Raúl Castro formally stepped aside as president of Cuba today. In a morning meeting of the Cuban National Assembly, 603 delegates formally approved the appointment of his hand-picked successor, Miguel Díaz-Canel, who begins a five-year term as Cuba’s first president of the post-Castro era.
Fidel Castro governed Cuba as premier and president from January 1959 to July 2006, when he was hospitalized with diverticulitis. Raúl Castro took over as interim president until February 2008 when he formally assumed the presidency as well as the role of Secretary General of the Cuban Communist Party. Between the two brothers, a Castro has governed Cuba for the last 59 years—until today.
Still, the Castro era has not quite ended. Raúl Castro remains the leader of the Communist Party for several more years, and is retaining his role as the leading general in the Cuban military—both powerful positions of influence. He appears likely to wield that influence to support Díaz-Canel’s efforts to continue the much-needed economic reforms that Castro initiated during his tenure as president. “You can look at Raúl Castro and Díaz-Canel as mentor and disciple," notes Carlos Alzugaray, a former Cuban diplomat.
"I confirm to this assembly that Raúl Castro, as first secretary of the Communist Party, will lead the decisions about the future of the country," Diaz-Canel said today as he accepted the presidency. "Cuba needs him, providing ideas and proposals for the revolutionary cause, orienting and alerting us about any error or deficiency, teaching us, and always ready to confront imperialism."
Díaz-Canel will need his predecessor’s support because he lacks the historical legitimacy of participating in the Castro-led 1959 revolution. The new president, who turns 58 this week, also marks a generational shift in Cuba’s elderly leadership and is expected to name younger members of the Cuban Communist Party to lead various government ministries.
With a professional background in electrical engineering, Díaz-Canel rose through the ranks of the party as provincial leader in Villa Clara during the “special-period” of economic crisis after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989. In 2009 he was named minister of education, and in 2013 Raúl picked him to be first vice-president—positioning him to assume the presidency today. He is known to encourage community participation in decision making, and be an efficient and accessible administrator. In contrast to the more elderly Cuban leaders, Díaz-Canel is widely perceived as a modern man because he carries a computer tablet and uses it during government meetings.
He inherits Raúl Castro’s unfinished efforts to modernize Cuba’s stagnant economy by diversifying trade relations, encouraging foreign investment and opening up a private sector in Cuba to foster employment, produce goods and generate tax revenues to support the government’s commitment to underwrite free healthcare and education. During Raúl Castro’s tenure, almost 600,000 small businesses were created, and it is now estimated that up to 40 percent of the workforce has a foot, formally or informally, in private enterprise. But growing socio-economic disparity between those still on the state payroll who earn roughly $30 a month, and Cubans working in the private sector at far higher salaries has led to a significant backlash from more doctrinaire members of the Cuban Communist Party. Díaz-Canel will be forced to navigate between the critical need to modernize Cuba’s economy with capitalist incentives, and the ideological demands of party hardliners to adhere to the principles of the revolution.
As Cuba begins its inevitable leadership transition to the post-Castro era, Díaz-Canel will confront major challenges to bring about much needed, and much delayed, changes to opening up the economy and addressing the daily struggle of the average Cuban to make ends meet—a challenge Raúl Castro also faced but failed to resolve. “Raúl’s legacy in economic policy lies in breaking once-forbidding ideological barriers,” Richard Feinberg wrote in a study for the Brookings Institution. Though his reforms proved too limited to end Cuba’s stagnant productivity, chronic shortages, and dire lack of resources, Feinberg notes: “Regardless, these changes have paved the way for the successor generation of leaders—if they dare—to push Cuba forward in to the 21st century.”