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Who is Miguel Díaz-Canel, Cuba's new president and what to expect of him

posted onApril 19, 2018

Cuba is undergoing a historic shift on Thursday, having a new president for the first time in six decades whose last name is not Castro. Cuba’s National Assembly has elected Cuba’s First Vice President Miguel Mario Diaz-Canel Bermudez, 57 to replace 87-year-old Raul Castro, who took over as Cuba’s leader in 2006 after his brother Fidel Castro fell ill. Fidel Castro was president from 1976 until  2006, having previously led the country since the 1959 revolution as prime minister.  

Raul Castro, is expected to stay on until at least 2021 as the head of the Communist Party, designated by the constitution as "the superior guiding force of society and the state". It will be the first time since the creation of the positions that the head of the party is not also the president of the government in the island nation. 

"Comrade Díaz-Canel isn't upstart or an improvisation," Raul Castro said in a speech to the National Assembly, the government body that elects the president of Cuba “His trajectory has lasted nearly 30 years." 

Fidel and Raul Castro
Fidel Castro (L) and Raul Castro (R) Photo Credit: Getty Images/IP

Who will mark a new era in Cuba?

An electrical engineer by training, Díaz-Canel has a long history in Cuban politics. He was born in Placetas a year after Fidel Castro took power. He obtained an electrical engineering degree in 1982, fulfilled his military service and served on a mission to Nicaragua. Diaz-Canel's political career began in his early 20s when he was a member of the Young Communist League in Santa Clara.

He made a name for himself as an efficient administrator while serving as the top Communist Party official for the province of Villa Clara, a post equivalent to governor. There, people described him as a hard-working, modest-living technocrat dedicated to improving public services. Díaz-Canel also earned a nickname "Día y Noche," or Day and Night for showing up unannounced to inspect whether workers were actually on the job. Before his current role, he was the minister of higher education in 2009, where he dictated the guidelines to Cuban universities. 

Raul Castro and Diaz Canel
Raúl Castro (R)  and Miguel Díaz-Canel (L) Photo Credit: Getty Images/ IP

Challenges ahead

The situation that Diaz-Canel "will inherit" is not exactly the simplest. The biggest challenges, at least in the short term, are economic.Cuba’s economy is weak and he must  tackle a complex dual currency system Fidel Castro adopted in 1994 to attract cash remittances from Cuban expats. He also has to make sure inflation doesn't rise for ordinary Cubans whose average salary is around $30 a month. 

According to media reports, he has supported the changes implemented during the 12 years of Raúl Castro's rule, such as allowing Cubans to buy and sell property for the first time, work privately outside of the state-run economy and get slightly expanded access to computers, cellphones and the Internet. But still many are watching to see if he reverses the freeze on new private business licences to signal some support for the concept of private enterprise on the island. 

Will the new president bring real change?

"Right now, we don't know what the future holds," Adriana Valdivia, 45, a teacher in Havana, told Reuters. "Politics is not my strong point," said Diadenis Sanabria, 34, who works in a state-owned restaurant in the Cuban capital. "But I don't think a change of chief is going to change my life" she told the news agency.

"I think there is no-one better than him to represent us, to be our leader, our president. He comes from a small town, humble, a person who has grown from small beginnings” Carmen Yulia Cepeda Hernández, 41, born in Placetas with a degree in Education told El Nuevo Día.

"Today, we feel great joy every time we see Díaz Canel, because we know that, maybe, he is the best one to lead us now,"  Luis Vega Cuellar, a 72-year-old retiree and resident of Placetas told the newspaper.

Cuba at a glance
Population: 11,239,224 (2016 census) Total Area: 109,884 km2 GDP (nominal): US$ 89.689 billion (2016 estimate)Per capita: US$ 7,815