Cuba’s Heir: Miguel Díaz-Canel


Next year will be a decisive one for Cuba. Raúl Castro plans to step down as leader of the communist island in 2018, at the end of his second-five term. Raúl, who was himself unanimously voted president in 2008, plans to continue the regime’s tradition of nondemocratic transfers of power by installing Cuba’s Vice-President, Miguel Díaz-Canel, as the island’s next maximum leader.

With less than a year left with Raúl in power, it is time to take a closer look at the heir to the Castro brothers’ dictatorship. At 56 years old, Díaz-Canel is considered a member of a new generation—he was born after the Revolution that brought Fidel to power. For over 30 years, Díaz-Canel has worked his way up through the Party. After studying electrical engineering and working as a radio specialist in the Revolutionary Armed Forces, he began teaching at Villa Clara University in 1985. Over the next decade, he rose from provincial head of the Union of Young Communists to be the First Secretary, or head, of the Party in Villa Clara Province, and a member of the Communist Party’s Central Committee, in 1994. In 2003 he was made Party head in Holguín province, and was also given a seat on the Politburo, the apex of Communist Party power, making him the body’s youngest member at 43. He was Minister of Higher Education from 2009 to 2012, and in 2013, Raúl Castro named him Vice President of the Council of State of Cuba, establishing him as next in line for the country’s leadership.

Throughout his rise, Díaz-Canel has maintained a low profile and avoided taking stances on key issues, making it unclear what policy changes he would enact if he became President. Díaz-Canel’s succession is not entirely confirmed, and many believe that by keeping his head down he is trying to avoid the fate of previous successors who fell from grace after becoming too prominent. Among them are Carlos Lage Dávila, a former Vice-President of the Council of State, and Felipe Pérez Roque, a former foreign minister. While observers saw them as clear heirs to the regime, both were purged by Raúl for being too ambitious and maligning other party members. Díaz-Canel appears to have learned to be careful not to be overly bold or to eclipse Raúl Castro. The only issue for which he has publicly advocated is increased internet access for the island and the modernization of the state-run media.

Díaz-Canel’s claim to the succession will also depend on the good will of Cuba’s military, an immensely powerful institution within the country.  A leading force since Fidel Castro’s revolution by arms in 1959, by the late 1980s the military also exercised informal control over the Ministry of the Interior. Under the direction of Raúl Castro, it also set up commercial enterprises and holding companies using capitalist techniques. The relative stability of these corporations during the disastrous post-Soviet “Special Period” of the 1990s strengthened the military’s clout, and when Raúl came to power, he elevated many of the military’s economic administrators to the top ranks of state power. Díaz-Canel’s Politburo colleagues include generals like Leopoldo Cintras Frías, Ramón Espinosa Martín, and Álvaro López Miera, as well as military technocrats like Marino Murillo Jorge, and civilians with military backgrounds and family connections. Díaz-Canel himself worked in the armed forces in the 1980s.

The Castro family also has deep connections to the military. Raúl’s five decades as Minister of the Armed Forces drew on his days as a rebel in the Sierra Madre with his brother Fidel. Today, Raúl’s son-in-law, General Luis Alberto Rodríguez López-Callejas, runs GAESA, the huge military holding company that controls the vast majority of tourism and foreign investment inside of Cuba. Rodríguez’s son is his grandfather Raúl’s bodyguard. Raúl’s son Alejandro Castro Espín is a colonel and the head of the Commission of Defense and National Security.

It is curious that communism, a system that promises rationality, organization, prosperity, and an eventual withering away of the state, so frequently produces military dictatorship and family dynasties. The explanation is arguably that when all the normal connections of civil society, commercial exchange, and public intellectual life are deliberately smashed, only strictly regimented and fiercely united groups like the military and the family clan can successful command the authority and loyalty to run a state. In Cuba, those groups are the military, the Party, and the Castro family.

The advancing age of Raúl Castro and his comrades means that Cuba will see leadership change sooner or later. But unless Cuba’s system of government changes, Miguel Díaz-Canel’s rise to the top will mean little. Power will still rest with the military, the Party, and the Castro clan. Only the embrace of human rights and democracy will mark a real transition in Cuba.