Miguel Díaz-Canel is named Cuba’s next Communist Party chief, replacing Raúl Castro

David Ovalle, Mario Pentón
·6 min read

Miguel Díaz-Canel, the loyalist groomed to succeed Raúl Castro, on Monday was formally named chief of Cuba’s Communist Party, giving him consolidated control of a nation grappling with a shattered economy, food shortages and a citizenry increasingly emboldened to criticize the government.

The long-expected promotion came after Castro, the former president and revolutionary figure who helped his brother cement a communist regime in Cuba, officially announced his retirement at age 89.

Castro himself made the announcement on the last day of the Communist Party’s congress, a carefully scripted event in Havana meant to herald the arrival of a new generation of leaders as the last of the old guard rebels depart amid the island’s worst economic crisis in decades.

Delegates rose from their seats and applauded as Díaz-Canel approached the stage, embraced Castro and launched into a speech in which he said the Cuban revolution “is alive and well in the midst of the gale that is shaking the world.” Díaz-Canel wore a black suit, while Raúl Castro donned his usual olive-green military uniform. The new party chief vowed to consult his predecessor on “strategic decisions for the future of the nation.”

“The army general will always be present because he is a reference for any Cuban communist,” Díaz-Canel said in an excerpt of the speech broadcast on Cuban state television.

Throughout the congress, the 60-year-old Díaz-Canel — who was born after the revolution that ushered Fidel Castro into power — has pushed a theme of “continuity.” While Cuba is in urgent need of an economic jump start, few anticipate that his leadership will mark a significant departure from how the government operates, especially as he looks to consolidate the support of party loyalists.

“It’s been embedded in Cuba’s DNA — all the habits, the totalitarian populism, the allergy to criticism, the repression of independent thought,” said Ted Henken, a Cuban expert at Baruch College in New York. “These habits will die very hard, whether it’s Díaz-Canel or somebody else.”

In his departing remarks, Raúl Castro also announced the new leaders of the Politburo, the powerful group of senior leaders in the Communist Party, whose ranks will now include just one of the “historic generation” — Álvaro López, 77, who fought alongside Fidel Castro’s rebels and was recently named head of the armed forces. Also in the Politburo is Cuban General Luis Alberto Rodriguez López-Calleja, who manages a military conglomerate of the island’s state-owned businesses.

López-Calleja is Castro’s former son-in-law, and the two are believed to remain close. The military and its entrepreneurial offshoot, known by its Spanish-language acronym of GAESA, control as much as 80% of the Cuban economy, including vital sectors such as hotels and tourism, mining and state stores.

Cuba’s leaders are under increasing pressure to improve the lives of the island’s 11 million citizens. The nation’s economy contracted 11% in 2020, according to government figures, as the pandemic halted tourism and then-President Donald Trump instituted a series of punishing economic sanctions designed to squeeze the Cuban government. Cuban citizens, as they have during previous hard times, are again forced to wait in long lines for goods. Remittances from the United States have dwindled under Trump sanctions, and U.S. President Joe Biden has yet to undo any of the restrictions.

This year, Cuba unified its dual currency system, a measure meant to make the economy easier to navigate for much-needed foreign investors. While some state salaries were increased, the prices of goods have nevertheless skyrocketed. The government also announced an expansion of some small private businesses, a list that includes software programming, small-scale veterinarians and music teachers — but doesn’t allow journalists, healthcare practitioners or architects.

Shortly before the congress, Cuba announced it was loosening long-standing restrictions on the sale of beef and dairy, and the slaughter of cows, allowing farmers to “do as they wish” with livestock as long as state quotas are met. The announcement was made as the island is dealing with acute food shortages.

Díaz-Canel’s rise through the communist ranks has been years in the making. Widely considered a loyal bureaucrat, Díaz-Canel made his name as the party chief in two provinces before he was named vice president of the country in 2013. That’s when Raúl Castro announced that he would vacate the presidency in 2018, handing over the presidency to Díaz-Canel, while retaining the more powerful role of party first secretary.

Though Díaz-Canel promised throughout the congress to uphold the core tenets of Cuba’s state-run, Soviet-style system, analysts say the island’s dismal economy will force him to make difficult decisions to enhance production, investment and efficiency.

He is by necessity going to be focusing on what is unpleasant,” John Kavulich, the president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, said of Díaz-Canel. “I believe he very well may be a one-term president, not because he’s forced out, but because he will have completed those transition tasks.”

The new party leader also faces simmering social tension, as a nascent civil society demands greater freedoms and ordinary Cubans begin to express their frustration online. Social media emerged as a recurring theme at the congress, with Díaz-Canel saying negative messages on the internet are part of an “extreme right” campaign to destroy the revolution. He likened communist enemies to “mercenary lumpen” — parroting a phrase often used by Fidel Castro to describe Cubans who left the island in opposition.

Miami economist Emilio Morales pointed out that the appointment last week of López, the new leader of the nation’s armed forces, is a sign that old-guard party leadership will still have at least some role. He replaced Leopoldo Cintra, 79, another rebel who rose through the ranks of the military.

Though there is no longer a Castro in charge, there are also still other family members in influential positions.

“The real power is not Díaz-Canel. The real power is Raul’s family and Lopez-Calleja,” said Morales, president of the Havana Consulting Group, a Miami-based firm that analyzes the Cuban economy.

Christopher Sabatini, an expert in Latin American affairs and senior fellow at the Chatham House think tank, noted that the transition comes at a crucial time, when critical voices such as artists belonging to an activist collective known as the San Isidro movement find a wider platform. But he doesn’t expect much from the decidedly uncharismatic Díaz-Canel.

“He’s a classic company man,” Sabatini said. “I don’t think he has the ideas and the political capital to implement anything dramatic.”

Many Cubans on the island are equally skeptical.

Manuel Almaguer, a 34-year-old who raises livestock in the eastern Cuban province of Holguín, said he was wistful that Raúl Castro left behind a country “resentful, impoverished, and totally dependent on the state.” He believes key generals will have to leave for Díaz-Canel to have any sway.

“Díaz-Canel will continue to be a puppet of the centennial generation,” Almaguer said. “For Díaz-Canel to be seen, it will take at least five years. Time and natural law will take enemies out of the way.”