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?
MEET THE NEW BOSS
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 was. He was very straight-forward.”
After joining the PCC’s Central Committee in 1991, Díaz-Canel went on to become the youngest-ever member of the Politburo (the most powerful body within the PCC) in 2003, at the age of 43. He was appointed minister of higher education in 2009 and selected as Cuba’s first vice president in 2013. He has risen to the presidency gradually and through a relatively institutional and meritocratic route, unlike so many of the young and inexperienced but loyal leaders nurtured by Fidel and frequently promoted in haste. Although Díaz-Canel is likely to have been chosen by consensus, and has therefore won support from a range of actors across the Cuban political spectrum, observers can only speculate about the internal political processes that led to his selection to the presidency.
Beyond being an insider, Díaz-Canel is also a political survivor. He came of age in the party alongside the likes of Felipe Perez Roque and Carlos Lage, two former rising stars and would-be reformers who were purged in 2009 for having been, in Fidel’s words, tempted by the “honey of power.” (Many observers believe they were dismissed for speaking out of turn and getting out in front of the official government position on reforms and the pace of change on the island.) By contrast, Díaz-Canel has for the most part stayed out of the limelight until his recent ascent to the role of first vice president.
A QUESTION OF LEGITIMACY
Credentials and experience aside, as Cuba’s presumptive next president, Díaz-Canel faces enormous challenges. The Cuban economy is struggling (to put it mildly), there are major differences of opinion within the leadership about the pace and breadth of economic and political reforms, and the expansion of the private sector along with the contraction of the Cuban state have created new and worsening inequalities. Cuba is still recovering from Hurricane Irma, struggling to adapt to a major reduction in subsidies from Venezuela, and facing continuing economic constraints from the U.S. embargo, which, under the administration of President Donald Trump, is not likely to end soon.
Underlying all of these issues is the critical question of legitimacy. Unlike his predecessors, whose power was justified by their revolutionary pedigree, Díaz-Canel will have to generate his own legitimacy largely through performance, as measured by his ability to deliver on promises—of reform, more responsive government, expanded access to information, improvements in quality of life, and greater opportunities for the country’s youth. But although most Cuban economists agree on the need to support monetary reform, promote foreign investment, and improve efficiency in the state sector, nonetheless in Cuba, as in most countries, what seems like common sense to economists is complicated by political realities. How Díaz-Canel will resolve these tensions remains to be seen.
CUBA AND THE WORLD
Although no one can predict exactly how Díaz-Canel will respond to these challenges, there is no denying that change is on the horizon. The United States and other outside actors will not determine the nature or the timing of these changes. They can, however, create a climate in which reform is easier. Strategies of U.S. engagement that recognize Cuban sovereignty and resist calling for regime change will reduce the risks to Díaz-Canel of undertaking more significant changes.
The EU has embraced this more forward-leaning and pro-engagement approach to Cuba with its November 2017 Political Dialogue and Cooperation Agreement. Indeed, the EU and its member states are working to help Cuba’s economic and political evolution in important ways. In addition to signing agreements on renewable energy and sustainable agriculture, Brussels is supporting broader structural reforms on the island. During a visit to Havana at the beginning of 2018, EU officials offered to assist Cuba with its badly needed currency unification (the country currently has two official currencies) based on their experiences introducing the euro. Swedish officials have similarly offered to assist Cuba’s central bank with developing the country’s evolving progressive tax regime. As the EU’s top diplomat Federica Mogherini explained during a press conference in Havana, “There are opportunities for trade, investment, and promoting common solutions to global challenges like migration and climate change…. We can speak to Cuba on all issues because there is commitment to dialogue despite the differences between both sides.”
Cuba’s creditors have also sought to do their part. In 2015, Paris Club lenders, including France, Spain, and the United Kingdom, signed an agreement with Cuba to forgive or renegotiate $11.1 billion of Cuba’s foreign debt, which will help the country more functionally integrate into the world economy—a necessity if its economy is to recover, let alone grow. And although Cuba remains isolated from traditional international financial institutions such as the IMF and World Bank—thanks largely to the United States—other bodies, such as the Latin American Development Bank and the Central American Bank for Economic Integration, are providing technical and financial assistance to support economic reforms on the island. Countries around the world are becoming more involved with Cuba precisely at the moment when the United States is becoming less so.
China and Russia are also actively engaged with Cuba. In 2011, Cuba restructured its $6 billion debt with China (much of which was later forgiven) and in 2014, ahead of Vladimir Putin’s visit to Havana, Russia forgave $32 billion of Cuba’s foreign debt. Both countries are also investing heavily on the island. Earlier this month, China delivered $36 million in assistance to Cuba for projects in agriculture, water sources, renewable energy, and technology. China is currently Cuba’s largest trading partner, accounting for $1.8 billion in exports to the island in 2017. Russian trade with Cuba has also grown exponentially in the past two years, with exports to Cuba increasing 81 percent in 2017. For the first time since the 1990s, Russia is exporting oil to Cuba, to help make up for Havana’s loss of Venezuelan oil subsidies.
Countries around the world are becoming more involved with Cuba precisely at the moment when the United States is becoming less so. Reversing the policy of his predecessor, Barack Obama, Trump has taken steps to limit U.S. engagement with Havana, slowing (though not prohibiting) U.S. travel to the island, limiting the possibilities for new commercial engagement, and—following a series of still mysterious health incidents affecting some U.S. diplomats—sharply cutting back staffing at the U.S. embassy in Cuba. The last time that Washington had such a skeleton crew in Havana was in 1977, shortly after President Jimmy Carter opened the U.S. Interests Section. As other countries are designing their policies to support the processes of change on the island, the United States’ foreign policy toward Cuba looks more and more like something from the early days of the Cold War.
During a time of historic change on the island, the United States needs to more directly engage with Cuba (and if it doesn’t, others will). At minimum, this should include a fully staffed and active embassy in Havana. Even for a hawkish Trump administration, re-staffing the embassy would serve the U.S. national interest, including by gathering on-the-ground information about Cuba’s changing dynamics and strengthening cooperation in law enforcement, counternarcotics, human trafficking, and environmental issues. The United States has nothing to gain from its current policy of hostility. In fact, by seeking to isolate Cuba, Washington will only succeed in isolating itself.
CORRECTION APPENDED (April 3, 2018): An earlier version of this article stated, incorrectly, that Díaz-Canel would be the first civilian president since 1952 and the first post-revolutionary president not to serve as first secretary of the PCC. In fact, between 1952 and 1976, when Fidel Castro became president, Cuba had four civilian presidents who were not first secretary of the party. We regret the error.