The international community was mildly startled by the announcement of a change in the Communist government of Cuba last month when Miguel Diaz-Canel was named to succeed President Raul Castro. Communist governments are traditionally not strict about term limits. The Cuban National Assembly took a vote on April 19, and Diaz-Canel emerged as the first leader to preside over Cuba in 59 years outside the Castro family. Raul Castro has stepped down after two five-year terms, having succeeded his late brother Fidel, the leader of the 1959 Cuban Revolution which overthrew the dictator, Fulgencio Batista. Fidel Castro had presided over Cuba for decades.
The accession of Diaz-Canel marks the end of an era in Cuban history. It denotes a definite point at which revolutionary rhetoric seems to have given way to ‘realpolitik’ and the struggle against imperialism replaced by the daily economic struggles of ordinary Cubans in a world that has changed so much from pre-revolutionary Cuba.
From his antecedent, it is clear Diaz-Canel was chosen more for his competence than for his revolutionary zealotry. He was born after the revolution, and his rise in the party echelon seems dictated by his education and experience.
After graduation in electronic engineering in 1982, he also served in the Revolutionary Armed Forces and in 1987, he was chosen for an international mission in Nicaragua as First Secretary of the Young Communist League. In 1994, he was elevated to head the Provincial Committee of Villa Clara, the equivalent of a provincial governor, where he made his mark for competence. He became a member of the Politburo in 2003, minister of higher education 2009-12; and First Vice-President in 2013.
Raul Castro retains the position of the Secretary of the Central Committee, which means that ideologically, the country would stay the course. But as has been apparent in the last decade the constant ideological war of attrition with the United States which began to thaw during the presidency of Barack Obama would continue, perhaps, at a slower pace, given American Republicans’ rejectionist attitude to all the fence-mending and confidence-building executed by President Obama.
President Diaz-Canel may not forget the many battles waged by the United States, including the Bay of Pigs Invasion of April 1961, against his country, and Cuba’s stubborn, almost, heroic resistance. But the world has changed. He should continue to emphasise those areas in which Cuba has been so successful as in healthcare, where Cuba is easily considered the best and the most developed in the world. Cuba exports more medical doctors than any other country and during the Ebola crisis, its contribution was considered decisive in the containment of the epidemic.
In education, it has no equal, with 99.5 per cent literacy. The world would expect the new president to continue where Raul stopped and, maybe, cease being a slave to orthodoxy, and learn from China, which has proved that communism and the profit motive are not mutually exclusive.
The Cuban populace cannot but expect change. The people should not be denied that change. Economic policies that emphasize “ease of doing business” should be pursued. Cuba has proved that money is not everything, but many observers lament that given its competence in many areas, Cuba as a country ought to be much more affluent than it is now if the communist regime had relented in ideological dogmatism.
Diaz-Canel should take a second look at human rights practices, and use the opportunity of his accession to ease fundamental freedoms and liberties, free expression, and where possible, encourage freedom of religion, freedom of association and generally end dictatorial tendencies.
Millions of Cubans abroad may have held grudges against the communist regime, but most of them are patriotic Cubans who wish to come home and help rebuild and prosper their homeland. Let the new president be like a new sunshine into Cuba, a new vista of hope for a new Cuba. He should feel the pulse of the Cuban people and review the political culture and widen the scope of individual freedoms.