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After the Castro brothers: How much power will Cuba’s crown prince
really wield?

Miguel Díaz-Canel, Raúl Castro’s apparent successor, has trod a careful
path to the top
But without the support of the military and the Communist Party, being
president of Cuba might not mean much
And what about the youngest generation of Castros?

BY MIMI WHITEFIELD, NORA GAMEZ TORRES AND GLENN GARVIN
ggarvin@miamiherald.com

When President Barack Obama visits Cuba next month, he will certainly be
photographed — many, many times — with Raúl Castro, whose 84-year-old
face bears the lines left by the nearly six decades he and his brother,
Fidel, have ruled the island. What will be interesting to see is if
another Cuban official, whose lean, handsome countenance is topped by a
luxuriant and carefully tended mane of silver hair, will be included in
the picture.

That face (some people even believe it looks a bit like that of the
actor Richard Gere) belongs to Miguel Díaz-Canel. And it is supposedly
the face of Cuba’s future. Raúl signaled as much in 2013, when he said
that he would leave the Cuban presidency on Feb. 24, 2018 — and then the
rubber-stamp National Assembly named Díaz-Canel first vice-president of
the Council of State.

“Comrade Díaz-Canel is not an upstart nor improvised,” Raúl declared,
putting an exclamation point on the appointment to Cuba’s second-highest
political position, which put Díaz-Canel on track to become Cuba’s head
of state. He stopped short of openly proclaiming that Díaz-Canel would
succeed him in the presidency, but the intent seemed clear. Raúl himself
held the first-vice-president position when he took over the top job
from his ailing brother officially in 2008.

With the clock ticking down to the final two years before the
transition, a meeting with Obama (none has been announced, but little is
known yet about the president’s schedule in Havana) would be the
strongest indication yet that the 55-year-old Díaz-Canel will defy the
lessons of Cuban history books. Those are littered with the names of men
who were expected to one day replace the Castros and instead found
themselves in internal exile or something worse.

And if Díaz-Canel does become “president,” what does that really mean in
a Marxist dictatorship run not by voters but by the military and the
Communist Party?

“When Raúl Castro is the president, then yes, the president runs Cuba,”
says Jaime Suchliki, director of the University of Miami’s Institute for
Cuban and Cuban-American Studies. “When Raúl Castro is not president,
that will be a very different matter. Díaz-Canel has no tanks and no
troops.”

Virtually everyone who tries to read the smoke signals from within
Cuba’s hermetically sealed political institutions agrees that big change
is coming at the hands of the Castros’ most inexorable opposition, the
calendar. The men who fought the revolution are mostly well into their
80s, many either dead or, like Raúl’s 89-year-old brother, Fidel,
sidelined by the infirmities of age.

But whether that will happen two years from now, or 10, remains an open
question. Though Raúl Castro promised in 2013 to leave the presidency,
he said nothing about resigning from his positions as head of the Cuban
armed forces and the Communist Party.

“It’s a very powerful position — perhaps the most powerful in the
country,” says University of California-San Diego political science
Professor Richard Feinberg of Raúl’s role as chief of the Communist
Party, noting that both Castros held the job simultaneously with their
presidencies

“Maybe the idea to put some separation between the party and the state
will start to have legs. They have been talking about this concept for a
long time, but it is very difficult to separate the two in a Communist
system. It’s not clear how such an unraveling would happen.”

Some answers might come when the Communist Party holds its congress in
April. Meanwhile, Díaz-Canel surely has solid party credentials. In
1997, he became the youngest member ever of the Politburo, the
hand-picked committee of 14 party members who function as Raúl’s senior
advisers.

Yet if there’s still doubt about how much real power the Castros are
willing to cede, there’s a widespread consensus that the political and
economic collapse of the government of Cuba’s sugar-daddy Venezuela
means that the island must seek foreign investment and engage with other
governments. And that, in return, will require at least some
public-relations gestures to convince the outside world that Cuba is
moving beyond a one-family state.

So most observers expect that Díaz-Canel likely will become Cuban
president as scheduled. “No question,” says Arturo Lopez Levy, a former
analyst with Cuban intelligence who is now a lecturer at the University
of Texas-Rio Grande Valley. “I don’t see any political reason why this
won’t happen.”

Agrees Feinberg: “It’s always a little uncertain but I would still say
he is the best bet.”

Physical appearance is not the only sign of the three decades of age
separating the Castros from Díaz-Canel. He dresses in jeans and sports
jackets, not military fatigues. He sings along to rock-and-roll songs.
He carries a tablet computer under his arm and is even on Facebook.
There is a @MiguelDíazCanel Twitter account but with its boast that “I
am waiting for the Castro brothers to die and go to hell for bankrupting
Cuba,” it certainly doesn’t appear to be his.

Two months from his 56th birthday, Díaz-Canel is on the last lap of
middle age. Yet he represents a youthquake in a Cuban leadership of
octogenarians.

“We’re talking about a generational succession, not a simple
succession,” says Carlos Alzugaray, a retired Cuban diplomat and
academic who lives in Havana.

Cuban dissident Ailer González adds that the signs of a calculated
generational change are everywhere on the island, even literally in the
air: “They are showing on the Mesa Redonda TV show documentaries
glorifying the lives of old military generals, humanizing the lives of
members of the elite. It seems a sort of goodbye, in order to promote
younger people willing to continue defending the regime.”

The Castro brothers have made tentative stabs at establishing a younger
generation of leaders before, but have always pulled back. Economic whiz
kid Carlos Lage and a pair of foreign ministers — Felipe Perez Roque and
Roberto Robaina — were all thought to be heirs to the Cuban leadership,
but each was discarded for showing signs of unseemly ambition.

Díaz-Canel, an electrical engineer by training and a career bureaucrat,
has been careful to avoid those snares. He forged strong bonds with the
Castros during a youthful stint in military service that — according to
a former military man who served in a similar unit — included time in a
detachment that provided personal security to both Fidel and Raúl.

“The key to his success, and the position he holds now, is his
congeniality with the ruling class,” says a Cuban exile who once worked
closely with Díaz-Canel. “He gets along well with Fidel Castro and Raúl
Castro — both of them liked him.”

Díaz-Canel soon received a series of key appointments in both the
government and the Communist Party. After making his mark in the Union
of Young Communists, the party’s youth league, he was only in his
mid-20s when he was appointed the party’s liaison to Nicaragua — then
communist-ruled and Cuba’s key ally in the Western Hemisphere — in 1987.

Since then his career has alternated between senior managerial posts,
including minister of higher education, and increasingly important party
jobs. From 1994 to 2003, he was one of a small, influential group of
regional party chiefs, first in central Cuba’s Villa Clara province and
then in Holguín province in the country’s east.

“They are virtual czars at the level of the provinces but they don’t
have that much exposure to western media,” Lopez Levy says of the
provincial party secretaries. “These provincial party czars are major
players in the evolving new political system that’s more pluralistic, if
not more democratic. … He stood out among the party czars.”

Unlike some of the Communist Party’s technocratic jobs, the provincial
czars are very much in the public eye, at least locally, and Díaz-Canel
was a popular figure within his fiefdoms. His work ethic was much
admired — “he had a great physical and mental endurance,” remembers a
close associate from that period. He recalled Díaz-Canel’s regular
18-hour days on the job — and his informality as a welcome change from
the rigidity of the Cuban bureaucracy.

“He liked to talk to the common people,” recalls a former colleague. He
sometimes popped into local bars to share a beer and a joke. And when
the Soviet Union broke up, taking Cuba’s sweetheart deal for Russian oil
with it, making gasoline nearly impossible for ordinary people to
obtain, Díaz-Canel won a lot of popularity points for abandoning his
government car to travel Villa Clara by bicycle. (Not with everybody,
though; Fidel scolded him for ditching his security detail.)

When an electrical blackout darkened the province’s hospital, Díaz-Canel
spearheaded the repair party and went from bed to bed apologizing to
patients — including the astonished Cuban dissident Guillermo Fariñas,
who was hospitalized on a hunger strike against the government. “He said
hello and asked about my health,” the bemused Fariñas recalls.

The common people Díaz-Canel liked to chat up certainly included women.
Known enviously by men and yearningly by women as el lindo, the cutie,
Díaz-Canel is consistently described by acquaintances as “lucky” in
romance, with a series of attractive female companions. At some point he
married Lis Cuesta, a tourism official, who is frequently photographed
with him at official events — a notable change from the treatment of
Fidel Castro’s marriage, which was practically a state secret during his
years in power.

To his admirers, Díaz-Canel’s comparative youth amplified what were
otherwise relatively minor deviations from Cuban political orthodoxy.
“He followed the party line,” remembers someone who worked with him
then. “But he had an open mind because he is younger. He said sometimes
changes within the system were needed, from the press to production. We
always talked about changes in the press.”

Díaz-Canel, in fact, is an avid reader of the country’s tightly
controlled and stultifyingly boring newspapers. He often invited
reporters along on his trips into the countryside and sometimes called
them with story suggestions. In Villa Clara, he even hosted a radio
show. His interest extended beyond journalism to the arts; he promoted
rock festivals and art shows when many party officials still regarded
such events as degenerate and possibly subversive.

But he was also careful to keep his patrons satisfied. Once, when Fidel
announced early in the morning that he was making a surprise visit to
the city of Santa Clara, Díaz-Canel was able to fill the city’s
Revolutionary Square with cheering throngs by the time the leader
arrived in the afternoon.

Díaz-Canel has continued his adroit footwork since his appointment as
Cuba’s top vice-president in 2013. His speeches, laden with Marxist
jargon and revolutionary sloganeering, rarely break new ground. Even his
cautious criticism of government press censorship — “secretismo,” he
called it — wasn’t made until Raúl Castro raised the same subject. But
they inevitably contain frequent praise of the Castros. In a 2014 speech
in Mexico City, he managed to mention them five times.

Veteran Cuban analysts are impressed with the deft way Díaz-Canel has
juggled all these political and ideological balls. “Díaz-Canel has
played his cards very well,” says former diplomat Alzugaray. “He’s been
low-key but influential.”

Though the Castros have yanked the rugs from under heirs-apparent
before, doing so in the case of Díaz-Canel would mark a startling
retreat. Over the past three years, he has crisscrossed not only Cuba
but the entire globe as an emblem of Cuba’s new political direction.
From a climate-change summit in Paris to an encounter in Pyongyang with
North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un (like Raúl Castro, the product of a
Marxist family dynasty), he has trekked through the world’s power
centers and political backwaters alike, logging time with foreign leaders.

Some of them have been visibly impressed. “He’s like a modern guy in the
context he’s living. He represents the face of change in the party,”
says former Haitian Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe, who met Díaz-Canel
several times in connection with cooperation programs between the two
nations. “He used Blackberries to communicate. When you talk to him you
can feel he is the future in Cuba, and he does have the backing and
support of some of the most important people I have met in the Cuban
government.”

Oddly, Díaz-Canel has been much less accessible to foreign diplomats
back in Havana, where the pace of normalization of relations with the
United States over the past two years has left much of the government
disconcerted and apparently without guidance to proceed. Officials there
“are afraid of what can be said or not publicly, cannot have a serious
conversation,” says one European diplomat in Havana. “They don’t know
what they want from the normalization with the U.S., maybe just buying
some time.”

Díaz-Canel also seemed to be off-limits to U.S. officials until last
year, when suddenly he became available for chats with a parade of
American congressmen trekking through Cuba following the announcement
that Washington and Havana were reestablishing diplomatic relations.

If Díaz-Canel does become Cuba’s leader, even his most optimistic
supporters do not expect him to strike a radically different course for
Cuba. “Will he move toward the market economy? I would say yes,” says
former intelligence analyst Lopez Levy, whose mother was one of
Diaz-Canel’s university professors.“Will he dismantle the one-party
system? I don’t think so. Everyone knows that a political opening in the
current context is suicide.”

And in any event, Díaz-Canel is a manager rather than a visionary, says
Brian Lattell, the former chief of Latin American analysis at the CIA
and author of a biography of Raúl Castro. Lattell said Díaz-Canel is
unlikely to introduce major change in Cuba even if it were politically
possible.

“He got the job because he’s an apparatchik; he’s loyal to Raúl,” argues
Lattell, who nonetheless regards Díaz-Canel as a good choice for the
job: “He’s young, attractive and he makes a good impression. And he’s
had plenty of time to ingratiate himself with the military, which is
where the real power resides in Cuba.”

The Cuban armed forces not only have all the island’s tanks, soldiers
and planes, but much of its money: By some estimates, they control
two-thirds of the country’s budding private enterprises, not only big
chunks of the tourism industry but everything from banks and real estate
to restaurants and gas stations. Placating the military might turn out
to be the biggest part of Díaz-Canel’s job.

“He will be a puppet,” declares Antonio Rodiles, a Cuban dissident and
human rights activist. “The power is in the military forces.”

Rodiles, like some observers watching this countdown, believes
Díaz-Canel is just a blip in the real line of succession of Cuban
leadership, from generation to generation of the Castro family. In that
analysis, Díaz-Canel is just a place-holder while a pair of feuding
third-generation members of the family — Raúl’s son Alejandro Castro, a
colonel in the Interior Ministry’s security forces, and son-in-law Luis
Alberto Rodríguez López-Callejas, a colonel in the army and chief of
some of the armed forces’ biggest business enterprises — settle their
differences.

“They don’t want that people see the succession as a matter of a family
dynasty,” Fariñas said.

Yet others believe that a Díaz-Canel presidency will unleash too many
long-suppressed ambitions for the Castro family or anybody else to
resume one-man rule.

Díaz-Canel “is the tip of the iceberg of entirely new leaders whose
background and experience has nothing to do with the old guard,” says
Domingo Amuchastegui, a former Cuban intelligence analyst who now lives
in Miami. “It’s going to be Díaz-Canel and the others.”

Source: After the Castro brothers: How much power will Cuba’s crown
prince really wield? | Miami Herald –
www.miamiherald.com/news/nation-world/world/americas/cuba/article61355797.html

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