HAVANA TIMES — Miguel Diaz Canel, a 52-year-old politician, could become the next president of Cuba in five years, when the current president can no longer be re-elected because of a provision — one that he himself has advocated — that limits office to two of five-year terms.
Raul Castro himself today announced that parliament had elected Miguel Diaz-Canel as the first vice president of the State Council, the top body of the executive. He replaces Jose Ramon Machado Ventura, one of the historicos of the guerrilla struggle in the Sierra Maestra Mountains.
Alternately, Ricardo Alarcon was replaced as the president of the National Assembly. He had led parliament for two decades and was one of the seven leaders named by Fidel Castro as possible successors in office when he stepped down in 2006.
Alarcon was replaced by Esteban Lazo (to date the ideological secretary of the Communist Party), who many accuse of belonging to the PCC orthodoxy. From that position he controlled the press, the social sector that has shown the greatest immobility.
“This will be my last term in office”
Raul Castro made it clear that he would not be reelected for a third term — saying “regardless of the date the constitutional reform [specifying the term limits] is made, this will be my last term” — and he immediately announced the appointment of Miguel Diaz Canel as his first vice president.
The appointment is symptomatic because never has a leader who didn’t fight in the revolution reach the position of first vice president. In addition, he’s also a member of the politburo of the Communist Party (PCC), the most powerful body on the island.
Without a doubt, Miguel Diaz Canel is seen by the “historic generation” as the face of socialist continuity in Cuba, a transition that’s also unavoidable since almost all the fighters of the Sierra Maestra are in or near their 80s.
But his case isn’t an isolated event. The average age of the 31 new members of the executive body is 57, and one of its five vice presidents — Mercedes Lopez Acea, the secretary of the Party in Havana — is 49.
A leader on a bicycle
Diaz Canel was a university professor, a professional member of the Young Communist League, the first secretary of the Party in the provinces of Villa Clara and Holguin, appointed to the Central Committee in 1991, and promoted to the Party’s Political Bureau in 2003.
He belongs to a group of party leaders who directed provinces that, being far from the capital, were allowed considerable independence and maneuverability. Indeed, the personal characteristics of a provincial secretary mark the life of the region they govern.
In the case of Villa Clara, the presence of Diaz Canel at the head of the province allowed for a cultural life and tolerance that were rare in other parts of the island. National transvestite and tattoo festivals were held in his province, which also centered a very large rock movement.
However, unlike other provincial secretaries, for a long time Diaz Canel traveled by bicycle and wore shorts and t-shirts. Even in one of our BBC Mundo trips to Santa Clara, we found him there in line at a pizzeria.
No adios for Alarcon
The replacement of Ricardo Alarcon as the head of the parliament wasn’t surprising since Miguel Alvarez, his lieutenant, is now in jail. Informal versions say that he and his wife gave information to the US intelligence services.
What was really curious was that in President Raul Castro’s closing speech, he didn’t make the slightest reference to Alarcon – who led the parliament for 20 years, served as the country’s foreign minister and was the chief negotiator with the US on the immigration agreements.
Esteban Lazo’s appointment as chairman of the National Assembly could bring a more active and pragmatic leadership if what’s wanted is a parliament that — as Castro said — delves “into issues of greater complexity and depth.”
But Lazo could hardly play that role and simultaneously serve as the ideological secretary of the PCC. Therefore, changes are expected in that post, which has exercised full control over the Cuban press, immobilizing it, while the rest of the country was being transformed.
(*) An authorized translation by Havana Times (from the Spanish original) published by BBC Mundo.