Younger party of­fi­cial faces test as Cuba's next pres­i­dent

South Florida Times - - HEALTH/CARIBBEAN - Cuba's Raul Cas­tro AN­DREA RO­DRIGUEZ and MICHAEL WEIS­SENSTEIN As­so­ci­ated Press

By

SANTA CLARA, Cuba - Raul Cas­tro trav­els in mo­tor­cades of gleam­ing im­ported sedans. Rings of grim-faced body­guards pro­tect him, pis­tols un­der crisp guayabera shirts. The 86year-old pres­i­dent of Cuba ar­rives at of­fi­cial events mo­ments be­fore they be­gin, and the au­di­ence rises to ap­plaud.

A dif­fer­ent style was on dis­play March 11 as a crowd of re­porters, vot­ers and ner­vous pro­vin­cial ap­pa­ratchiks waited out­side a vot­ing sta­tion in the cen­tral city of Santa Clara for Miguel Mario Diaz-Canel Ber­mudez, the Com­mu­nist Party of­fi­cial widely ex­pected to take Cas­tro's place as Cuba's next pres­i­dent this week.

Cas­tro has pledged to step down Thurs­day and hand the pres­i­dency to a suc­ces­sor most Cubans be­lieve will be the man Cas­tro named in 2013 as his first vice pres­i­dent.

Diaz-Canel, who turns 58 on Fri­day, would be the first non-Cas­tro to hold Cuba's top govern­ment of­fice since the 1959 rev­o­lu­tion led by Fidel Cas­tro and his younger brother Raul. The new pres­i­dent will con­front a stag­nant econ­omy, de­cay­ing in­fra­struc­ture, a hos­tile U.S. ad­min­is­tra­tion and wide­spread dis­en­chant­ment with a cen­trally planned sys­tem that can't pro­vide state em­ploy­ees with a liv­ing wage, but for­bids most forms of pri­vate en­ter­prise.

Raul Cas­tro will re­main first sec­re­tary of the Com­mu­nist Party, a po­ten­tially more pow­er­ful po­si­tion. And since power in Com­mu­nist Cuba has long flowed from per­son­al­i­ties more than in­sti­tu­tions, how much in­flu­ence Diaz-Canel will ac­tu­ally wield is an open ques­tion that has many ob­servers look­ing at his past for clues. Most Cubans know their first vice pres­i­dent as an un­re­mark­able speaker who ini­tially as­sumed a pub­lic pro­file so low it was vir­tu­ally nonex­is­tent. Un­til March, Diaz-Canel had said noth­ing to the Cuban peo­ple about the type of pres­i­dent he would be. The white-haired, un­smil­ing Diaz-Canel had been seen at great­est length in a leaked video of a Com­mu­nist Party meet­ing where he somberly pledged to shut­ter some in­de­pen­dent me­dia and la­beled some Euro­pean em­bassies as out­posts of for­eign sub­ver­sion.

That im­age has be­gun to change slightly this year as Diaz-Canel stepped into the mod­er­ate lime­light of­fered by Cuba's Soviet-style state me­dia.With his pub­lic com­ments in March, many Cubans got a glimpse of him as a flesh-press­ing lo­cal politi­cian, an im­age fa­mil­iar to res­i­dents of the cen­tral province where he was born and spent nine years in a role akin to a gov­er­nor.

Raised and ed­u­cated in the city of Santa Clara, Di­az­Canel grad­u­ated from the lo­cal univer­sity in 1982 and per­formed three years of oblig­a­tory mil­i­tary ser­vice. In 1987 he joined the Young Com­mu­nists' Union. He also went on to work as a pro­fes­sor of en­gi­neer­ing at the Univer­sity of Santa Clara and trav­eled to Nicaragua as part of a govern­ment-run mis­sion to sup­port that coun­try's so­cial­ist rev­o­lu­tion.

Santa Clara res­i­dents re­mem­ber him wear­ing his hair long and openly ad­mir­ing the Bea­tles, who were frowned on by ar­dent com­mu­nists who con­sid­ered the group as rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the deca­dent cul­ture of Cuba's cap­i­tal­ist en­e­mies.

Nonethe­less, the young pro­fes­sor was named first party sec­re­tary in Villa Clara province in 1994 and gained a rep­u­ta­tion as a hard-work­ing pub­lic ser­vant with a con­spic­u­ously mod­est life­style. Res­i­dents told The As­so­ci­ated Press this month that Diaz-Canel was the first of­fi­cial they re­mem­bered who didn't move to a new gove r n m e n t - p rov i d e d home af­ter ac­cept­ing the po­si­tion of first sec­re­tary.

“He didn't even fix up his house to live more com­fort­ably,'' said neigh­bor Roberto Suarez Ta­gle, 78. “He al­ways found out about the real prob­lems that peo­ple had.''

Diaz-Canel trav­eled the city on a bi­cy­cle dur­ing the eco­nomic cri­sis spawned when the fall of the Soviet Union cut off sub­si­dies for Cuba, and he ac­cepted vis­its at all hours at his home and of­fice from res­i­dents with com­plaints or sug­ges­tions. When he fin­ished work, res­i­dents said, he would start his shifts with the lo­cal Com­mit­tee for the De­fense of the Rev­o­lu­tion, a mix of a neigh­bor­hood watch com­mit­tee and lo­cal mili­tia.

“Some com­rades didn't want to put him on watch be­cause he would be over­whelmed with work, but he would say, `I'm a cit­i­zen of this coun­try and I'll stand watch like any­one else,''' said Lil­iana Perez, whose house faces the red-and-yel­low-painted home where Diaz-Canel lived with his wife and two chil­dren.

In 1996, he be­gan ap­pear­ing on a lo­cal ra­dio pro­gram dur­ing which he would take two hours of live phone calls from peo­ple com­plain­ing about prob­lems rang­ing from bad state res­tau­rants to pot­hole-rut­ted side streets, ra­dio jour­nal­ist Xiomara Ro­driguez said.

Diaz-Canel also be­came known for push­ing back against the in­tol­er­ant ten­den­cies of the Com­mu­nist Party, an or­ga­ni­za­tion with strains of deep so­cial con­ser­vatism and con­form­ity. As first sec­re­tary of Villa Clara, he was an ac­tive sup­porter of El Men­junje, a cul­tural cen­ter that hosted rock `n' roll shows and be­came a fo­cus of ac­tiv­i­ties by les­bian, gay, bi­sex­ual and trans­gen­der Cubans, in­clud­ing some of the coun­try's first drag shows. Diaz-Canel was known for bring­ing his chil­dren to the club, an un­usual as­ser­tion of sup­port in a so­ci­ety with deeply rooted an­tipa­thy to­ward ho­mo­sex­u­als.

In 2003, Diaz-Canel was

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