Iván García, 17 May 2017 — In front of an old mansion on 17th Street in Vedado that now serves as the headquarters of the Union of Writers and Artists, there is a poster showing hundreds of men dressed in battle fatigues and lined up in military formation. A resounding verdict in two rows of black letters reads, “Cuba Post-Castro.”
The political propaganda machine is operating at full steam. On the exterior walls of schools, factories, public buildings and produce markets it is common to see “Fidel Castro’s Concept of Revolution” and the oft-repeated slogan “I am Fidel.”
Nine months and three weeks before Raúl Castro will presumably cede power, no one has any idea what protocols to follow for effecting a transfer to a new leader.
As part of her official duties Mariela Castro Espín, the dictator’s daughter, has granted a couple of interviews to the international press, reiterating that her father intends to resign from office. She claims not to know who will succeed him and said he has no intention of being further involved in politics.
Authoritarian governments control the flow of news so, to understand them, you have to read between the lines. A reader must be an empirical cryptographer, always on the lookout for a key piece data or a clue.
Although the tedious national press corps writes in Spanish, its soporific articles are so saturated with official jargon and stale rhetoric from the Cold War era that reading them is like deciphering a Chinese riddle.
In spite of being surrounded by a dense smoke screen of secrets and mysteries, it is still possible to surmise that — given the extent of his travels throughout the island and the extensive press coverage they have received — Miguel Díaz-Canel, one of the country’s two vice-presidents, is the man Raúl Castro has chosen to control the fate of a Cuba facing a new, untested version of Castroism, one without a Castro at the helm.
Tall and grey-haired, Díaz-Canel, has the look of a fading movie star. Women like him for his resemblance to Richard Gere. Those who know him say that he can be relaxed and witty. When he was the first secretary of the communist party in Villa Clara during the Special Period, he could be seen cycling through the streets of the city.
Miguel Mario Díaz-Canel Bermúdez was born on April 20, 1960, at his family’s farm in the village of Falcón, outside Placetas, in Villa Clara province. Aida, his mother, was a school teacher, and his father Miguel was a mechanical plant worker in Santa Clara. In 2012, the newspaper La Nueva España reported with pride that Díaz-Canel was the great-grandson of Ramón Díaz-Canel, a Spaniard from Asturias who emigrated to Cuba in the mid-nineteenth century.
For many of his student years he was on scholarship, first at Campo Primero de Mayo high school and later at Campo Jesus Menéndez college preparatory school, both in Santa Clara. In 1982 he graduated with a degree in electronic engineering from Central University of Las Villas. He began his professional career as an officer in an air defense unit in the Revolutionary Armed Forces, a post he retained until April 1985. After leaving the military, he became a professor at his alma mater in Las Villas. After serving in an internationalist mission to Nicaragua in 1989, he worked as a “professional staffer” in the Union of Young Communists.
In 1994 he was elected first party secretary in Villa Clara. Nine years later he was named party leader in Holguín, a more challenging province than Villa Clara. According to local residents, his work in Holguín cannot be described as significant. That did not prevent Raúl Castro from promoting him to membership in the party politburo. At the time, Raúl stated: “He has a strong collective work ethic and high expectations of the subordinates. He leads by example through his desire to better himself every day and has demonstrated a solid ideological commitment.”
Raúl Castro is something of mentor to Diaz-Canel. In May 2009 he summoned him to Havana and appointed him Minister of Higher Education. In March 2012, he quit that post and replaced José Ramón Fernández as vice-president of the Council of Ministers in charge of education, science, culture and sport. On February 24, 2013, he was elected first vice-president of both the Council of State and the Council of Ministers, replacing José Ramón Machado Ventura, a party stalwart who gave up his position “in order to promote the new generation.”
Perhaps because he comes from a small village – the population of Falcón is only six thousand — those who know him describe him as educated and unassuming, someone who knows how to listen, though some believe he does not have enough charisma to be president of the republic. But at least in photos and videos he looks different from that coterie of rancid officials who never smile at public appearances. Unlike former high-level officials of roughly the same age such as Carlos Lage, Roberto Robaina and Felipe Pérez Roque, Díaz-Canal always stayed out of the media spotlight, preferring more intricate and discreet pathways. “He is not one of the newly rich or a makeshift candidate,” said Raul Castro in 2013.
He has two children from his previous marriage. His current wife is Lis Cuesta, a college professor whom he met while living in Holguín. A cultural affairs source in Santa Clara recalls, “He was the one who gave permission to El Mejunje nightclub to present shows featuring homosexuals and transvestites and to sponsor rock concerts He also allowed the provincial radio station to broadcast programming that was quite critical of state institutions.” In spite of such cultural support, he is a sports fan, one who is especially fond of basketball.
Díaz-Canel does not appear to be an eloquent statesman or a great orator. His speaking style is flat, as though he were exhausted. He does not engage in soaring rhetoric but neither is he given to anti-imperialist diatribes. As one official journalist noted, “he does not just regurgitate the party line like Machado Ventura.*” The journalist describes a event sponsored by the Union of Journalists at which Díaz-Canel was present. His statements gave some attendees cause for hope because “he did not repeat the usual litany about the need to improve the press. But after the applause died down, things went back to normal. The impression I have is that he is content to remain in crouching position, awaiting his turn. He is a cross between Cantinflas and Forrest Gump.”
As an official at the municipal headquarters of the communist party observes, “three or four candidates will be chosen at the plenary session of the National Assembly in December. Of those, one will be elected president.” According to this official, expectations are that the new president will govern the nation for the next five years.
“It seems like a bad joke,” notes a party member familiar with internal party dynamics. “Everyone knows the list of candidates is dictated from above and the ones who are chosen belong to Cuba’s only political party.”
Some dissidents and exiles believe that at the last minute Raul Castro will find a pretext, either a matter of national security or the crisis in Venezuela, to remain in office for another five years.
Tomás Regalado, the mayor of Miami, told the Spanish newspaper El País that he had bet money with a friend that Castro II would remain in power. A retired historian thinks otherwise: “That is not a conclusion the general shares. Raul is at the end of his rope. He is tired of power. And quite simply, if you want to undo the Gordian knot that is the embargo, you cannot have anyone with the name Castro in a governing role. I believe that Raúl will remain behind the scenes, calling the shots. On June 3 he will be eighty-six-years old and anyone that age could kick the bucket at any time.”
Among Afro-Cubans, the passing of the presidential baton does not arouse much interest. “The game plan will be the same. The communist party is the only game in town. I don’t think there will be any major changes. In terms of the economy, perhaps they will do away with the double currency and maybe there will be more cooperatives in the state service sector. But the script will not change much,” says the employee of a Havana nightclub.
One political science graduate is optimistic and hopes the presidential handover provides some surprises. “It’s a different generation so, of course, they are going to think differently. Don’t forget what happened under Gorbachev in the former USSR. Or under Balaguer, Trujillo’s vice-president, in the Dominican Republic. Both began the path towards democracy. Just as in Cuba today, people didn’t necessarily say what they meant. The gap is less than one imagines and a reformer could emerge.”
Arousing Cubans’ interest in national politics will require creativity. After almost sixty years of stasis, people move by force of inertia. Most Cubans respond to the government’s summons like automatons. And although they do not express their true feelings publicly, in private they confess to pessimism and frustration. They do not believe that a new litter of leaders is capable of building an efficient and prosperous political, economic and social system.
A large segment of the population is tired of everything and everyone. They have no faith in Castro, Díaz-Canel or anyone else who might happen to come along. Changing the current state of public opinion will require daring strategies as well as new and convincing promises. Yet all the government is offering is more Castroism. But without the Castros.
*José Ramón Machado Ventura, First Vice-President and Second Secretary of the Culban Communist Party.