In 2006, Raúl Castro took over from his brother, Fidel, who had led the country since 1959. On 24 February 2013, Castro was elected to a second term as president. On the same day, Castro announced he would retire at the end of his second term as president.
Also on 24 February, Díaz-Canel was named First Vice President, a process which began his grooming for the presidency. Even before this, he had a distinguished political career in Cuba. It was when he was a college professor that he began building ties to the Communist Party. He became a liaison to Nicaragua in 1987 and later became party secretary in his local province back in Cuba.
In a country whose government has been inextricably linked to the Castro family for nearly 60 years, Díaz-Canel’s rise to the presidency marks a new day in Cuban politics. It is unlikely, however, that Díaz-Canel will lead Cuba on the road to major political or economic reforms.
While Castro is stepping down as president, he will remain head of the military and the Communist Party until 2021. The Council of State, which Díaz-Canel will lead, remains filled with party loyalists and will contain at least two members of Castro’s inner circle.
In discussing the handover, Cuban media has stressed words such as “continuity” and “unity.” State-run Twitter accounts are promoting the hashtag “Somos Continuidad” (“We are continuity”). Their message is clear: it is business as usual in Cuba.
In Florida, Sen. Marco Rubio stressed that, from an American perspective, the expectation is that Díaz-Canel will provide continuity and not reform: “The regime will remain an enemy of democracy, human rights and the impartial rule of law,” he said.
While Díaz-Canel may once have been seen as a potential reformer—he once resisted pressure from the party to shut down a gay and lesbian meeting place in his home province, for example—his political views seem now closer to Communist Party orthodoxy. He has recently echoed concerns about economic reforms moving too quickly, and in a leaked video of a closed meeting, he was seen threatening to block a website which he said acted “against the revolution.”
Castro himself has described Díaz-Canel as having “ideological firmness.” Cuban diplomat Carlos Alzugaray Treto summed up the relationship he expects to see between the two men: “You can look at Raúl Castro and Díaz-Canel as mentor and disciple.”
Díaz-Canel inherits a country with a stagnating economy and will lead a Communist Party unsure about how far it is willing to go with economic reforms. His first task will be to balance the growing frustrations of Cuban citizens with a Communist Party reluctant to increase the pace of reform.
Reactions among Cubans was mixed. 78-year-old Giraldo Baez expressed how difficult this moment was for him. “For me, not having a Fidel or Raúl, it’s almost impossible to conceive of. It’s almost out of my realm of understanding.”
Others are more cautiously optimistic. “For us, this is like trying to imagine a new color, one that you haven’t seen before,” said Charlie, a 22-year-old Cuban trying to describe the sorts of reforms Cubans want to see. “We don’t want capitalism—that won’t work for us—but what we want is something that we haven’t seen yet. … No one is expecting change overnight.”