Cuba After the Castros

Washington Should Be Engaging the Island's New President

Miguel Díaz-Canel in Havana, March 2018. Reuters

Cuba is about to enter a new era. For the first time in nearly 60 years, the country will be led by someone not bearing the surname Castro. On April 19, First Vice President Miguel Díaz-Canel will become president, replacing the 86-year-old Raúl Castro, who took over for his brother Fidel in 2008. Who is Díaz-Canel, and what is his presidency likely to mean for Cuba?


Díaz-Canel differs from the Castros in a number of important ways other than name. He is significantly younger than Cuba’s historic generation of leaders: he will take office one day before his 58th birthday (Fidel ruled until age 81; Raúl from 76 to 86). Along with 70 percent of the Cuban population, he has never known Cuba without a Castro at its helm. He did not fight in the Cuban Revolution, and therefore does not have access to the most basic form of legitimacy enjoyed by Cuba’s presidents and other senior officials for the past 60 years. He will, moreover, be Cuba’s first civilian president—and the first president not to also be first secretary of the party—since 1976, when Fidel Castro took over the office.

Yet Díaz-Canel is not coming in to break the china. He is a consummate political insider. He cut his teeth at the height of Cuba’s so-called special period—a euphemism for the economic disaster that struck the country following the collapse of the Soviet Union—when he served as a PCC leader at the provincial level, developing a reputation as an efficient manager, pragmatist, and man of the people. He was frequently seen riding around the city of Villa Clara on a bicycle (foregoing a government-issued car), endearing him to the community he served and demonstrating his commitment to the revolution’s ideals. As a local journalist who knew him at the time explained to Reuters, “He didn’t do it to look for popularity. He did it because that’s how he

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