On his first trip to the United States wearing the banner as president of Cuba, Miguel Díaz-Canel declared at the U.N. General Assembly last week that he was not a reformer. Yet in various other settings, the island’s appointed leader offered a more fluid image of his style of leadership.
After addressing some 100 Cuban Americans who support normalizing Cuba-U.S. relations, Díaz-Canel left the podium and spent the rest of the night chatting with participants.
“It struck me that he stayed to greet everyone,” said professor Isabel Alfonso, a member of Cuban Americans for Engagement. “He is a charismatic leader, with a great interest in getting close to the people.”
“He is a regular Cuban. He behaves like he is part of the group,” said Cuban-American businessman Saul Berenthal. He added that a similar meeting with Raúl Castro in 2015 was “completely different.”
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Berenthal said Díaz-Canel’s speech to the Cuban Americans at the island’s embassy to the United Nations in New York emphasized “an opening to the Cuban people abroad.”
“We are counting on you. We are Cuba,” Díaz-Canel concluded in his address, even though he made it clear that relations with Cubans living abroad will still go through a political filter.
“Emigration is no longer politically homogenous and is no longer called ‘exile,’ with the new migrants and new generations of Cubans and despite the minority and extremist current that still promotes confrontation between Cubans living abroad and their homeland,” he said.
“Our government wants to reiterate its willingness to continue developing a frank and broad dialogue with our fellow countrymen abroad, based on mutual respect, respect for the sovereignty and independence of Cuba and the commitment to ending the unjust blockade (U.S. embargo) imposed on our people,” he added.
The gathering also provided hints of the complicated domestic dynamics faced by Díaz-Canel, who succeeded Castro in April.
A video leaked to the news media last summer showed then-Vice President Díaz-Canel attacking the opposition and independent journalists during a meeting with Communist Party members. He singled out OnCuba, a digital news site with offices in Miami and Havana and owned by a Miami Cuban American, Hugo Cancio.
“OnCuba, in its digital platform, is very aggressive against the revolution. We are going to close it,” Díaz-Canel said at the time. But in New York, he greeted Cancio warmly and they spoke at length.
“To attend an event with the president of your country is more than an opportunity. It is a duty. Those of us who were there had something in common, our love for Cuba. That is stronger than any differences,” said Cancio. “I was moved by President Díaz-Canel’s simplicity and ability to listen.”
During another event at the Cuban U.N. Mission, Díaz-Canel played the tumbadora drums and danced with his wife, Lis Cuesta, projecting a lighter side of his personality. But during most of his public appearances, Díaz-Canel stuck with the official script and delivered a hard-line message of “continuity” rather than reform within the Cuban revolution.
His addresses at almost all the U.N. sessions focused on variations of Cuban foreign policy: denouncing the embargo and other “aggressive” U.S. policies; defending the governments of Venezuela, Nicaragua and Iran; and repeating Cuba’s commitment to peace and nuclear disarmament.
His most daring comments may have been his reply to President Donald Trump’s criticism of socialism, stating that capitalism — not socialism — is to blame for the world’s problems. But by then the hall was nearly empty and the ongoing humanitarian and political crisis in Venezuela, which drew much of the attention at the U.N. gatherings, left few in the assembly hall to listen to Díaz-Canel’s defense of socialism.
His visit also failed to draw much media attention outside South Florida, with U.S. journalists focused on Trump’s activities at the United Nations and reaction to the controversial nomination of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. Reported possible Díaz-Canel interviews with a major U.S. television station and a meeting with the editorial board at The New York Times did not materialize.
With few exceptions, Díaz-Canel’s delegation offered U.S. journalists no access to his activities and he did not hold a news conference at the United Nations, which would have been open to all U.N.-accredited reporters.
Cuban security guards also ordered the expulsion of journalists who had been accredited to cover Díaz-Canel’s appearance at a Riverside Church event in Manhattan organized by Pastors for Peace. The expulsions included reporters for el Nuevo Herald/Miami Herald, New York Times, Spanish news agency EFE and even OnCuba.
The expulsions, as well as a Cuban government journalist’s aggressive confrontation with a Univision23 television reporter covering a small street demonstration in favor of the Cuban government, drew sharp criticisms on social media.
But the Díaz-Canel visit did not mobilize Cuban exiles as in past visits by the late ruler Fidel Castro and brother Raúl to the United Nations. Few anti-Castro activists, most of them from New York and nearby areas, joined protests in front of the Cuban mission to the U.N.
The number of friendly demonstrators was also down, although the Riverside church event drew many sympathizers who applauded Díaz-Canel and Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro. Díaz-Canel also met with New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and Cardinal Timothy Michael Dolan.
His visit generated other positive results for the Cuban government.
He won a promise from President Pedro Sánchez of Spain to visit Cuba, probably this year, and held bilateral meetings with traditional allies such as Iran, Vietnam and African countries as well as Ecuador, El Salvador and Argentina — evidence that Cuba is less isolated than Venezuela in Latin America.
Also significant was that Cuban diplomats, despite their reduced personnel and amid tense relations with the Trump administration, managed to organize Díaz-Canel meetings with U.S. business people, members of Congress, politicians, academics and religious leaders who wanted to explore opportunities in Cuba or were simply curious about the possible changes under a Cuban leader who does not carry the name of Castro.
Following the style of the late Fidel Castro, Díaz-Canel also rubbed elbows with Hollywood and music stars during a gathering that included Robert De Niro, Katie Holmes , Patti Smith, Harry Belafonte and Chris Martin, among others.
“Good neighbors don’t build walls. Let culture build bridges,” De Niro reportedly stated during the private reception.
When Díaz-Canel returned to Havana, he was met at the airport by Raúl Castro — still head of the ruling Cuban Communist Party — a reminder of lingering questions about how much power he truly has to govern.
Said a source close to the Cuban government who asked for anonymity: “If instead of continuity he would talk about evolution ... [Diaz-Canel] has the charisma to be a great president … if he has the space.”
Follow Nora Gamez Torres on Twitter: @ngameztorres