02/27/13 - Los Angeles Times (Los Angeles) - Cuba's apparent successor to Castro was carefully groomed
By Tracy Wilkinson, Los Angeles Times
February 26, 2013, 4:45 p.m.
MEXICO CITY - To most outsiders, Miguel Diaz-Canel was an unknown. But in
Cuba, the newly anointed possible heir to the Castro brothers was a
carefully groomed, hardworking and familiar figure.
Diaz-Canel emerged as the likely successor to lead a post-Castro government
over the weekend when he was named first vice president and President Raul
Castro announced that he would step down at the end of his just-ratified
It marks the first time an expiration date has been put on the Castro era,
during which the island was led first by Fidel and then by Raul after the
1959 revolution that ousted a dictatorial U.S.-backed regime.
Diaz-Canel, 52, is part of a new generation of Cuban political operatives.
Raul is 81 and Fidel, who formally stepped down in 2008, is 86.
The heir apparent worked his way up through the ranks of communist Cuba,
serving in the military and filling posts in the provinces. He won praise
from the leadership for fidelity and a roll-up-the-sleeves work ethic that
put him in the trenches alongside regular people.
"He is not a test-tube politician," said a Cuban official who spoke on
condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss political
matters. In other words, he was not a latecomer dilettante who felt
entitled by virtue of class or family. "He worked closely with the people
and gained lots of experience."
Essentially, he paid his dues, putting hard work ahead of the overt
ambition that has felled many an up-and-comer on the Cuban political
Tall, with thick silvery hair, Diaz-Canel is a striking if not particularly
charismatic figure. In nearly three decades of work on behalf of the state,
he earned a degree in engineering, taught at the university level, ran
local governments and dipped his toe into international tourism. He was
assigned management of what Cuban officials consider major areas of
accomplishment by the revolution: education, sports and biotechnology.
"His legitimacy comes from governing and doing," said Julia E. Sweig, an
expert on Cuba at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of the book
"Cuba: What Everyone Needs to Know." "He is a problem-solver and very
grass-roots. He comes from real on-the-ground actions."
More recently, as his profile rose and his appearances on Cuban television
increased, he filled in for Raul Castro at important events, including a
symbolic inauguration of the cancer-stricken President Hugo Chavez of
Venezuela, Cuba's most important ally. He also attended the swearing-in of
Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto at a time when Cuba is hoping to
restore its formerly close relationship with the country.
Raul Castro himself sang Diaz-Canel's praises Sunday after the appointment.
"He is not an out-of-nowhere [figure] nor an upstart," Castro said, and
went on to detail the younger man's 30-year career.
Castro said Diaz-Canel's appointment represented a historic point in a
Of course, this is Cuba and many things could yet derail the career of
Diaz-Canel. If he does succeed Castro, the task before him is enormous.
Castro has embarked on a slow but steady program of reform, loosening the
state's grip on the economy and opening travel for citizens - steps, he
says, that were necessary not to do away with the country's socialist model
but to modernize and improve it. Yet it is a painful and uncertain period
for a population mostly reared by a paternalistic state.
Castro apparently trusts Diaz-Canel as a figure of continuity. That may
reassure members of the government, but it riles the exile community that
is hoping for more definitive change.
"Shifting the deck chairs on the sinking Titanic won't produce positive
changes," Havana-born U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) said in a
It is probably Diaz-Canel's military experience, along with his years of
Communist Party duty, that make him most trustworthy to Castro. He served
in an antiaircraft rocket battery in his youth and is believed to maintain
good contacts with the armed forces.
"He clearly supports the economic opening and is trusted by the party and
the military, and these are the principal pillars of government at this
time," said Robert A. Pastor, director of the Center for North American
Studies at American University in Washington and a former Carter
administration official involved in Cuba.
"The naming of Diaz-Canel is a further sign that the transition - from
caudillo rule to cautious institutionalization of the revolution, from a
closed state-controlled economy to one that is opening gradually - is well
underway, and the Communist Party is firmly in control."
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