Miguel Díaz-Canel, the loyalist groomed to succeed Raúl Castro, on Monday was formally named chief of Cuba’s Communist Party, giving him unprecedented civilian control of a nation grappling with a shattered economy, food shortages and a citizenry increasingly emboldened to criticize the government.
The long-expected consolidation of power came after Castro, the former president and revolutionary figure who helped his brother cement a communist regime in Cuba, officially announced his retirement at age 89.
Cuba’s Communist Party announced on Twitter that Díaz-Canel, the nation’s president, had been chosen as the party’s new first secretary. The appointment comes on the last day of the Communist Party’s Eighth Congress, a carefully scripted event in Havana meant to herald the arrival of a new generation of leaders as the last of the old guard rebels depart amid the island’s worst economic crisis in decades.
Throughout the congress, the 60-year-old Díaz-Canel — who was born after the revolution that ushered Fidel Castro into power — has pushed a theme of “continuity.” While Cuba is in urgent need of an economic jump start, few anticipate that his leadership will mark a significant departure from how the government operates, especially as he looks to consolidate the support of party loyalists.
“It’s been embedded in Cuba’s DNA — all the habits, the totalitarian populism, the allergy to criticism, the repression of independent thought,” said Ted Henken, a Cuban expert at Baruch College in New York. “These habits will die very hard, whether it’s Díaz-Canel or somebody else.”
Díaz-Canel’s rise through the communist ranks has been years in the making. Widely considered a loyal bureaucrat, Díaz-Canel rose through the ranks of the Communist Party, making his name as the party chief in two provinces before he was named vice president of the country in 2013. That’s when Raúl Castro announced that he would vacate the presidency in 2018, handing over the presidency to Díaz-Canel.
In 2018, Díaz-Canel became the president, while Raúl Castro retained the more powerful role as the party’s first secretary.
In announcing his retirement Friday, during the congress’ opening day, Raúl Castro heaped praise on Díaz-Canel while also urging delegates to remain close to the core tenets of the nation’s Soviet-style economy, something he said he was certain his successor would continue to do.
“We have already said that Díaz-Canel is not the result of improvisation, but of a thoughtful selection of a young revolutionary with the conditions to be promoted to higher positions,” Raúl Castro said.
In footage aired from the congress on Cuban state TV, Díaz-Canel spoke with delegates in a socially-distanced closed-door session about the need for new blood in the Communist party, saying he’s looking for “the best … the best revolutionary qualities, the best ideological qualities, the best professionalism, charisma, work and experience.”
“I have to keep preparing them, defining what paths they are going to take,” he said.
Cuba’s leaders are under increasing pressure to improve the lives of its 11 million citizens. The island’s economy contracted 11% in 2020, according to government figures, as the pandemic halted tourism and then-President Donald Trump instituted a series of punishing economic sanctions designed to squeeze the Cuban government. Cuban citizens, as they have during previous hard times, are again forced to wait in long lines for goods. Remittances from the United States have dwindled under Trump sanctions, and U.S. President Joe Biden has yet to undo any of the restrictions.
This year, Cuba unified its dual currency system, a measure meant to make the economy easier to navigate for much-needed foreign investors. While some state salaries were increased, the prices of goods have nevertheless skyrocketed. The government also announced an expansion of some small private businesses, a list that includes software programming, small-scale veterinarians and music teachers — but doesn’t allow journalists, health-care practitioners or architects.
Shortly before the congress, Cuba announced it was loosening long-standing restrictions on the sale of beef and dairy, and the slaughter of cows, allowing farmers to “do as they wish” with livestock as long as state quotas are met. The announcement was made as the island is dealing with acute food shortages.
“He is by necessity going to be focusing on what is unpleasant,” John Kavulich, the president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, said of Díaz-Canel. “I believe he very well may be a one-term president, not because he’s forced out, but because he will have completed those transition tasks.”
Though there is no longer a Castro in charge, there are still other family members in influential positions.
Cuban General Luis Alberto Rodriguez López-Calleja, who manages a military conglomerate of the island’s state-owned businesses, is Castro’s former son-in-law, and the two are believed to remain close. The military and its entrepreneurial offshoot, known by its Spanish-language acronym of GAESA, control as much as 80% of the Cuban economy, including vital sectors such as hotels and tourism, mining and state stores.
Miami economist Emilio Morales pointed out that the appointment last week of 77-year-old Álvaro López — a fellow revolutionary who fought alongside Fidel Castro’s rebels — is a sign that old-guard party leadership will still have at least some role. He replaced Leopoldo Cintra, 79, another rebel who rose through the ranks of the military.
“The real power is not Díaz-Canel. The real power is Raul’s family and Lopez-Calleja,” said Morales, president of the Havana Consulting Group, a Miami-based firm that analyzes the Cuban economy.
Christopher Sabatini, an expert in Latin American affairs and senior fellow at the Chatham House think tank, noted that the transition comes at a crucial time, when critical voices such as artists belonging to an activist collective known as the San Isidro movement find a wider platform through the internet. But he doesn’t expect much from the decidedly uncharismatic Díaz-Canel.
“He’s a classic company man,” Sabatini said. “I don’t think he has the ideas and the political capital to implement anything dramatic.”
Many Cubans on the island are equally skeptical.
Manuel Almaguer, a 34-year-old who raises livestock in the eastern Cuban province of Holguín, said he was wistful that Raúl Castro left behind a country “resentful, impoverished, and totally dependent on the state.” He believes key generals will have to leave for Díaz-Canel to have any sway.
“Díaz-Canel will continue to be a puppet of the centennial generation,” Almaguer said. “For Díaz-Canel to be seen, it will take at least five years. Time and natural law will take enemies out of the way.”