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The Big News in Cuba

Author: Julia E. Sweig, Nelson and David Rockefeller Senior Fellow for Latin America Studies and Director for Latin America Studies
February 27, 2013
Folha de Sao Paulo


First published in Portuguese on Folha de Sao Paolo

Despite the Brazilian media's fixation, Yoani Sanchez is not the big news coming out of Cuba. No, the real story is that the succession in Havana now has a time frame, a name, and a face—faces, to be precise. "Not a test-tube politician," is the phrase a Cuban diplomat posted in Latin America used to describe Miguel Diaz-Canel, elected this week as Cuba's first vice president, and apparent successor to Raul Castro.

Last Sunday, the Cuban National Assembly ratified Raul Castro's second and final five-year term as president of the Republic and president of the Council of State. And it elected (and in some cases) re-elected five vice presidents. There is a lot of overlap between the Communist Party's politburo and the leadership of the thirty-one-member Council of State, which is also different from the Council of Ministers. Confusing as these structures can be, what Raul Castro made crystal clear in his thirty-five-minute inaugural address is that he steps down no later than February 2018. He will then be eighty-six years old.

There are still two other 'historicos' at the top in Cuba, but two women in their fifties now hold the position of vice president, and a sixty-eight-year-old man of African descent is now the new president of the National Assembly. And as I wrote here earlier this month, the gender, race, geographic, and yes, political diversity—the private sector now has a place at the table and so does the LGBT community—among the National Assembly's six hundred twelve members has never been more pronounced. A new law will shortly institute term limits of two five-year terms for senior officials—meaning the era of stasis and personalistic leadership in Cuba is over.

The post-Castro era now has a name and a face. Trained as an engineer, Diaz-Canel did not fight in the Sierra Maestra. Nor is he a party bureaucrat who grew up in some Havana office building. He is known as a doer who built his reputation by getting things accomplished on the ground. The secretary general of the party in each province is sort of like a governor. And in Villa Clara and Holguin, the two provinces of Central and Eastern Cuba where Diaz-Canel served in that position, he developed the reputation of a grassroots leader—hands-on—and able to successfully manage the then experimental budget decentralization models now going nationwide.

Ok, you ask—he might have been born after the 1959 revolution, but if he has the Castro's blessing, how much of a reform agent can he be? And after Raul steps down, does he have the political bona fides to weave a consensus from the often-conflicting political interests that economic opening will produce? My answers: 1) he seems to embody the continuity-change spectrum that is consistent with Raul's management of a stable transformation; 2) Only time will tell. And Yoani? As her week in Brazil made clear, her political base is outside of Cuba.

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