By Risa Grais-Targow
Beginning what he says will be his final five-year term as Cuba's president, Raul Castro surprised Cuba observers this week by appointing Miguel Diaz-Canel as first vice-president. At 52, Diaz-Canel is a spring chicken compared to Jose Ramon Machado Ventura, his 82-year old predecessor, and it appears generational change within the leadership might finally be on the agenda. Though Raul Castro, 81, appears in good health, Diaz-Canel would automatically assume the presidency if Castro is forced to step aside before 2018.
What does all this mean for policy? In the near-term, probably not much. Under Raul's leadership, the government has embarked on an incremental path toward economic liberalization while keeping a tight lid on political reform, and that's unlikely to change anytime soon. Diaz-Canel seems to have been selected precisely because he is both a trusted Communist Party loyalist and a proven manager who can balance the delicate process of gradual economic opening with the need to work closely with the still-influential first generation of revolutionaries within Cuba's politburo. Diaz-Canel, a former education minister and an engineer by training, has slowly worked his way through the party ranks. He served two years in the military and reportedly maintains close relations with top brass. He is not particularly charismatic, but, then again, neither is the man he's now in line to replace, who assumed power after older brother Fidel relinquished the reins in 2006.
The appointment suggests the Castro regime knows it must finally address the issue of succession. Raul has repeatedly called for a "rejuvenation" of Cuba's Communist Party but seems to have struggled to find an appropriate mix of loyalty and reformist credentials, particularly within the generation born after the 1959 revolution.
Still, there is no guarantee that Diaz-Canel will be Cuba's next leader. Other would-be heirs -- most notably Carlos Lage and Felipe Perez Roque -- have been groomed for succession in the past only to fall from grace after demonstrating an excess of personal ambition or clashing with Raul and Fidel. Moreover, though Diaz-Canel has the legitimacy that comes with Raul's backing, his last name is not Castro, and any transition will likely be challenging, particularly given Cuba's deep economic troubles, tensions within the ruling party, and intense pressure from the international community to implement political reforms.
Still, promoting Diaz-Canel suggests that despite the Castro brothers' seeming immortality, the regime is truly committed to "updating the model" to ensure the system they built continues after Raul and 86-year old Fidel are gone. This also includes continuing economic reforms aimed at slowly and carefully expanding the size of the private sector and reducing state payrolls.
Whether these reforms can keep the regime in power beyond the Castros, however, remains to be seen.
Risa Grais-Targow is an analyst in Eurasia Group’s Latin America practice.
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