The Castro era ends as Cuba swears in Miguel Diaz-Canel as president

New leader is a Communist Party loyalist, and the transition is not expected to herald sweeping changes to the island’s state-run economy and one-party system

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 19 April, 2018, 10:05pm
UPDATED : Friday, 20 April, 2018, 5:44am

Cuban Communist Party stalwart Miguel Diaz-Canel replaced Raul Castro as president on Thursday, drawing congratulations from China and Russia while the US expressed “disappointment”.

The transition is not expected to herald sweeping changes to the island’s state-run economy and one-party system, one of the last in the world.

Castro, 86, who took over from his ailing older brother Fidel in 2006, will retain considerable influence since he will remain head of the Communist Party until a congress in 2021. Fidel Castro died in 2016 at 90.

His departure from the presidency is still a symbolically charged moment for a country that has been under the absolute rule of one family since the 1959 revolution. 

Facing biological reality but still active and apparently healthy, Castro is stepping down in an effort to guarantee that new leaders can maintain the government’s grip on power in the face of economic stagnation, an ageing population and increasing disenchantment among younger generations. 

“I like sticking with the ideas of President Fidel Castro because he did a lot for the people of Cuba, but we need rejuvenation, above all in the economy,” said Melissa Mederos, a 21-year-old schoolteacher. “Diaz-Canel needs to work hard on the economy because people need to live a little better.” 

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Cuban-state media said that Russian President Vladimir Putin congratulated Diaz-Canel and thanked the departing Castro for the many years of cooperation between the two countries. 

Official media also said Chinese President Xi Jinping reaffirmed his country’s friendship with Cuba and expressed interest in deeper ties. 

But the US State Department said that Cuban citizens “had no real power to affect the outcome” of what spokeswoman Heather Nauert called an “undemocratic transition” that brought Diaz-Canal to the presidency. 

Nauert said that the US was not surprised by the outcome but “nevertheless disappointed”.

Diaz-Canel,  who turns 58 on Friday, is seen as a Communist Party loyalist, and he has worked his way up its ranks over three decades.

Most Cubans know their first vice-president as an uncharismatic figure who until recently maintained a public profile so low it was virtually nonexistent.

That image changed slightly this year as state media placed an increasing spotlight on his public appearances, including remarks to the press last month that included Diaz-Canel’s promise to make Cuba’s government more responsive to its people.  

“We’re building a relationship between the government and the people here,” he said then after casting a ballot for members of the National Assembly. “The lives of those who will be elected have to be focused on relating to the people, listening to the people, investigating their problems and encouraging debate.” 

Diaz-Canel gained prominence in central Villa Clara province as the top Communist Party official, a post equivalent to governor. 

People there described him as a hard-working, modest-living technocrat dedicated to improving public services. 

He became higher education minister in 2009 before moving into the vice-presidency.  

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In a video of a Communist Party meeting that inexplicably leaked to the public last year, Diaz-Canel expressed a series of orthodox positions that included sombrely pledging to shut down some independent media and labelling some European embassies as outposts of foreign subversion. 

But he has also defended academics and bloggers who became targets of hardliners, leading some to describe him as a potential advocate for greater openness in a system intolerant of virtually any criticism or dissent. 

International observers and Cubans alike will be scrutinising his every move as he takes office. 

For many Cubans, struggling with economic hardships and frustrated by the government’s emphasis on continuity rather than change, the transition in leader is seen as unlikely to bring much beyond the symbolism of a new leader.

“We always wish the symbolic would translate into real and concrete actions for our lives,” said Jose Jasan Nieves, 30, the editor of an alternative news outlet to the state-run media monopoly. “But this isn’t the case.”

Cubans hope that the next government can resurrect one of the world’s last Soviet-style centrally planned economies, which failed to improve under limited market reforms by Castro.

In 2008, Castro launched a series of reforms that expanded Cuba’s private sector to nearly 600,000 people and allowed citizens greater freedom to travel and access to information.

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He has failed to fix the generally unproductive and highly subsidised state-run businesses that, along with a Soviet-model bureaucracy, employ three of every four Cubans. 

State salaries average $30 a month, leaving workers struggling to feed their families and often dependent on corruption or remittances from relatives overseas. 

Castro’s moves to open the economy have largely been frozen or reversed as soon as they began to generate conspicuous shows of wealth by the new entrepreneurial class in a country officially dedicated to equality among its citizens.  

“I don’t want to see a capitalist system -- hopefully that doesn’t come here -- but we have to fix the economy,” said Roberto Sanchez, a 41-year-old construction worker. “I’d like to have more opportunity, to buy a car, and have a few possessions.” 

As in Cuba’s legislative elections, all the leaders selected Wednesday were picked by a government-appointed commission.

Ballots offer only the option of approval or disapproval and candidates generally receive more than 95 per cent of the votes in their favor.  

The Candidacy Commission also nominated another six vice-presidents of the Council of State, Cuba’s highest government body. 

State media went into overdrive Wednesday with a single message: Cuba’s system is continuing in the face of change. 

Commentators on state television and online offered lengthy explanations of why Cuba’s single-party politics and socialist economy were superior to multi-party democracy and free markets, and assured Cubans that no fundamental changes were occurring, despite some new faces at the top. 

“It falls on our generation to give continuity to the revolutionary process,” said assembly member Jorge Luis Torres, a municipal councilman from central Artemisa province. “We’re a generation born after the revolution, whose responsibility is driving the destiny of the nation.”