For all the symbolism, Raul Castro’s handoff of the Cuban presidency this week amounts to less than meets the eye even if his handpicked successor, the Communist Party functionary Miguel Diaz-Canel Bermudez, is the first person not named Castro to lead the nation in decades. But his ascendancy marks a new era, and it calls out for the United States and Cuba to be more — not less — engaged.
Diaz-Canel was confirmed in a nearly unanimous vote by Cuba’s National Assembly to succeed Castro, Fidel’s younger brother, who at 86 stepped down after serving 12 years as president. As should be expected, it was a clean transfer of power in a one-party state. But it hardly amounts to a change in direction.
While he may be Cuba’s first postrevolutionary president, Diaz-Canel, 58, remains the product of the Communist system that defines Cuban life. He was a young Communist leader and later bodyguard to Raul Castro who worked his way up from provincial and regional party posts to first vice president in 2013. As might be expected of a younger and more media-savvy generation, Diaz-Canel carefully cultivated an everyman’s aura — mingling on the street, dressing casually and mixing with young people, artists and intellectuals.
Diaz-Canel said he would continue along the cautious path that Raul Castro pursued by opening Cuba’s economy to some degree of private enterprise. But that policy is being driven by practical necessity in a country lacking basic essentials. Though Diaz-Canel is largely an unknown in his country and abroad, he has steadfastly defended the Cuban government’s economic model and governing authority.
For the near term, Diaz-Canel is a transitional figure who is expected to keep the party in firm control. Castro said he expected Diaz-Canel to serve two terms as president, for a total of 10 years, and take over as party leader in 2021, when Castro is expected to retire from public life. Castro’s shadow will give Diaz-Canel the opportunity to consolidate his authority, but it also likely means that Cuba will not move toward democratic reform any time soon.
Still, Castro’s departure reinforces that a new era will come eventually. A government without the trappings of the Castro name will also be more exposed to the people’s clamor to deliver. Cuba’s stagnant economy and aging population pose serious risks to its ability to sustain society and to reclaim its influence across Latin America. Diaz-Canel must confront the expectations of a new generation that is healthier, better educated and ambitious to stake a place in the globalized economy.
The Trump administration has gone backward by putting a halt to the reset in relations with Cuba that former President Barack Obama rightly championed. The improved ties benefit America’s security interests, and expanded U.S. travel to Cuba, which has taken off from the Tampa Bay area, has helped reunite families and expose Cubans to the ideals of Western democracy. Trump and Congress should realize the benefits of this approach and capitalize on the opportunity to move Cuba’s new president further along the course that Castro embraced. It’s a good bet Diaz-Canel is in for the long haul. America should ensure this relationship keeps moving in the right direction.