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Miguel Diaz-Canel, Cuba’s new No. 2, respected as smart and personable

Miguel Diaz-Canel, who stands to become Cuba’s first post-Castro ruler, is respected as a smart manager and personable communicator who rode a bike on his rounds when he headed the Communist Party in the province of Villa Clara.

Diaz-Canel toed the revolutionary line and was “something of an ideologue, but he was smart and you could talk to him,” said one of two Cuban journalists in Miami who knew the now 52-year-old in the 1990s and early 2000s.

“He won the respect of the people in the province” of Villa Clara, said the other. Both asked for anonymity because of their current jobs. Diaz-Canel was selected Sunday as first vice president of the Council of State, making him No. 2 in the government headed by Raúl Castro, who announced at the same time that he would leave power in 2018.

Cuban officials singled out as possible generational successors to the Castros have a history of getting fired — witness former Foreign Ministers Roberto Robaina and Felipe Perez Roque and former Vice President Carlos Lage.

Ironically, Diaz-Canel was one of Robaina’s top aides in the early 1990s when Robaina was president of the Union of Communist Youth (known as the UJC in Spanish). And Castro himself warned Sunday that good revolutionaries don’t seek power.

Diaz-Canel survived Robaina’s ouster and on Sunday Castro heaped unusual praise on him, reinforcing Diaz-Canel’s image as one of the key forces behind Castro’s drive to open up Cuba’s Soviet-style economy and allow more private enterprise.

One of the Miami journalists who worked with him at the UJC said Diaz-Canel was considered to be “very smart, above all affable and accessible” and given to joking. His parents were rumored to have been fairly well off before the Castro revolution.

“He loved to exercise and had something of a narcissistic streak about his body image,” said the journalist. But he was not known as a ladies’ man and did not drink in excess.

Diaz-Canel replaced Jose Ramon Machado Ventura, 82, who remained as one of five vice presidents as well as No. 2 in the Communist Party.

Born in Villa Clara, Diaz-Canel graduated as an electronic engineer and did his mandatory military service in an anti-aircraft unit. He also taught at the Villa Clara provincial university and became active in the provincial UJC.

He served 10 years as party chief in Villa Clara, where the party banned him from biking around the province for security reasons, and another six as Holguin provincial chief.

In 1991, he was elected to the party’s Central Committee and in 2003 became the youngest-ever member of the Political Buro, the pinnacle of power in Cuba’s lone legal political party.

From 2009 to 2012, he served as minister of higher education and last year was promoted to one of the five vice presidencies, in overall charge of education issues.

His rising star was underlined when he accompanied Castro to a summit of Latin American and Caribbean leaders in Chile this year and a U.N. conference on development strategies last summer.

He represented Cuba in January at the rally in Caracas that marked the start of President Hugo Chávez’s new six-year presidential term, even as Chávez was in Havana trying to recover from a fourth cancer surgery.