The Castro family is finally relinquishing the presidency in Cuba. Six decades of rule by first Fidel and then Raul is coming to an end as the Communist government turns to a younger generation to lead the island through its most serious economic challenge since the aftermath of the fall of the Soviet Union.
The nation of 11 million Sunday is voting in one-party elections for pre-selected ruling party candidates to fill the 600-plus National Assembly seats. In turn, assembly members will choose a replacement for President Raul Castro, 86, who is retiring April 19. All signs point to the assembly picking Miguel Diaz-Canel, a 57-year-old engineer and current first vice president.
“This is important symbolically because it’s the passing of the baton from the historic figures led by the Castros to the next generation,” said Ted Piccone, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “The big caveat is that it will be gradual change because Raul will still be secretary of the Communist party.”
The transition marks the first time a family outsider will lead the government since Fidel Castro’s 1959 Cuban revolution. Yet, Raul Castro will remain the party’s preeminent power and Diaz-Canel is expected to stick to the economic and political path Cuba has followed for almost 60 years. Those policies will be tested quickly test, Piccone said.
The island’s economy is stumbling amid vanishing support from its principal benefactor, Venezuela, and the souring of relations with the U.S. And Cubans are increasingly unhappy with health care, education, and basic living conditions, the underpinnings of the Communist social contract according to Piccone.
“This could be the worst it’s been since the special period,” he said, referring to the recession of the 1990s when Cuba lost Soviet Union support. “Diaz-Canel is inheriting a very tricky situation.”
A former higher education minister, Diaz-Canel rose through the party ranks to become vice president of the council of ministers in 2013, the highest rank ever achieved by a Cuban politician born after the revolution. As Castro’s retirement has approached, Diaz-Canel’s profile has been raised, serving as the face of the government during trips abroad and as host for foreign dignitaries.
He will be faced with the difficult task of unifying Cuba’s dual currency system, modernizing its energy sector, and diversifying an $87 billion economy that contracted in 2016 for the first time since the mid-1990s, according to official figures. Last year, the nation’s sugar crops and mills were damaged by Hurricane Irma.
“As president, he will basically be the person in charge of carrying out policy. But they’re still going to be making the policy in the politburo,” which will remain under Castro’s control, said William LeoGrande, a professor of government at American University who tracks Cuban politics.
Diaz-Canel has mostly stuck to the Communist Party script in speeches, including quoting Ernesto “Che” Guevara in October by saying “imperialism can never be trusted, not even a tiny bit.” That appeared to be a response to President Donald Trump, who days earlier told the UN that the U.S. would not lift the economic embargo against Cuba unless the island reformed its political system.