After six decades of Castro rule, Cubans greet end of era with a shrug

Augustin, The Guardian, 18 Apr 2018

view shift with indifference, not hope, as current vice-president Miguel
Díaz-Canel is expected to replace Raúl Castro
Raúl Castro of Cuba, left, and Vice-President Miguel Díaz-Canel in 2013.
Díaz-Canel is expected to take Castro’s place as Cuba’s next president this
week. Photograph: Ismael Francisco/AP


Cuba’s president stands down this week, it will mark the first time in nearly
six decades that the island will be led by somebody whose last name is not
Wednesday, the country’s national assembly selected the current vice-president,
Miguel Díaz-Canel, as the sole candidate to replace Raúl Castro, in a
nomination likely to be backed unanimously and officially announced on
handover will mark the end of an era: Cuba without the Castros
has been the holy grail for Florida-based Cuban exiles – and a policy
vigorously pursued by a dozen successive US presidents. But on the streets of
Havana, indifference – not hope – is in the air.
posters or billboards referring to the changeover are to be seen, the identity
of the new leader is hardly a topic of conversation, and nobody doubts that the
existing political system will remain intact. As the Cuban saying goes: nobody
can fix it, but nobody can knock it down.
“A new
president isn’t going to change anything so it’s not important for me,”
shrugged María Victoria Esteves, 27, on her way to buy bread. “I think
everything’s going to stay the same.”
Sintra, 30, a builder working in Cuba’s private sector, said he wasn’t even
aware the country was about to get a new president. “I’ve just found out
talking to you!” he said.
is widely expected to represent continuity, and few Cubans expect any dramatic
shift, said Rafael Hernández, a political analyst and member of the Communist
There are
no direct presidential elections in Cuba. When legislators for the National
Assembly were elected this March, 605 candidates stood unopposed. Every one was
“If a new
president were to represent a fundamental change in people’s lives, Cubans
would be very focused on this,” he said. “But the fact is they don’t see it
like this.”
relieved of the presidency, Castro, 86, will remain a political presence,
staying on as first secretary of the Communist party until 2021.
“The new
president will have more power in the day-to-day,” said Hal Klepak, author of a
biography of Raúl Castro.
“But whenever there are crises or major problems with the US, foreign policy,
or the economy, Raúl’s word will remain the last word.”
a cautious reformist hand-picked by Raúl Castro, will be expected to walk the
tightrope of implementing more market-oriented reforms without sacrificing
Cuba’s social policies.
and education remain free at the point of use in Cuba. The country has the most
doctors per capita of any country in the Americas, and life
expectancy is 79. And while Cubans on state salaries feel the pinch when buying
meat and vegetables, essential foodstuffs are guaranteed by the state.
rights groups say that the government continues to punish dissent and public
number of long-term political prisoners in Cuba dropped significantly under
Raúl Castro, as the government shifted from long-term incarceration to
short-term arrest and release, which typically lasts hours. But the Cuban
Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation say that last year more
than 5,000 people were arrested for political reasons.
he has been in government for over a decade, Díaz-Canel’s politics are unknown
to most Cubans. His relative obscurity reflects the top-down way public affairs
are practised on an island where there is only one legal political party, and
where political campaigning is prohibited by law.
A former
minister of higher education, Díaz-Canel has been criticised for coming across
as stiff in his occasional media appearances, but his image is radically
different from the late Fidel Castro
and his brother Raúl.
As the
first secretary of the provincial Communist party in Villa Clara province in
the 1990s he was known for his long hair, riding his bicycle and walking around
in Bermuda shorts. He was a strong advocate for LGBT rights at a time when
homosexuality was frowned upon in the province and by many in the party.
he was born after the Cuban revolution. If elected, Díaz-Canel will also be the
first non-soldier in charge of the nation since 1959.
that Cuba is a military dictatorship have cut deep,” said Klepak. “It’s useful
to have somebody who has come up through the system and didn’t arrive there
through the use of arms.