Cuba pre­pares for new era with­out a Cas­tro in charge of the coun­try

As Raul Cas­tro steps down, his suc­ces­sor ap­pears to be a Bea­tles fan not even born when the revo­lu­tion be­gan

The Sunday Telegraph - - World news - By Har­riet Alexan­der

in New York CUBA will cease to be ruled by a Cas­tro this week for the first time in al­most half a cen­tury, as the Caribbean is­land be­gins a new chap­ter in its tur­bu­lent history.

Pres­i­dent Raul Cas­tro, 86, will step down on Thurs­day af­ter a decade in power, in a de­ci­sion he an­nounced in 2013. In a sig­nif­i­cant gen­er­a­tional shift, he is ex­pected to hand over to Miguel Diaz-Canel – who was not even born when the coun­try’s revo­lu­tion be­gan.

A jeans-wear­ing for­mer elec­tri­cal en­gi­neer who bears a pass­ing re­sem­blance to Richard Gere, Mr Diaz-Canel, 57, is dis­tin­guished from many of the se­nior Com­mu­nist Party of­fi­cials by his youth and vigour.

A self-pro­fessed Bea­tles fan, he was wide-eyed with ex­cite­ment to see the prepa­ra­tions for Cuba’s first ever ma­jor rock gig when The Rolling Stones per­formed in March 2016.

He will not, strictly speak­ing, be the first non-Cas­tro to rule Cuba since the Revo­lu­tion – Manuel Ur­ru­tia was pres­i­dent for the first six months of the revo­lu­tion, and Os­valdo Dor­ti­cos then ruled for 17 years, un­til 1976.

But even when some­one else was nom­i­nally rul­ing, a Cas­tro was al­ways known to be ef­fec­tively in charge.

“This is im­por­tant sym­bol­i­cally be- cause it’s the pass­ing of the ba­ton from the his­toric fig­ures led by the Cas­tros to the next gen­er­a­tion,” said Ted Pic­cone, se­nior fel­low at the Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion in Washington.

“The big caveat is that it will be grad­ual change, be­cause Raul will still be sec­re­tary of the Com­mu­nist party.”

Mr Cas­tro hands over a coun­try sig­nif­i­cantly more open than it was when he took over. In 2008 he scrapped a pol­icy which banned lo­cal Cubans from en­ter­ing tourist ho­tels or in­ter­act­ing with for­eign vis­i­tors, and the num­ber of tourists ar­riv­ing each year has jumped from 2.3 mil­lion in 2008 to al­most four mil­lion in 2016.

The in­ter­net was all but im­pos­si­ble for or­di­nary Cubans to ac­cess when Mr Cas­tro came to power; now, thanks largely to his agree­ment with Barack Obama to re­store diplo­matic relations, com­mu­ni­ca­tions com­pa­nies are work­ing to con­nect one of the most her­met­i­cally-sealed coun­tries in the world.

Fur­ther­more, Mr Cas­tro be­gan a slow se­ries of re­forms to lib­er­alise parts of the econ­omy and re­lax state con­trol, stat­ing in 2010: “Ei­ther we change course or we sink.”

These new re­forms in­cluded more sup­port for self-em­ployed work­ers and pri­vate en­ter­prises, al­low­ing cit­i­zens to buy and sell hous­ing, le­gal­is­ing own­er­ship of mo­bile phones, and cre­at­ing a spe­cial eco­nomic zone in the port city of Mariel. Cuba’s GDP jumped from $42.6bil­lion in 2005 to $87bil­lion in 2015, and GDP per capita dou­bled from $3,779 (£2,653) to $7,602.

Yet Mr Diaz-Canel will also in­herit some sig­nif­i­cant chal­lenges – not least a deeply hos­tile gov­ern­ment 90 miles away, in the United States.

Alana Tum­mino, head of the Amer­i­cas So­ci­ety/Coun­cil of the Amer­i­cas’ Cuba Work­ing Group, said he was also ham­pered by not hav­ing the “street cred” of be­ing a Cas­tro. “He’ll need to work to build his le­git­i­macy,” she said. “But this will not be a leader com­ing in to en­act a new agenda. There’s no sea change ex­pected.”

Manuel Bar­cia Paz, a Cuban aca­demic at the Univer­sity of Leeds, said: “Some of his ideas are def­i­nitely very pos­i­tive, for ex­am­ple ex­pand­ing the pro­vi­sion of English lan­guage and fo­cus­ing on im­prov­ing pub­lic health. But I am not sure to what ex­tent he will be able to im­ple­ment his own ideas.”

Mr Diaz-Canel’s own views are lit­tle known, but he is an out­spo­ken sup­porter of wider in­ter­net ac­cess and a more vi­brant me­dia.

Only around five per cent of Cuban homes have ac­cess to the in­ter­net, and Mr Diaz-Canel says that try­ing to stop the in­ter­net’s spread is fu­tile.

“Pro­hibit­ing it would be an al­most im­pos­si­ble delu­sion that doesn’t make sense,” he told re­porters shortly af­ter be­com­ing first vice-pres­i­dent in Fe­bru­ary 2013.

Miguel Diaz-Canel, 57, has been first vice-pres­i­dent of Cuba since 2013

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