Ivan Garcia, 20 April 2018 — Summer 1993. When night fell in Falcón, a little place next to the Central Highway, crossed by the Sagua la Chica and Jagüeyes rivers, people were sitting by their front doors, telling stories, and drinking home-made rum distilled with cow-shit.
Those were the difficult years of the “Special Period“, and in Falcón, like in the rest of the country, with officially-decreed twelve-hour-long power cuts which turned Cuba into a dark and silent island, people killed time like that, trying to make the summer heat more bearable.
Miguel Mario Díaz-Canel Bermúdez, the great-grandson of an Asturian, Ramón Díaz-Canel, who emigrated to Cuba in the mid-nineteenth century looking for a better life, was born in Falcón, in Placetas, Villa Clara, some 320 km east of Havana.
Falcón is an idyllic spot, where you can hear the cocks crowing in the distance. Most of its 6,000 inhabitants raise cattle, pick tobacco, and grow fruit, root plants and vegetables. The main celebrations are the parades, which go through the Sagüeros y Jagüeyeros river neighbourhoods. The Falconers, including Díaz-Canel, still remember the floods of 18th and 19th August, 2008, when many people had to run for a nearby hill, because of the fierce rains of the tropical storm Fay. There were no fatalities or injuries, but important material possessions were lost.
Antonio, who is retired and a native of the area, tells us that “some years back, Díaz-Canel was slim, wore his hair long and liked American music. His family and he were, and are, good citizens. Before he was elected First Secretary of the Party — a kind of mayor — in Villa Clara, he held an important post in the Communist Youth Union. But the man came home in the blackout and played guitar for his CDR bodyguard or talked about sports, to anyone.
He was well thought of in the nine years he administered Villa Clara, a province with 13 councils and just over 8,000 inhabitants. Elpidio, a resident in La Esperanza, Ranchuelo, Villa Clara, remembers that, “The fellow went about all over the city on his Chinese bicycle, and, in spite of the shortages, he was always worrying about the people there. A programme started on the local radio called High Tension and listeners could phone in and report their complaints. He was the first Cuban politician to authorise a night centre with performances for homosexuals and transvestites”.
In 2003, he was promoted to First Party Secretary in Holguín province, 800 km northeast of Havana. Daniel, a Holguinero, now living in the capital, recalls that “In Holguín, Díaz-Canel was not as spontaneous as he was in Villa Clara. He stopped smiling, and put on weight, like the other party leaders and government functionaries. He talked in bureaucratic jargon”.
In Holguín he met his present wife, Lis Cuesta Peraza. He did something not all that common in the macho behaviour of the Communist bureaucrats: instead of having her as a lover, he divorced the mother of his two children and married Cuesta, a professor in the Instituto Superior Pedagógico José de la Luz y Caballero. “Hopefully she will become the First Lady. That would give her prestige, because presidents don’t look so good if they are alone, like single people or widowers. Better to be accompanied by a lady, especially if she is well-prepared, like her”, says Mercedes, a retired teacher.
In 2009, Díaz-Canel was appointed Minister of Higher Education, a post he held until 2012. At that time he used to wear a typical white guayabera the uniform of the Chinese creoles [there has been a substantial Chinese population in Cuba since the mid 19th century]. “In those three years as a Minister, I don’t recall Díaz-Canel doing anything out of the ordinary. On the contrary, he continued plodding along on the same old socialist treadmill, quoting stuff from Fidel, and repeating the refrain that the University is Only for the Revolutionaries”, says Sergio, an engineer.
The olive green autocracy, an insane system of personality cult, never showed any sign of providing good quality politicians. Fidel governed. The rest of them applauded and followed orders. In July 2006, Fidel had a gastrointestinal perforation and, in a historial arbitrary act, appointed as his successor his brother Raul, a natural-born conspirator with dictatorial obsession, but who, out of habit, worked on a team and listened to other points of view.
According to the gossip merchants, Castro II likes people who are like him. Whether it was because of his appearance, or his CV, what we do know is that, when he took over from his brother, he had already looked carefully at Díaz-Canel, a guy who had some forty-year-old women sighing over him.
In 2012, when he appointed him as Vice President of the Consejo de Estado, Raúl put him on the ladder to the presidency. Six years have passed, but Díaz-Canel still looks a bit nervous in public.
“He behaves as if he is still living in Falcón”, says Antonio, a retired chap. “Sometimes he looks ill-at-ease, or acts like a fool”, says Yadira, a university student. “His behaviour is contradictory. I remember he was the first leader to show up with a tablet at a party meeting”, adds Victor, another student. In the opinion of Rogelio, a private taxi driver, “One day Canel talks like a liberal, and the next day like a dictator”.
One good thing people in Havana do know is that, thanks to Díaz-Canel, ICRT transmits live the games between Real Madrid and Barcelona. “The man is a Barcelonista to his dying breath. People like that get high blood pressure when Barcelona loses. I think that when he finds his feet as President, they will put out live transmissions of the NBA and the Big Leagues. He loves sportS”, says a state TV producer.
The Puerto Rican journalist, Benjamin Morales, from El Nuevo Dia, wrote last April 17th: “Guaracabulla, in Placetas, has a ceiba tree there marking what is said to be the centre of the island, and, from this week, it could also be said to mark the centre of Cuban leadership, when Miguel Díaz Canel, its most famous son, becomes the first president not called Castro Ruz and who also was not a guerilla”.
After seeking opinions on the street — which did not include those of Antúnez, a well-known opposition figure in Placetas — Morales continued: “The people are overcome with enthusiasm, but don’t let themselves get too carried away, because they understand that change is good, but only when it doesn’t affect people’s well-being”.
For most people in Havana, who spend all their time trying to put food on the table for their families and to survive the shortages of Caribbean socialism, the much-proclaimed presidential succession has not fulfilled their expectations.
“It’s more of the same. Seems like more Castroism, by another name, setting us up with “Canelism”. I don’t expect much from him. If he manages to sort out the disaster that Cuba has become, they’ll have to put up a statue to him”, says Diana, a bank employee.
Miguel Díaz-Canel could just as easily turn into an Adolfo Suárez (Spain’s first democratically elected prime minister after the Franco dictatorship) as become another Nicholas Maduro (current president of Venezuela). We’ll have to wait and see.
Translated by GH