Cuba: More Castroism but Without the Castros / Iván García
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
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
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
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
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.
Source: Cuba: More Castroism but Without the Castros / Iván García –
Translating Cuba –