April 18, 2018 / 4:14 AM / a month ago

Castro's successor seen as unlikely to bring sweeping change to Cuba

SANTA CLARA/HAVANA, Cuba (Reuters) - The man likely to become Cuba’s next president is from a younger generation of leaders and has advocated modernising the island but he is also a longtime Communist Party apparatchik who is not expected to push for sweeping political change.

FILE PHOTO: Cuba's First Vice-President Miguel Diaz-Canel stands in line before casting his vote during an election of candidates for the national and provincial assemblies, in Santa Clara, Cuba March 11, 2018. REUTERS/Alejandro Ernesto/Pool/File Photo

Miguel Diaz-Canel, 57-year-old first vice president, is expected to be named by the national assembly on Thursday as the successor to 86-year-old Raul Castro, making him the first leader since Cuba’s 1959 revolution to be born after it.

An electronics engineer by training, Diaz-Canel has often appeared more in tune with the times than his elderly khaki-clad predecessors, Raul and his brother Fidel, who ruled the Caribbean island for the past six decades.

As a young provincial party chief, Diaz-Canel bucked party orthodoxy by backing an LGBT-friendly cultural centre, reportedly listening to rock music and sporting long hair.

At a national level, Diaz-Canel called for more critical coverage of events in state-run media, and broader internet access to open one of the world’s least web-connected societies. He often arrives at meetings carrying a tablet device.

Ultimately though, Diaz-Canel appears to be a consensus candidate hand-picked by Castro who earned trust by working his way through the ranks over three decades and sticking to the party line on key political and economic issues, analyst say.

His recent public statements have focussed on the need for continuity and to fight imperialism, a defiant and well-worn message as Cuba faces renewed tensions with the United States since President Donald Trump took office.

“There are reasons to expect he will be more flexible, more modern,” said Arturo Lopez-Levy, a former Cuban government analyst who grew up in Diaz-Canel’s hometown of Santa Clara and now lectures at the University of Texas.

“But there is no evidence in favour of him being a reformist and assuming he will abandon the one-party system or stop favouring the state sector over the non-state sector.”

Diaz-Canel’s policy views remain mostly an enigma. Political campaigning is banned in Cuba and Diaz-Canel has avoided the showboating that has ended the careers of other political pretenders over the years.

Many Cubans, frustrated with the slow pace of economic improvement under Castro, hope Diaz-Canel is simply biding his time until he can call the shots.

People dance in El Mejunje cultural center in Santa Clara, Cuba, March 10, 2018. Picture taken on March 10, 2018. REUTERS/Stringer

Yet his room for manoeuvre will be limited as the Communist Party remains the driving political force and will be headed by Castro until 2021. At Castro’s side in the party leadership will be fellow old-guard revolutionary Jose Ramon Machado Ventura, 87.

Some members of Cuba’s small dissident community - who are viewed by the government as working for the United States to destabilise the government - have condemned Diaz-Canel’s presidency before it has even begun, saying it will simply be more of the same.

One opponent, Hildebrando Chaviano, dismissed him a “Mr Nobody” with no policies, adding Fidel Castro’s long years in power had spawned a generation of followers, not leaders. Fidel Castro formally handed over power to his brother in 2008 and died in 2016.

RAUL CASTRO’S MAN

While Diaz-Canel’s public persona has been reserved since he joined the national government nine years ago, residents in his home province of Villa Clara enthuse about him as a handsome, friendly “man of the people” who got things done.

He grew up in a modest one-storey house with a crumbling stucco facade in what locals say is one of the roughest neighbourhoods of the provincial capital, Santa Clara.

A bright pupil, according to a former teacher, he taught at university before his political career took off and he became party chief in Villa Clara during Cuba’s economic crisis of the 1990s following the collapse of its main ally, the Soviet Union.

Fuel was scarce so he cycled to work wearing shorts instead of commuting by Soviet-made Lada like other party leaders.

“His closeness to the citizens was his trademark,” said Ramon Silverio, 69, owner of Santa Clara’s El Mejunje (“the mixture”) cultural centre that holds lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) nights.

Slideshow (5 Images)

Silverio lauded Diaz-Canel for supporting El Mejunje at a time when homophobia was commonplace in the party.

A culture lover, Diaz-Canel would bring his two children from his first marriage to its youth events, dancing there himself in the evenings.

He worked long hours, carrying out surprise inspections of state companies to counter corruption, leading to a nickname, “Diaz y Noche,” a wordplay on his name and a television crime drama Day and Night.

In 2003, Diaz-Canel was moved to be party chief in Holguin province, a centre of Cuba’s burgeoning tourism industry and foreign investment. He was summoned to Havana in 2009 to be higher education minister and in 2013 Castro made him his right-hand man, praising him for his “solid ideological strength.”

“He is the man Raul has confided in and this gives him credit among the military and the old revolutionary guard,” said Carlos Alzugaray, a retired Cuban diplomat.

Diaz-Canel has stood in for Castro at major political events, received foreign dignitaries and traveled abroad on behalf of the government.

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A leaked video last year from a closed-door party meeting that showed Diaz-Canel espousing hardline views against independent media, dissidents and western embassies disappointed many Cubans, who hope he will be a reformist.

Yet some analysts say this was more proof more of Diaz-Canel’s political dexterity than of his policy views as he needed to reassure party hardliners spooked by Fidel Castro’s death and by Trump’s election. Trump has cast a cloud over the detente reached in 2014 between Raul Castro and former U.S. President Barack Obama.

That dexterity will be crucial if Diaz-Canel wants to push through changes along the sort of careful trajectory Castro has set - enough to make Cuban socialism sustainable but not so much they destroy the system.

Given Diaz-Canel lacks the clout of Fidel and Raul Castro as historic leaders of the revolution, his ability to command authority will depend on the economy improving, analysts say.

“The new president will have to create a new political consensus, he won’t inherit one,” said Rafael Hernandez, editor of the magazine Temas, which is affiliated to the Culture Ministry but takes a reformist stance.

“Within two or three months, people will be asking why their lives haven’t improved.”

Reporting by Sarah Marsh in Santa Clara and Nelson Acosta in Havana; Additional reporting by Marc Frank in Havana and Patricia Zengerle in Washington; Editing by Frances Kerry

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