While nearly everyone knew of Cuba’s president, Raúl Castro, his hand-picked successor, Miguel Díaz-Canel Bermúdez, was virtually unknown.
HAVANA — As soon as Cuba and the Obama administration decided to restore diplomatic relations, decades of bitter stagnation began to give way. Embassies were being reopened. Americans streamed to the island. The curtain was suddenly pulled back from Cuba, a nation frozen out by the Cold War.
But one mystery remained: While nearly everyone knew of Cuba’s president, Raúl Castro, his hand-picked successor, Miguel Díaz-Canel Bermúdez, was virtually unknown.
So when U.S. members of Congress visited Cuba in early 2015, they peppered Díaz-Canel with questions: What did he think of the revolution that defined the island’s politics and its place on the world stage?
“I was born in 1960, after the revolution,” he told the group, according to lawmakers in the meeting. “I’m not the best person to answer your questions on the subject.”
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Díaz-Canel, 57, who officially became Cuba’s new president Thursday, has spent his life in the service of a revolution he did not fight.
Born one year after Fidel Castro’s forces took control of the island, Díaz-Canel is the first person outside the Castro dynasty to lead Cuba in decades.
He took the helm of government Thursday morning to a standing ovation from the National Assembly, which elected him in a nearly unanimous vote. Raúl Castro embraced him, lifting the younger man’s arm in triumph.
Ever since Díaz-Canel was named first vice president in 2013, Cubans and Cuba watchers have scrambled to find out more about the enigmatic heir apparent, combing through his track record as party leader in the provinces of Villa Clara and Holguín, and later as minister of higher education, for clues on how he will lead.
In each position, according to those who knew him at the time, Díaz-Canel has been a quiet but effective leader, seemingly open to change. Many called him a good listener, while others described him as approachable, free of the rigidness and inaccessibility of typical party chiefs.
Through it all, he has also been a relentless defender of the revolution and the principles and politics it brought.
Stories of his Everyman qualities have spread widely in recent years: how he rode his bike to work instead of taking a government vehicle during gas shortages; how he defended the rights of a gay club in Santa Clara in the face of protests; how he listened to academics grouse (sometimes about him) as minister of higher education.
More recently, he was a leading voice in the push for internet access in Cuba, arguing that the nation could not seal itself off from the world. Though his beliefs remain very much within the party line, those who know him say he does not adhere to the belief that Cuba can exempt itself from the modernization necessary to participate in the global economy.
In Cuba, the continuum of political thinking is not black and white. Often, conventional definitions of progressives versus hard-liners do not apply. Leaders can be both, and Díaz-Canel is an example of that. While he is seen as open to the ideas of others, as a younger man he led a campaign to stifle students who read and discussed literature that was not approved by the Communist Party, according to those who knew him at the time.
Last year, a video was leaked of Díaz-Canel addressing a group of party officials. In it, he lambastes the United States, claiming that Cuba had no responsibility to meet its demands under the reconciliation brokered by President Barack Obama.
He then went on a diatribe against a website whose work he considered subversive. He told fellow officials that the government would shut it down — no matter whether people considered it censorship.
The video was seen as a way for Díaz-Canel to shore up his credentials with hard-line factions within the government. A review of his career shows that he has not shied away from confronting activities deemed out of bounds by the government, either.
Díaz-Canel grew up in the central province of Villa Clara, about three hours from Havana, the son of a schoolteacher and a factory worker. He studied electrical engineering at the Central University of Las Villas, where he was active in political life.
He was viewed from an early age as a rising star within the Communist Party.
As a young man, he joined the Union of Young Communists, the party’s youth league, where he stood out among his peers. He later worked as a bodyguard to Raúl Castro. According to a friend who knew him at the time, the assignment allowed him to show loyalty to the cause, and drew Díaz-Canel close to both Raúl and Fidel Castro.
He served three years in the army, another node of power in the country, after which he resumed his climb up the party ladder.
In his 20s, he was named the party’s liaison to Nicaragua, the only other Communist government in the region at the time, a posting viewed as important to the Cuban government.
Rodolfo Stusser, 72, recalled meeting Díaz-Canel in the late 1980s, while working as a doctor during Nicaragua’s civil war. Stusser felt the other Cuban doctors around him were lazy, not serious about their work. And just as he began liking his life in Nicaragua, he was being deployed elsewhere. He took his complaint to the Cuban Embassy, where he ran into a young Díaz-Canel, who offered him a ride.
Stusser unloaded, listing the various injustices he felt were being visited on him. It was almost therapeutic, he recalled. Díaz-Canel listened for the duration of the 40-minute drive, he recalled.
“He just heard me,” Stusser said. “He did not say anything at all. It helped me.”
Not long after, Stusser found his fortunes reversed in Nicaragua. He was allowed to stay. And an official who was giving him the runaround made time to see him.
Stusser, who defected in 2010 and now lives in South Florida, always suspected the soft-spoken Communist Party official who listened but did not speak had worked his connections in Havana and Managua, Nicaragua, to sort out his issues.
As first secretary in Villa Clara province, Díaz-Canel came to the office during the so-called special period, when the generous aid flowing to Cuba from the Soviet Union was abruptly cut off after its collapse.
Back then, Díaz-Canel took his bicycle to work rather than ride in the air-conditioned car he was entitled to as a prominent leader. It was the sort of move people still talk about in Villa Clara and its capital, Santa Clara.
Juan Juan Almeida, 52, who defected to the United States, said he and Díaz-Canel had many mutual friends, in particular musicians and artists whom Díaz-Canel had supported. The new president also has a son who is a musician in Argentina, Almeida added.
“He mixes with the intellectual class, goes to concerts and is close to young people,” Almeida said. “All of the people I know who we have in common speak very well of him. They don’t speak of him in dictatorial fashion.”
Academics and others in Havana declined to be interviewed about Díaz-Canel, because the government did not give them permission.
In Santa Clara, Díaz-Canel is also remembered for wearing Bermuda shorts at a time party officials wore more formal attire, and for wearing his hair long.
His beliefs also skewed liberal, residents say. He lent his support to one of the country’s only gay clubs, El Mejunje. When it opened decades ago, the club was a point of contention. But Díaz-Canel, who took his children to the club when it hosted children’s activities, consistently backed the club in the face of controversy.
“He supported us anytime there was a complaint made against us,” said Ramón Silverio Gómez, the club’s director. “He was an ally. And one day when I saw him he said, ‘You can keep counting on my support and my understanding.’ ”
Others saw Díaz-Canel’s persona as crafted and less genuine than is often supposed. Sure, he rode his bike to and from work. But he was always trailed by his personal security in vehicles, others said.
“It was a bit of demagoguery,” said Guillermo Fariñas, a well-known dissident and Cuban psychologist who grew up with Díaz-Canel in Villa Clara. “In terms of the gasoline, he was on a bicycle, but there were cars with security going behind him. It was a bit a manipulation of the people.”
Fariñas also recalled how, after graduation, Díaz-Canel became a teacher and party functionary at his university, joining a nationwide campaign to fight “negative tendencies” in Cuba.
Díaz-Canel could be accessible, friendly and modern — mingling with locals, playing basketball with the youth and listening to rock music. But he could also be a staunch advocate of communism and the revolution, willing to silence critics.
“He was very active, very militant and very unconditional in his loyalty to the regime,” Fariñas said.