Cuba's new president, Miguel Mario Díaz-Canel, grew up in the Cuban revolution, and it's clear his mission is to make sure it survives.
In his first speech as president Thursday, Díaz-Canel emphasized continuity with the past and an important and ongoing political role for retiring Cuban leader Raúl Castro, 86, who will remain at the helm of the Communist Party of Cuba.
"The mandate given by the people to this legislature is the continuity of the revolution," said Díaz-Canel, who turns 58 on Friday. "The revolution continues and will continue to be alive." Díaz-Canel said he shared the conviction of "all Cubans" to be faithful to the legacy of the late Fidel Castro and the example of his brother Raúl.
A sustained standing ovation greeted Díaz-Canel and Castro as they entered Havana's Convention Palace together just before Díaz-Canel was confirmed by the National Assembly of People's Power as the new president.
The National Assembly on Wednesday cast ballots for 31 members of the Council of State, including president, but waited until Thursday to announce the results. Not surprisingly, Díaz-Canel and the others all won because there was only one candidate proposed for each slot. Deputies could vote yes or no on the entire slate or just pass judgment on individual candidates.
All but two of the 604 deputies who voted cast ballots for the full slate. Díaz-Canel received 603 of the possible 604 votes. It is not known who cast the dissenting vote.
After the results were official, Castro and Díaz-Canel embraced and in customary fashion, the revolutionary leader hoisted Díaz-Canel's arm aloft in a sign of victory. In contrast, Díaz-Canel high-fived members of the National Assembly as he walked to the podium to give his first speech as president.
"For us, it's totally clear that only the PCC (the Communist Party of Cuba) guarantees the unity of the nation and of its people," said Díaz-Canel. "Raúl stays at the forefront of the political vanguard by his own merits. He will be in charge of the most important decisions for the present and future of the nation."
Díaz-Canel is the first non-Castro to occupy the post since 1976. There was a string of other presidents, but the Castros have controlled the country since the 1959 Cuban Revolution.
The new president of the Council of State faces daunting challenges as well as unfinished business inherited from Castro.
A civilian, Díaz-Canel was born after the 1959 Revolution and is separated by a generation from Castro and his contemporaries who waged the rebellion. As such, he lacks the credentials that automatically conferred legitimacy on the old guard. He also faces resistance from hard-liners in the Communist Party who aren't in favor of the unfinished reform agenda begun under Raúl Castro.
"The biggest challenge he will face is consensus-building and coalition-building, but Castro has done a lot of ground work for this next government by setting out a blunt diagnosis of the problems Cuba faces and the fact the economy is not sustainable as it is," said Phil Peters, a former State Department official and now a Cuba consultant. "Cuba’s new president will have to deal with all these tensions, without the benefit of the Castro surname."
While Castro is retiring and is expected to spend time at a home he has near Santiago, the cradle of the Cuban Revolution, he won't be going away. His term as chief of the Communist Party does not expire until 2021. Whether Castro becomes a steadying hand for his protégé or entirely overshadows him remains to be seen.
"The fact is that no one really knows what will come next in Cuba, since Díaz-Canel has been careful to keep his views to himself and will not have revolutionary credentials to fall back on," said José Fernández, a lawyer who served as assistant secretary of state for economic, energy and business affairs during the Obama administration. "At the same time, we should expect little change in U.S. policy, which seems intent on putting Cuba back in the cold.”
South Florida Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen took to the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives Wednesday to denounce what she called a "sham transition" while Rep. Mario Díaz-Balart predicted that Díaz-Canel will be Castro's "puppet."
Some Cuban dissidents also don't think the influence of the Castro family will wane.
"The Castro clan has begun their transfer of generational power. Family members, followers and relatives are redistributing economic posts and those of control to guarantee the dynasty indefinitely," said a communique issued at the recent Summit of the Americas in Lima by several dissidents, including Ladies in White leader Berta Soler, Guillermo Fariñas, Antonio Rodiles and Jorge Luis García, known as Antúnez.
For Fariñas, it's all been planned out by the Cuban hierarchy. The idea, he said, is to put a figure as the head of state "who doesn't share any blood with the Castros and whose hands aren't stained with blood to negotiate with the United States, which is the No. 1 objective."
The Inspire America Foundation, whose advisory board includes a number of influential Cuban Americans, called the transition "undemocratic and unconstitutional" and urged Latin American heads of state to reject Díaz-Canel as their peer.
Regardless of the governance style that emerges, Díaz-Canel takes office at a time when Cuba is being buffeted by both difficult internal and external forces. Among them:
▪ The economy: Although Cuba's tourism sector recovered rapidly from last season's hurricanes, many provinces are still feeling the economic impact from the storms. Couple that with a disappointing sugar harvest, less economic help from Cuban ally Venezuela, and the need to unify Cuba's clunky dual currency system and it adds up to a pretty dim economic picture.
"Diaz-Canel’s biggest challenge is Cuba’s weak economy and the impatience of the Cuban people for economic growth and a better standard of living. The economic reforms launched in 2011 promised both, but they have yet to deliver and the forward progress of the reforms appears to be stalled," said William LeoGrande, an American University government professor.
New regulations governing Cuba's growing private sector are still pending, too. Under Castro, the number of self-employed Cubans has more than tripled to 580,000 and it will be up to Díaz-Canel to keep that momentum going.
In a speech Thursday, Castro conceded that mistakes had been made, but added: "We live in a time and place in which we can't commit errors." He said Cuba wouldn't be giving up on its quest to move more workers toward self-employment or its experiment with private cooperatives, but said the Cuban economic model couldn't be one of shock therapies that would hit Cuba's most vulnerable citizens.
"As long as Raúl remains an important political figure, the reform process will continue to go forward, but we, of course, don't know what the pace of reforms will be," said LeoGrande.
"With an average salary of about $30 a month, Cubans’ demands for a better life will, quite likely, take center stage,” said Lourdes Casanova, a Cornell University professor. “Solutions to the economic crisis are limited, among other things, because of Trump’s hard stand towards Cuba. The new president may have no choice but to move toward a more market friendly economy."
Agricultural reform begun under Castro is incomplete.
Some of the needed reforms are difficult and complicated, said Peters. But he said there are other things the new president could do that aren't, such as opening wholesale stores to supply the private sector. The government recently opened a wholesale store, but at this point it is only available to state restaurants.
Cuban bureaucrats are "extremely cautious" and "study things to death," Peters said.
▪ Constitutional and other reforms: An enterprise law, a law of associations that would establish how religious denominations and private organizations gain legal status, a media law, an electoral law, and constitutional reforms to limit top officials' terms in office and to downsize the National Assembly were approved in principle under Castro, said Peters. But so far none of these reforms have been enacted into law..
.▪ U.S.-Cuba relations: Díaz-Canel takes office at a time when relations with the United States have turned chilly during the Trump administration. The U.S. Embassy in Havana is down to a staff of just 10 after some diplomats suffered mysterious health ailments and the United States withdrew most of its personnel. While stopping short of blaming Cuba for what it calls attacks, the U.S. does hold the Cuban government responsible for not protecting the diplomats and believes Cuba knows more about the incidents than it is sharing.
President Donald Trump also has adopted a policy designed to keep U.S. revenue out of the hands of the Cuban military by putting 180 hotels and other businesses controlled by military enterprises on a blacklist. He also has imposed some restrictions on American travel to the island.
And if Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio has his way, the crackdown will intensify. He said that he expects the State Department will expand its list of prohibited entities, which fall under the umbrella of GAESA, a military conglomerate headed by Gen. Luis Alberto Rodríguez López-Calleja, Castro's former son-in-law.
In his speech, Díaz-Canel made no direct references to the Trump administration or the United States.
Under the Obama administration's opening toward Cuba, there was a surge in American travelers to the island. Further sanctions could cut into the limited economic opportunities that the United States offers Cuba at a time when the island is losing economic support from Venezuela.
Other Cuba analysts say the cusp of a new administration in Cuba is the very time the United States should try to lower tensions and engage.
The relationship with the United States "can make it easier or harder" for Díaz-Canel to meet the multiple challenges he faces, said Geoff Thale, of the Washington Office on Latin America. Cuban hard-liners can use tensions with the United States as a reason to resist change, he said. "Hostility creates a climate in which the risks to change are much higher."
"What we in the United States can do is design U.S. policy to best encourage the change we'd like to see," said James Williams, president of Engage Cuba, which supports lifting the embargo. "With new generational leadership in Cuba, we now have an opportunity to re-imagine our policy for the 21st century."