On the eve of the anniversary of Cuban patriot José Martí's birth, Raúl Castro, flanked by members of the revolutionary old guard and a much younger man who hadn't even been born at the time of the 1959 Cuban Revolution, led a torchlight parade from the University of Havana.
While the younger man, Miguel Díaz-Canel, stepped briskly along during the late January parade, the octogenarians walked gingerly and haltingly, graphically illustrating Cuba's coming generational shift in power.
Now Díaz-Canel is the man Cuba's National Assembly has selected as the new president and the face of the island's future.
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He has been waiting in the wings since 2013 when Castro said that he would leave the Cuban presidency on Feb. 24, 2018 — later postponed to April 19 — and the rubber-stamp National Assembly named Díaz-Canel first vice president of the Council of State.
“Comrade Díaz-Canel is not an upstart nor improvised,” Castro declared, putting an exclamation point on the 2013 selection to Cuba’s second-highest political position, which put Díaz-Canel on track to become Cuba’s head of state. Díaz-Canel, who will turn 58 on Friday, is a survivor in a country whose history books are littered with the names of men who were expected to one day replace the Castros and instead found themselves in internal exile or something worse.
But while Díaz-Canel is now president, what that exactly means in a country where Raúl Castro will remain as head of the Communist Party is an open question.
Retaining the role as chief of the Communist Party is "a very powerful position — perhaps the most powerful in the country,” University of California-San Diego political economist Richard Feinberg said of Raúl Castro, noting that both he and the late Fidel Castro held the job simultaneously with their presidencies.
“When Raúl Castro is the president, then yes, the president runs Cuba,” said Jaime Suchliki, a longtime Cuba watcher. “When Raúl Castro is not president, that will be a very different matter. Díaz-Canel has no tanks and no troops.”
Virtually everyone who tries to read the smoke signals from within Cuba’s hermetically sealed political institutions agrees that big change is coming at the hands of the revolutionaries' most inexorable opposition — the calendar. The men who helped seize control of the island more than half a century ago and keep the regime firmly in place are now well into their 80s, many either dead like Raúl’s older brother, Fidel, or sidelined by the infirmities of age.
“Maybe the idea to put some separation between the party and the state will start to have legs. They have been talking about this concept for a long time, but it is very difficult to separate the two in a Communist system," said Feinberg, the political economist from California. "It’s not clear how such an unraveling would happen."
Díaz-Canel himself has solid party credentials. In 1997, he became the youngest member ever of the Politburo, the handpicked committee of 14 party members who function as Castro’s senior advisers.
Yet if there’s still doubt about how much real power Castro is willing to cede, there’s a widespread consensus that the political and economic collapse of the government in Venezuela — Cuba’s staunch ally and longtime subsidies provider — means that the island must seek foreign investment and engage with other governments. And that, in return, will require at least some public-relations gestures to convince the outside world that Cuba is moving beyond a one-family state.
Physical appearance is not the only sign of the three decades of age separating the Castros from Díaz-Canel. He dresses in jeans and guayaberas, not military fatigues. He likes rock-'n'-roll tunes, carries a tablet computer and has a Facebook account, though posts appear to be managed through official channels.
While Díaz-Canel is on the last lap of middle age, he represents youth within a leadership of elders.
“We’re talking about a generational succession, not a simple succession,” said Carlos Alzugaray, a retired Cuban diplomat and academic who lives in Havana.
The Castro brothers made tentative stabs at establishing a younger generation of leaders before, but they always pulled back. Economic whiz Carlos Lage and a pair of foreign ministers — Felipe Pérez Roque and Roberto Robaina — were all once thought to be heirs to the Cuban leadership, but each was discarded for showing signs of unseemly ambition.
Díaz-Canel, an electrical engineer by training and a career bureaucrat, has been careful to avoid those snares. He forged strong bonds with the Castros during a youthful stint in military service that — according to a former military man who served in a similar unit — included time in a detachment that provided personal security to both Fidel and Raúl.
"The key to his success ... is his congeniality with the ruling class,” said a Cuban exile who once worked closely with Díaz-Canel, adding that both Castros "liked him.”
Díaz-Canel soon received a series of key appointments in both the government and the Communist Party. After making his mark in the Union of Young Communists, the party’s youth league, he was only in his mid-20s when he was appointed the party’s liaison to Nicaragua — then communist-ruled and Cuba’s key ally in the Western Hemisphere — in 1987.
Since then his career has alternated between senior managerial posts, including minister of higher education, and increasingly important party jobs. From 1994 to 2003, he was one of a small, influential group of regional party chiefs, first in central Cuba’s Villa Clara province and then in Holguín province in the country’s east.
“They [the provincial party secretaries] are virtual czars at the level of the provinces but they don’t have that much exposure to western media,” said Arturo López Levy, a former analyst with Cuban intelligence who now lives in the United States. “These provincial party czars are major players in the evolving new political system that’s more pluralistic, if not more democratic. … He stood out among the party czars.”
Unlike some of the Communist Party’s technocratic jobs, the provincial czars are very much in the public eye, at least locally, and Díaz-Canel was a popular figure within his fiefdoms. His work ethic was much admired — “he had a great physical and mental endurance,” remembers a close associate from that period. He recalled Díaz-Canel’s regular 18-hour days on the job — and his informality as a welcome change from the rigidity of the Cuban bureaucracy.
“He liked to talk to the common people,” recalled a former colleague.
He sometimes popped into local bars to share a beer and a joke. And when the Soviet Union collapsed in the early '90s, taking Cuba’s sweetheart deal for Russian oil with it and making gasoline nearly impossible for ordinary people to obtain, Díaz-Canel won a lot of popularity points for abandoning his government car to travel Villa Clara by bicycle. (Not with everybody, though; Fidel scolded him for ditching his security detail.)
During recent elections, while most high-ranking Cuban officials zipped in and out of polling places, Díaz-Canel waited in line with everyone else to cast his ballot for a government-approved slate of National Assembly candidates. He even answered reporters' questions.
Once, when an electrical blackout darkened the province’s hospital, Díaz-Canel spearheaded the repair party and went from bed to bed apologizing to patients — including the astonished Cuban dissident Guillermo Fariñas, who was hospitalized on a hunger strike against the government. “He said hello and asked about my health,” the bemused Fariñas recalled.
The citizens Díaz-Canel liked to chat up certainly included women. Sometimes referred to by both men and women as el lindo, the cutie, Díaz-Canel is consistently described by acquaintances as “lucky” in romance. At some point, he married Liz Cuesta, a tourism official, who is frequently photographed with him at official events — a notable change from the treatment of Fidel Castro’s marriage, which was practically a state secret during his decades in power.
To his admirers, Díaz-Canel’s comparative youth amplified what were otherwise relatively minor deviations from Cuban political orthodoxy. “He followed the party line,” remembers someone who worked with him then. “But he had an open mind because he is younger. He said sometimes changes within the system were needed, from the press to production. We always talked about changes in the press.”
Díaz-Canel, in fact, is an avid reader of the country’s tightly controlled newspapers. He often invited reporters along on his trips into the countryside and sometimes called them with story suggestions. In Villa Clara, he even hosted a radio show. His interest extended beyond journalism to the arts; he promoted rock festivals and art shows when many party officials still regarded such events as degenerate and possibly subversive.
But he was also careful to keep his patrons satisfied. Once, when Fidel announced early in the morning that he was making a surprise visit to the city of Santa Clara, Díaz-Canel was able to fill the city’s Revolutionary Square with cheering throngs by the time the leader arrived in the afternoon.
Díaz-Canel has continued his adroit footwork since his appointment as Cuba’s top vice president in 2013. His speeches, laden with Marxist jargon and revolutionary slogans, rarely break new ground. Even his cautious criticism of government press censorship — “secretismo,” he has called it — wasn’t made until Raúl Castro raised the same subject. His speeches inevitably contain frequent praise of the Castros. In a 2014 speech in Mexico City, he managed to mention the longtime rulers five times.
Veteran Cuban analysts are impressed with the deft way Díaz-Canel has juggled all these political and ideological balls. “Díaz-Canel has played his cards very well,” said former diplomat Alzugaray. “He’s been low-key but influential.”
In recent years, Díaz-Canel has crisscrossed not only Cuba but the entire globe as an emblem of Cuba’s new political direction. From a climate-change summit in Paris to an encounter in Pyongyang with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, he has trekked through the world’s power centers and political backwaters alike, logging time with foreign leaders.
Some of them have been visibly impressed.
“He’s like a modern guy in the context he’s living. He represents the face of change in the party,” said former Haitian Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe, who met Díaz-Canel several times in connection with cooperation programs between the two nations. “When you talk to him you can feel he is the future in Cuba, and he does have the backing and support of some of the most important people I have met in the Cuban government.”
Díaz-Canel seemed to be off-limits to U.S. officials until 2015, when suddenly he became available for chats with a parade of American members of Congress trekking through Cuba following the announcement that Washington and Havana were reestablishing diplomatic relations.
But his commitment to the normalization process came into question last year when a leaked video from a meeting of party officials showed him saying he would expect more from the United States, which has imposed an embargo and other restrictions against Cuba, if the U.S. wanted normalized relations.
So the lingering question is which reflects the true Díaz-Canel?
"My feeling is his 20 years in the provinces might be the better indicator. When he was addressing the conservative forces within the party he may have felt the need to reassure them he wouldn't turn into a Gorbachev," said William LeoGrande, an American University professor who has studied Cuba for decades.
Even his most optimistic supporters do not expect him to strike a radically different course for Cuba.
“Will he move toward the market economy? I would say yes,” said former intelligence analyst López Levy, whose mother was one of Díaz-Canel’s university professors. “Will he dismantle the one-party system? I don’t think so. Everyone knows that a political opening in the current context is suicide.”
Some analysts say the clout of Cuba's military shouldn't be discounted either.
The Cuban armed forces not only have all the island’s tanks, soldiers and planes, but much of its money: They run not only big chunks of the tourism industry but everything from banks and real estate to restaurants and gas stations. Placating the military might turn out to be the biggest part of Díaz-Canel’s job.
“He will be a puppet,” said Antonio Rodiles, a Cuban dissident and human rights activist. “The power is in the military forces.”
Some believe that a Díaz-Canel presidency will unleash long-suppressed ambitions by the younger members of the Castro family or anyone else who aspires to resume one-man rule.
Díaz-Canel “is the tip of the iceberg of entirely new leaders whose background and experience has nothing to do with the old guard,” said Domingo Amuchastegui, a former Cuban intelligence analyst who now lives in Miami. “It’s going to be Díaz-Canel and the others.”
Correction: This article originally contained comments from a 2016 interview with Brian Latell, the former chief of Latin American analysis at the CIA. They have been removed because he says they no longer reflect his current thinking.