a guy who rode around on his bicycle. And he would stop and talk to people and listen to them. Very affable – simpático.

It is, in fact, Díaz-Canel’s humility that has helped him survive as an anointed Castro successor. In the past, other rising stars have looked like the chosen one – only to be banished by Fidel when he decided they’d become too full of themselves.

SERIOUS CRISIS

Cuba’s post-revolution generation is hoping if not demanding that Díaz-Canel convert his more practical style into economic reform. Normalization with the U.S. has raised Cubans’ expectations for more of the free enterprise Raúl Castro has slowly introduced  – at a moment when Cuba’s economy is in serious crisis.

“You cannot go on forever blaming the U.S.,” says Freyre. “ So the pressure that Díaz-Canel is going to feel is that he needs to come up with a process of reforms that won’t get him booted out of office and will still feed the Cuban people.”

But there’s the rub: reforms that won’t get him booted.

POST-FIDEL GENERATION: A private hair salon owner and customers at her Havana shop with a poster of Fidel Castro in the window.
Credit Franklin Reyes / AP via Miami Herald

Díaz-Canel may feel reform pressure from his generation. But he’ll likely feel even more – and more threatening – heat from the old revolutionary cohort to suppress reform.

“It’s inconceivable that he’s going to be an agent of change,” says former Coral Gables Mayor James Cason, who was the de facto U.S. ambassador to Cuba in the early 2000s. “He’s not his own man.”

Cason points out Raúl Castro and the old guard will still be right next door running the more powerful Cuban Communist Party and military. Recently they’ve been rolling back free-market reforms for fear Cubans are gaining too much independence – and Cason says Díaz-Canel won’t be able to confront them.

“Díaz-Canel is not going to have any power on his own; he doesn’t have a power base,” says Cason. “I don’t see any spark of dissidence in him.”

Still, Díaz-Canel does favor economic reform and engagement with the U.S. For that matter, so does his mentor, Raúl Castro. So other diplomatic veterans say it’s a shame the Trump administration at this moment is pulling back on engagement with Cuba – prompting Cuba’s old guard to retrench even further.

“What is so frustrating is the U.S. is missing this opportunity,” says Ambassador Vicki Huddleston, Cason’s predecessor in Cuba and author of the new book, “Our Woman in Havana: A Diplomat’s Chronicle of America’s Long Struggle With Cuba.”

“We are contributing to slowing up a reform process.”

If that slow reform process dies in Cuba, it won’t make much difference at all that the next president’s name isn’t Castro.

We’d like to hear from you: Do you think Cuba’s next president will bring change? Text the letters W-L-R-N to 6-3-7-3-5. Standard text messaging applies.