After the Castro brothers: How much power will Cuba’s crown prince really wield?

Cuban leader Raúl Castro applauds as he sits next to Vice President Miguel Díaz-Canel during the island's twice-annual legislative session at the National Assembly in Havana, on Dec. 29, 2015.
Cuban leader Raúl Castro applauds as he sits next to Vice President Miguel Díaz-Canel during the island's twice-annual legislative session at the National Assembly in Havana, on Dec. 29, 2015. AP

This article was first published in February and looks at the future of Cuba's leadership.

When President Barack Obama visits Cuba next month, he will certainly be photographed — many, many times — with Raúl Castro, whose 84-year-old face bears the lines left by the nearly six decades he and his brother, Fidel, have ruled the island. What will be interesting to see is if another Cuban official, whose lean, handsome countenance is topped by a luxuriant and carefully tended mane of silver hair, will be included in the picture.

That face (some people even believe it looks a bit like that of the actor Richard Gere) belongs to Miguel Díaz-Canel. And it is supposedly the face of Cuba’s future. Raúl signaled as much in 2013, when he said that he would leave the Cuban presidency on Feb. 24, 2018 — and then the rubber-stamp National Assembly named Díaz-Canel first vice-president of the Council of State.

Click here to see a timeline of Cuban leadership during the revolution

“Comrade Díaz-Canel is not an upstart nor improvised,” Raúl declared, putting an exclamation point on the appointment to Cuba’s second-highest political position, which put Díaz-Canel on track to become Cuba’s head of state. He stopped short of openly proclaiming that Díaz-Canel would succeed him in the presidency, but the intent seemed clear. Raúl himself held the first-vice-president position when he took over the top job from his ailing brother officially in 2008.

With the clock ticking down to the final two years before the transition, a meeting with Obama (none has been announced, but little is known yet about the president’s schedule in Havana) would be the strongest indication yet that the 55-year-old Díaz-Canel will defy the lessons of Cuban history books. Those 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.

And if Díaz-Canel does become “president,” what does that really mean in a Marxist dictatorship run not by voters but by the military and the Communist Party?

“When Raúl Castro is the president, then yes, the president runs Cuba,” says Jaime Suchliki, director of the University of Miami’s Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies. “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 Castros’ most inexorable opposition, the calendar. The men who fought the revolution are mostly well into their 80s, many either dead or, like Raúl’s 89-year-old brother, Fidel, sidelined by the infirmities of age.

But whether that will happen two years from now, or 10, remains an open question. Though Raúl Castro promised in 2013 to leave the presidency, he said nothing about resigning from his positions as head of the Cuban armed forces and the Communist Party.

“It’s a very powerful position — perhaps the most powerful in the country,” says University of California-San Diego political science Professor Richard Feinberg of Raúl’s role as chief of the Communist Party, noting that both Castros held the job simultaneously with their presidencies

“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. It’s not clear how such an unraveling would happen.”

Some answers might come when the Communist Party holds its congress in April. Meanwhile, Díaz-Canel surely has solid party credentials. In 1997, he became the youngest member ever of the Politburo, the hand-picked committee of 14 party members who function as Raúl’s senior advisers.

Yet if there’s still doubt about how much real power the Castros are willing to cede, there’s a widespread consensus that the political and economic collapse of the government of Cuba’s sugar-daddy Venezuela 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.

So most observers expect that Díaz-Canel likely will become Cuban president as scheduled. “No question,” says Arturo Lopez Levy, a former analyst with Cuban intelligence who is now a lecturer at the University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley. “I don’t see any political reason why this won’t happen.”

Agrees Feinberg: “It’s always a little uncertain but I would still say he is the best bet.”

Physical appearance is not the only sign of the three decades of age separating the Castros from Díaz-Canel. He dresses in jeans and sports jackets, not military fatigues. He sings along to rock-and-roll songs. He carries a tablet computer under his arm and is even on Facebook. There is a @MiguelDíazCanel Twitter account but with its boast that “I am waiting for the Castro brothers to die and go to hell for bankrupting Cuba,” it certainly doesn’t appear to be his.

Two months from his 56th birthday, Díaz-Canel is on the last lap of middle age. Yet he represents a youthquake in a Cuban leadership of octogenarians.

“We’re talking about a generational succession, not a simple succession,” says Carlos Alzugaray, a retired Cuban diplomat and academic who lives in Havana.

Cuban dissident Ailer González adds that the signs of a calculated generational change are everywhere on the island, even literally in the air: “They are showing on the Mesa Redonda TV show documentaries glorifying the lives of old military generals, humanizing the lives of members of the elite. It seems a sort of goodbye, in order to promote younger people willing to continue defending the regime.”

The Castro brothers have made tentative stabs at establishing a younger generation of leaders before, but have always pulled back. Economic whiz kid Carlos Lage and a pair of foreign ministers — Felipe Perez Roque and Roberto Robaina — were all 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, and the position he holds now, is his congeniality with the ruling class,” says a Cuban exile who once worked closely with Díaz-Canel. “He gets along well with Fidel Castro and Raúl Castro — both of them 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 are virtual czars at the level of the provinces but they don’t have that much exposure to western media,” Lopez Levy says of the provincial party secretaries. “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,” recalls a former colleague. He sometimes popped into local bars to share a beer and a joke. And when the Soviet Union broke up, taking Cuba’s sweetheart deal for Russian oil with it, 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.)

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 recalls.

The common people Díaz-Canel liked to chat up certainly included women. Known enviously by men and yearningly by women as el lindo, the cutie, Díaz-Canel is consistently described by acquaintances as “lucky” in romance, with a series of attractive female companions. At some point he married Lis 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 years 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 and stultifyingly boring 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 sloganeering, rarely break new ground. Even his cautious criticism of government press censorship — “secretismo,” he called it — wasn’t made until Raúl Castro raised the same subject. But they inevitably contain frequent praise of the Castros. In a 2014 speech in Mexico City, he managed to mention them 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,” says former diplomat Alzugaray. “He’s been low-key but influential.”

Though the Castros have yanked the rugs from under heirs-apparent before, doing so in the case of Díaz-Canel would mark a startling retreat. Over the past three years, he 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 (like Raúl Castro, the product of a Marxist family dynasty), 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,” says former Haitian Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe, who met Díaz-Canel several times in connection with cooperation programs between the two nations. “He used Blackberries to communicate. 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.”

Oddly, Díaz-Canel has been much less accessible to foreign diplomats back in Havana, where the pace of normalization of relations with the United States over the past two years has left much of the government disconcerted and apparently without guidance to proceed. Officials there “are afraid of what can be said or not publicly, cannot have a serious conversation,” says one European diplomat in Havana. “They don’t know what they want from the normalization with the U.S., maybe just buying some time.”

Díaz-Canel also seemed to be off-limits to U.S. officials until last year, when suddenly he became available for chats with a parade of American congressmen trekking through Cuba following the announcement that Washington and Havana were reestablishing diplomatic relations.

If Díaz-Canel does become Cuba’s leader, 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,” says former intelligence analyst Lopez Levy, whose mother was one of Diaz-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.”

And in any event, Díaz-Canel is a manager rather than a visionary, says Brian Lattell, the former chief of Latin American analysis at the CIA and author of a biography of Raúl Castro. Lattell said Díaz-Canel is unlikely to introduce major change in Cuba even if it were politically possible.

“He got the job because he’s an apparatchik; he’s loyal to Raúl,” argues Lattell, who nonetheless regards Díaz-Canel as a good choice for the job: “He’s young, attractive and he makes a good impression. And he’s had plenty of time to ingratiate himself with the military, which is where the real power resides in Cuba.”

The Cuban armed forces not only have all the island’s tanks, soldiers and planes, but much of its money: By some estimates, they control two-thirds of the country’s budding private enterprises, 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,” declares Antonio Rodiles, a Cuban dissident and human rights activist. “The power is in the military forces.”

Rodiles, like some observers watching this countdown, believes Díaz-Canel is just a blip in the real line of succession of Cuban leadership, from generation to generation of the Castro family. In that analysis, Díaz-Canel is just a place-holder while a pair of feuding third-generation members of the family — Raúl’s son Alejandro Castro, a colonel in the Interior Ministry’s security forces, and son-in-law Luis Alberto Rodríguez López-Callejas, a colonel in the army and chief of some of the armed forces’ biggest business enterprises — settle their differences.

“They don’t want that people see the succession as a matter of a family dynasty,” Fariñas said.

Yet others believe that a Díaz-Canel presidency will unleash too many long-suppressed ambitions for the Castro family or anybody else 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,” says Domingo Amuchastegui, a former Cuban intelligence analyst who now lives in Miami. “It’s going to be Díaz-Canel and the others.”

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