Raul Castro’s so-called “favorite disciple” is leading Cuba at a critical moment
HAVANA TIMES – For some people, he is a reformist awaiting his opportunity to make the changes the Cuban Revolution needs. For others, he’s a gray bureaucrat handpicked to keep the island’s backward political system afloat.
Who is really Miguel Díaz-Canel Bermudez, Raul Castro´s sucessor as President of Cuba, and now also as the head of the Cuban Communist Party (PCC), writes Guillermo D. Olmo in BBC news.
“It is a great question whose answer only time will tell,” former Cuban ambassador Carlos Alzugaray responded in a conversation with BBC Mundo.
For the first time in six decades there isn’t a Castro in power. Cuba is facing an economic crisis only compared by specialists with the so-called “Special Period” of the 1990s. The collapse of the USSR left Castro’s Cuba without its great international support.
The covid-19 pandemic suspended the tourism the island depends on. The US sanctions, which President Joe Biden seems not in a hurry to lift, have also aggravated the situation.
Coinciding with the change in Cuba’s single Political Party leadership, the San Isidro Movement artists’ group has intensified its protest actions.
The change in the PCC leadership confirms that the generation who toppled Fulgencio Batista government in 1959 is stepping down. It´s handing over the post to a less aged generation of which Díaz-Canel is the leader.
The political and intellectual circles sympathizing with the government have a dilemma. They’re torn between those demanding more economic reforms and greater openness, and those defending the centralized economy model to ensure political stability.
So far, President Díaz-Canel hasn’t shown an inclination to detach from the guidelines set by Raul Castro. In his farewell speech to PCC delegates, Castro emphasized both: the need for reforms boosting the economy while avoiding “strategic errors and Socialism’s destruction.”
The glassy gaze and harsh voice Cubans get from Diaz-Canel through the official media, is one of the few certainty’s islanders get from him.
The youngest of the Castro brothers has exercised a leadership tutelage so far. This was clear in December 2020 when Diaz-Canel made his announcement on state TV of the suppression of one of Cuba’s two official currencies. He was flanked by a silent Raul Castro.
Now his definitive political emancipation seems to have arrived.
Roots in Villa Clara
A Descendant of Asturias, Spain immigrants, married for a second-time with a university professor, and father of two children from a previous marriage, Díaz-Canel is from Placetas, Villa Clara province.
In that central province he forged most of the political credit raising him to the top of an extensive state framework, traveled almost entirely since his youth.
After completing his studies at Las Villas University and compulsory military service, he joined the same University as a professor in 1985.
In 1987 he became a leader of the Young Communist League, the first step in his incipient political career.
It was then that the Department of Organization and Cadres (Leadership) of the Communist Party discovered this young man- a Beatles’ admirer, but firmly attached to the socialist cause.
Colleagues of those years remember the appreciation shown by his subordinates in the countryside walks, organized as part of the youth indoctrination work.
Díaz-Canel was a loyal follower of socialist orthodoxy. However, he did not show the authoritarian spirit they were used to.
He was later sent on an internationalist mission to Nicaragua. Cuban soldiers, doctors and other professionals were sent there by the government in support of the Sandinistas.
“There he organized young communist base committees [among the Cubans] and did political-ideological work to reinforce the coinciding positions of the Cuban government and Sandinista movement”, recalled by Arturo Lopez Levy, a political scientist at the University of Texas.
Back in Cuba, in 1993, he became Communist Party first secretary in his native province of Villa Clara.
He was the highest provincial official during the Special Period’s hard years when the Cuban economy collapsed. He earned a reputation as a committed manager and a more-than-usual tolerant leader.
Harold Cardenas, also from Villa Clara, is the author of the “socialist and revolutionary” blog La Joven Cuba. He recalls in conversation with BBC Mundo Diaz Canel’s “progressive social policies, very different from others´.”
Other locals remember his zeal in persecuting the illicit market where many in Cuba’s state centralized economy go to search for scarce products.
One of the milestones most mentioned by Alzugaray and those considering him a “modern” man, was his defense of Santa Clara’s El Mejunje club. It´s the LGTB community’s favorite place scandalizing the ruling party’s most intransigent sectors for the transsexuals shows and other activities organized there.
Its founder, the artist Ramon Silverio, remembers how Diaz-Canel used to take his two young children to the club’s children’s activities.
Lopez Levy met him when he was a Young Communists League ideological leader.
“He exercised a rather rare leadership in Santa Clara, by riding his bike in shorts through the streets,” he told BBC Mundo.
“In times of shortages, he built an image of modesty, of closeness to people. It was a highly intelligent political move.”
But, in addition to his informal manners, he was distinguished by his organizational capacity.
Rationalist and methodical, he gradually established himself as a kind of exemplary high official well regarded by his superiors.
Despite being qualified by some as different from the previous socialist leaders generation, Díaz-Canel describes the Old Havana based San Isidro Movement as a “farce”. He has accused them of being an initiative instigated by the United States.
Fidel Castro was impressed by him
According to Lopez Levy, Díaz-Canel “impressed Fidel Castro as he was able to organize a great mobilization in a few hours”. It was for one of Fidel’s visits to the province.
In 2003, when he was assigned to lead Holguin province, Raul Castro promoted his candidacy to the Communist Party Politburo.
According to Alzugaray, a relationship “of teacher and favorite disciple,” had been born between the two, and has been maintained ever since.
Díaz-Canel thus entered the hard core of Cuban state power and in 2009 he was appointed Higher Education Minister.
True to his meticulous behavior, shortly after taking that office he met with student leaders to learn about their situation.
Luis Carlos Battista was one of the fifteen youngsters having regular meetings with the new minister at Havana University.
“I remember a serious but not cold man, aware of what was happening in foreign universities,” he told BBC Mundo.
He showed special interest in “material conditions and political-ideological work.”
Harold Cárdenas also took part in those meetings and noticed something he thinks may be a problem.
“Diaz-Canel belongs to my parents’ generation, who grew up under the United States embargo and has a negative attitude towards that country.”
In 2013, after being appointed First Vice President of the Council of State, he became Raul Castro’s virtual successor.
Castro praised him for “not being an upstart” and for his “ideological firmness.”
“Moving away from Raul Castro would have put him at risk,” explains Lopez Levy. Since then he has avoided promoting his own agenda and has kept a low profile.
Diaz-Canel may have learned the lesson from Carlos Lage, Roberto Robaina or Felipe Pérez-Roque- other leaders unexpectedly ousted for taking initiatives seen by the Castros as disloyal.
The caution, almost shyness, characterizing him, according to those who have treated him may have helped him survive.
A veteran Cuban journalist not willing to reveal his name affirms: “the only thing he’s been able to do so far, as everyone else, is to obey.”
In doing so he has moved away from the open-minded profile drawn when he was a provincial leader. In his latest statements he has underlined total adherence to classic Cuban communism postulates and promised to continue the “victorious march of the Revolution.”
“In recent times, he has shown a somewhat worrying ideological hardness,” says Alzugaray.
Anti-Castro activist Antonio Rodiles sees Díaz-Canel as “a gray, dull person repeating like a robot the same last-60-year speech in Cuba.”
Rafael Rojas, Cuban historian and author at the Mexico City Center for Economic Research and Teaching, attributes it to the fact that, without being a Castro, “continuity is the guarantee of its legitimacy.”
This expert believes that at least during the first years, Díaz-Canel will stick to his “continuity” promise.
In a leaked video some months ago, Diaz Canel accused some independent Cuban media of practicing “proven cultural warfare stereotypes.” This discouraged those hoping he would be the ruler piloting the changes demanded by many in the country.
Some prefer to pay more attention to his gestures than his words.
Diaz-Canel usually goes to his meetings with a tablet and is seen in public with his wife. This is something unusual among the old Cuban leadership, reluctant to new technologies and private life public exposure.
Lopez Levy believes that in fact, he is in favor of “applying more hastily” the reforms already approved. Also, that “he is being underestimated by being presented as someone in the hands of the most conservative sector.”
For many in Cuba and among the large Cuban community abroad, these changes are not only necessary but insufficient.
Diaz-Canel will have to pilot the ship between contradictory pressures.
His ability to work in a team should be one of his resources to exploit.
Because, as Alzugaray says, “Fidel was forgiven everything; Raul, almost everything; but Diaz Canel won’t be forgiven so much.”