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
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