Cuba’s new President Miguel Diaz Canel stresses continuity and gradual change

Miguel Diaz-Canel Bermudez has been elected President of Cuba’s Council of State, confirming that the country has begun a gradual process of generational change. According the country’s National Electoral Commission (CEN) Cuba’s new President received 603 of the 604 votes cast by members of the Cuban National Assembly on April 18. He was the only candidate.

In his first speech in his new role, President Díaz-Canel emphasised continuity with the past describing the continuing political role that former President, Raúl Castro, will play. Setting out the debt that Cuba owes to its historic generation and their social and political achievements he said that “Raúl (Castro) remains at the forefront of the political vanguard. He remains our First Secretary, as the reference for the revolutionary cause…, teaching and always ready to confront imperialism”.

He then went on to recognise national doubts and expectations about the change of leadership.

“Knowing the popular sentiment, I state before this Assembly that compañero Raúl will head the decisions for the present and future of the nation”, he said. In doing so Diaz Canel appeared to suggest that his role as President up to 2021 will be about the overall control and delivery of government policy and that strategic direction will largely be devolved to the Communist Party. He also implied the need to heal divisions, noting “we will have to exercise an increasingly collective leadership”.

Elsewhere in his remarks President Diaz Canel confirmed that Cuban foreign policy will remain unchanged. “Cuba will not accept conditions”, he said. More personally he noted: “I do not come to promise anything, as the Revolution never has in all these years. I come to fulfil the programme that we have implemented with the guidelines of Socialism and the Revolution”.

Although his election was widely described in the Cuban media as a generational change, the new President’s remarks and the composition of the new Council of State (see article below) suggests a slow and cautious approach to leadership change and that Cuba’s historic generation will continue to exercise significant influence for some time yet.

Speaking to Cuban legislators following Diaz Canel’s election, outgoing President Raul Castro confirmed that he would stay on as head of the Cuban Communist Party until his term ends in 2021.

He said that it was a post that he hoped Díaz-Canel would assume. “When I’m gone, and that’s in the future, he will take over as first secretary of the Communist Party, if he does a good job. That’s how it’s been planned,” the outgoing President said with humour.

Talking about his successor Raul Castro added: “His election is not by chance. It was planned by us in a group, and we decided that he’s the best option in our opinion.”

Unsurprisingly, a sustained standing ovation greeted Díaz-Canel and Castro as they entered Havana’s Convention Palace before the new President was confirmed by the National Assembly. However, in an indication of the new President’s less formal style, he could be seen on Cuban Television high-fiving elected members as he walked to the podium to give his first speech as President.

New President has a very different background

President Diaz Canel is 57 years old and according to Raul Castro, his rise to power had been long planned. He was born one year after Cuba’s 1959 Revolution.

Although he lacks the credentials and legitimacy of those who fought in the Sierra Maestra and later entered Havana, his strong managerial background, his recognised humility and ability to relate to ordinary Cubans, his commitment to the country’s socialist model, and his proven ability to manage and achieve results are all said to make him the ideal choice to direct the country at a time of continuing economic difficulty and international change.

He was born in the city of Placetas in Santa Clara in modest circumstances to a schoolteacher mother and a mechanical plant worker father. He later graduated from the Central University of Las Villas in 1982 as an electronics engineer. He served in the military as an officer in the ‘vanguard of the Anti-Air Defence and Revolutionary Air Force’, before spending some time teaching. He has a master’s degree in management.

From 1989 to 1993, he held various responsibilities within the Young Communist League (UJC), served as First Secretary of the UJC’s Provincial Committee in Villa Clara and then as Second Secretary of the organisation’s National Committee. Later he served as First Secretary of the Party in the provinces of Villa Clara then Holguín, effectively overseeing the governance of those territories.

Reports in the Cuban and international media suggest that during that time he gained a reputation for competence and championed LGBT rights and the use of IT. In 2003 he was elected to Cuba’s Politburo.

In 2009 he was appointed Minister of Higher Education, a post he held until March 2012 when he became Vice President of the Council of Ministers. In 2013, he additionally became Cuba’s First Vice President

Mr Diaz-Canel has two children with his first wife Martha. He lives with his second wife Liz Cuesta Peraza. In a recent indication of his leadership style, Mr Diaz-Canel waited patiently in line in recent elections to vote, and unusually was accompanied by his wife who is the Director of the Department of Academic Services at Paradiso, the cultural tourism agency of the Ministry of Culture.

Addressing members of the National Assembly, Raul Castro, added that Diaz Canel had variously fulfilled an internationalist mission in Nicaragua; graduated from the National Defence College; worked in the central committee of the Party in Villa Clara during the most severe part of the Special Period (following the collapse of the Soviet Union); and ‘survived’ six years representing the Party in the province of Holguín.

“His growth has not been the result of haste. His case has not been like others, where we made the mistake of accelerating the process”, Cuba’s former President noted.