HAVANA — Thursday will mark the end of an era for Cuba.
That’s the day Raúl Castro, 86, steps down as Cuba’s president, the first time in more than 40 years the country won’t be led by a Castro brother. As founders of Cuba’s 1959 communist revolution, Fidel and Raúl Castro directly shaped the country’s history and its role in power dynamics across the globe.
Now all eyes are on Miguel Díaz-Canel — seen by many as Raúl’s hand-picked successor as the nation’s next leader.
“Following Cuba’s political system, it’s only logical that Díaz-Canel become president after serving as first vice president for the past five years without any issues,” said Arturo Lopez-Levy, a former analyst with the Cuban Interior Ministry who is now a lecturer at the University of Texas, Rio Grande Valley.
Díaz-Canel, 57, has a long history in Cuba politics. Before his current role, he was the minister of higher education.
Díaz-Canel headed the Communist Party of Cuba in Villa Clara province from 1994 to 2003, at a time when the country was suffering from a severe economic crisis after the fall of the Soviet Union, which had heavily subsidized the island nation.
Some have speculated on Díaz-Canel’s moderate views but, in the past year, he has taken an increasingly hard line, emphasizing the continuation of Cuba’s single-party political system and centrally planned economy.
He was captured in a video leaked last summer criticizing independent media and telling Communist Party members that the embassies of the U.S., Norway, Spain, Germany, and Britain were supporting “subversive activity.” Díaz-Canel said the Obama administration’s 2015 historic re-establishment of relations between the U.S. and Cuba “was a different way [for the U.S.] to try to reach its final objective to destroy the revolution.”
The upcoming presidential transition comes at a time when Cubans are feeling frustrated over the slow pace of market-style reformsinitiated by Raúl Castro in 2011 and as relations with the U.S. have cooled significantly under the Trump administration.
Those two issues will likely be major challenges for Díaz-Canel once he takes office.
Facing an economic recession and an average salary of around $30 a month, Cubans will be looking for a better standard of living from their new leaders.
“Whoever takes over in April will have to get Cuba out of this great economic crisis and elevate the quality of life for Cubans,” said Miriam Leiva, a dissident and former senior Cuban diplomat, who was expelled from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1992.
Díaz-Canel will also face the challenge of navigating a complicated relationship with the U.S.
In early March, the Trump administration announced it would permanently reduce the staff at the U.S. Embassy in Havana by 60 percent. The decision came after the U.S. evacuated nonessential personnel in October after embassy staff members were sickened in a series of unexplained health incidents. As a result, the State Department issued a warning, recommending Americans “reconsider” traveling to the island.