14ymedio, Mario J. Pentón | Miami | June 20, 2018 — Cuba’s new president, Miguel Díaz-Canel, is determined to revitalize the government’s image. In a demonstration of his closeness to the people, he agreed to be photographed playing basketball with students during a recent visit to Santiago de Cuba.
Only this time the ball that he used was a volleyball, which garnered dozens of sarcastic comments on social media.
“Díaz-Canel visited the Basilica of Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre as just another pilgrim,” the rector of the shrine, Eugenio Castellanos, told 14ymedio from Santiago de Cuba.
“He entered the church and stopped for a few minutes in front of the image of the virgin. He was accompanied by other government leaders. It was the only area of the shrine that he visited,” says the priest, who does not remember another Cuban leader making an intentional visit since the Marxist takeover following the Cuban Revolution. Official news outlets did not publish photos of the president visiting the church.
Raúl Castro visited the shrine of the Virgin of Charity of El Colbre, considered by Catholics to be the patron saint of Cuba, in an official capacity during the 2015 visit by Pope Francis.
For decades religious devotion was frowned upon by Cuban authorities, who imposed a fierce Soviet-style atheist ideology that had been adopted by Fidel Castro. With the end of socialism in Eastern Europe, Cuba experienced a cautious religious awakening that culminated in a visit to the island by Pope John Paul II in 1998. Although the country is officially “secular,” churches are still barred from access to the media and schools.
In an effort to gain popular support, Díaz-Canel has distanced himself from the management style of his predecessor, Raúl Castro, who disliked making public appearances. In contrast, images released by government media outlets have shown Díaz-Canel in exchanges with artists, musicians and the public.
The new leader has called for the massive use of social networks “to defend the revolution,” has authorized national television broadcasts on online platforms and is attempting to “computerize” the country. The opening of new wifi hotspots, the expansion of home internet service and plans for phone-based internet are part of these efforts.
A photo taken at the Armando García school shows the president using a volleyball during a basketball game with high school students. Although the official government press did not acknowledge it, the president was faced with a problem encountered by Cuban students on a daily basis: the shortage of sports equipment.
Most sporting goods used in Cuban schools are purchased in China. Cuba has blamed the U.S. embargo for preventing it from from acquiring sports equipment at lower prices.
Díaz-Canel, a 58-year-old engineer who was proclaimed president of Cuba by the National Assembly on April 19 of this year, is not a member of the older generation of Cuban leaders who came to power after the revolution. He faces the challenges of rebuilding a country devastated by decades of economic mismanagement, a rapidly aging population and a lack of foreign investment.
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