18 July 2019
Cuba's President Raul Castro (left) and First Vice-President Miguel Diaz-Canel arrive for a session of the National Assembly in Havana on Wednesday.  Photo: Handout via Reuters
Cuba's President Raul Castro (left) and First Vice-President Miguel Diaz-Canel arrive for a session of the National Assembly in Havana on Wednesday. Photo: Handout via Reuters

Cuba sets stage for post-Castro era

Cuba’s Raul Castro is set to retire as president after parliament proposed Miguel Diaz-Canel as his replacement, ushering in the island’s first non-Castro leader since the 1959 revolution.

Castro, 86, was due to step down on Thursday after 10 years in office, Reuters reports.

He announced his departure several years ago and has long signaled that Diaz-Canel, a 57-year-old Communist Party stalwart, was his likely successor, carefully managing the transition to ensure political continuity.

The move to a younger generation of Communist leaders is historic on an island dominated for nearly 60 years by Fidel Castro and then his brother Raul.

In the short term, however, it is unlikely to herald major changes to the one-party system or state-dominated economic model.

The rubber-stamp National Assembly voted on the proposal to promote Diaz-Canel, who is currently first vice president.

His was the only name put forward by a party-backed commission, and was greeted with a long ovation from lawmakers.

Lawmakers will vote for 30 other members of Cuba’s state council as well as the president. The results will be announced and the new president will be sworn in on Thursday.

Although this week’s assembly is promoting younger government leaders, Castro and other elders of the revolution will retain considerable power in their roles as the top leaders of the Communist Party at least until a party congress set for 2021.

Political observers said Diaz-Canel would be given the job of breathing life into the creaking economy, but would seek Castro’s approval on major strategic decisions such as the relationship with the United States.

He is expected to be cautious at first, seeking to consolidate support among party conservatives despite desire among young Cubans for faster development. He is extremely unlikely to challenge one-party rule.

Diaz-Canel should “increase the speed of change in Cuba while preserving the good things”, said blogger Harold Cardenas, 32, adding that resistance from within the party to Castro’s economic reforms had held the country back.

After years climbing the ranks of the Communist Party, the future president is considered a safe bet to carry the mantle of Castro and other elderly leaders who helped Fidel Castro oust US-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista.

Trained as an electrical engineer, Diaz-Canel embraces technology and appears socially liberal, but he is relatively unknown to ordinary Cubans.

He faces “myriad challenges on all fronts”, said Richard Feinberg, who led Latin America policy in former US President Bill Clinton’s White House.

Cuba’s economy remains smaller per capita than it was in 1985, when it had the support of the Soviet Union, according to one study. It is suffering from a crisis in oil benefactor Venezuela.

Relations with the United States are strained anew under President Donald Trump and Cuba has few allies in the region.

“Most Cubans, especially the young, await an unambiguous, decisive acceleration of market-opening reforms,” Feinberg said. “Strategically, Diaz-Canel must confront renewed hostility from the US administration.”

Castro, who had served for decades as defense minister, became president in 2008 when Fidel Castro, his health failing, formally handed over power. Fidel Castro died in 2016 aged 90.

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