Miguel Diaz-Canel: Cuba’s post-Castro president

Little known about 57-year-old’s plans to tackle challenges facing Communist country, including its struggling economy.

Miguel Diaz-Canel
Diaz-Canel's political career began during the economic downturn [Alexandre Meneghini/Reuters]

Cuba has formally announced Miguel Diaz-Canel as the country’s new president.

The 57-year-old father of two was elected president of Cuba on April 19 after Raul Castro, who led the country for 10 years, stepped down.

Political campaigning is outlawed in Cuba, so little is known about Diaz-Canel’s plans to navigate the challenges facing the island nation, including its struggling economy.

However, Diaz-Canel is expected to continue in the same vein as his predecessor, but would be “part of the process of change that has been happening in Cuba since 2011”, former Cuban diplomat Carlos Alzugaray told Al Jazeera, adding that the change in power continues the “transition in progress to a new social-economic model”.

Little is known about Diaz-Canel’s personal life, which is common of political leaders in Cuba.

He is a native of Santa Clara, a city in central Cuba known for the 1958 Battle of Santa Clara, in which forces led by revolutionary icon Che Guevara routed troops loyal to then-dictator Fulgencio Batista.

People who know Diaz-Canel as a youth claim he maintained long hair and listened to rock music when he became the first party secretary of Villa Clara province, the capital of which is Santa Clara, giving him a seat on the powerful Central Committee of the Communist Party.

His mother was a teacher and his father an industrial engineer.

Diaz-Canel received his university degree in electronics engineering in 1982 from the Central University of Las Villas and returned there to teach it in 1985.

That same year, he joined the Cuban Revolutionary Air and Air Defence Force (DAAFAR).

Political Career

Diaz-Canel’s political career began during the economic downturn known as the “special period” from the late 1980s onwards, caused by the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of its support to Cuba.

From 1987 to 1989, he served as first secretary of the Union of Young Communists, working abroad in solidarity initiatives in Nicaragua.

In 1991, he was promoted to the Central Committee of the Communist party.

Two years later, Diaz-Canel joined the Young Communist League (UJC).

At the age of 33, he was appointed first secretary of the provincial committee for Villa Clara in 1994 – adopting a populist move when he rejected the material trappings of the government-issued car issued to most officials, preferring instead to ride his bicycle.

During his nine-year spell in charge of the province of Villa Clara, Diaz-Canel demonstrated a progressive stance on social issues, allowing Cuba’s first gay nightclub to remain open.

Since then, he has advocated pro-LGBT legislation and anti-discriminatory clauses in the new labour code.

Diaz-Canel has also spoken about expanding internet access in Cuba, an important issue for activists in the socialist nation.

In 2003, Diaz-Canel became the first secretary of the province of Holguin in southern Cuba and was welcomed into the highest leadership within Cuba.

In 2009, he became minister of higher education.

He became the first vice president in 2013.

Diaz-Canel “has been relatively quiet until recently so that the public hasn’t really heard much from him other than a few select speeches“, Marguerite Jimenez, director for Cuba the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), told Al Jazeera.

“It’s only more recently that he has become a more public figure.”

Cuba’s future

Though he has spoken about these liberalising measures, Diaz-Canel is not known to support changing Cuba’s government from the one-party system in place since the revolution, a demand from anti-Castro politicians in Washington, DC.

“Politically it’s going to be complicated,” said Alzugaray, adding “he has an advantage, he’s going to have Raul Castro around to support him, to continue to be his mentor.”

Castro will remain the head of the ruling Communist Party until 2021 and is expected to continue to play a big role in policy decisions.

Alzugaray said there would probably be “continuity” under Diaz-Canel and a “foreign policy which is searching for the diversification of Cuba’s economic partners … China, Russia, Canada, Venezuela, Brazil, South Africa, Iran and the Arab countries”.

According to Jimenez, “We’re also seeing the EU has taken a much more proactive engagement-oriented approach towards Cuba, by dropping sanctions and establishing renewable energies and agriculture, recognising even though Cuba and the EU may have disagreements – there’s absolutely still room for dialogue”.

“The United States should heed that kind of approach … even though there are disagreements on any number of issues, there’s still room for dialogue and cooperation on mutual interests,” said Jimenez.

On Cuban-American relations, Alzugaray said: “[Diaz-Canel] will continue the basic policy towards the United States which one can summarise as not accepting any pressure or any imposition or negotiating anything that relates to Cuban sovereignty. But at the same time to be ready to cooperate with the United States on those issues with common interest to both sides.”

According to Ted Piccone, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, the Trump administration will most likely “double down” on its “embrace of punitive regime change” in Cuba.

Two currencies

Diaz-Canel is expected to continue much in the same vein as his predecessor, although it has fallen to him to resolve the problem of Cuba’s two currencies, “this year, if not next year,” Alzugaray said.

According to Jimenez, “out of necessity [Diaz-Canel] will be really focused on the Cuban economy and making some reforms to both address some long-standing issues within the state sector and also seeking to expanding and institutionalising elements of the non-state sector to help the economy grow again”.

Two main areas of development are expected to be increasing internet access and modernising the media in Cuba.

Before 2015, the majority of internet access was found in state-run hotels or internet shops. An hour of internet access was $1.50, or roughly five percent of the average Cuban monthly salary of $30.

As of 2017, over 400 WiFi hotspots have opened in the country and are hugely popular.

In line with greater access to the internet and the information it contains, Diaz-Canel is reportedly a proponent of more critical media coverage of the Cuban government.

Though there are independent media outlets, they are heavily censored by the government in Cuba.

Still, Cubans have access to world news – including events in Cuba – through international outlets.

Many Cubans find ways of securing information, including through the “paquete”, a digital collection of outside news and entertainment media contained on USB drives that are widely distributed on the island by activists.

“Today, news from all sides – good or bad, manipulated and true – gets to people. They know [what’s going on],” Díaz-Canel was quoted as saying at a higher education conference, according to Americas Quarterly, a politics-focused publication. “And what is worse, then? Silence?”

According to Alzugaray, Diaz-Canel “has been very much involved in the process of informatisation of Cuban society”.

Alzugaray added that “he talks very openly about the necessity of expanding the use of new technologies”. 

Additional reporting by Bala Chambers

Source: Al Jazeera