Meet Cuban President Diaz-Canel: Know about Raul Castro's ally in 10 points

Cuba's Raul Castro and Miguel Diaz-Canel. Photo: Reuters
Cuba's Miguel Diaz-Canel, who formally replaced Raul Castro as president on Thursday, has the task of steering the communist island through a period of uncertainty as it turns the page on six decades of Castro rule. In his opening speech, the silver-haired 57-year-old vowed to "continue the Cuban revolution" as laid out by his predecessors, his maiden speech triggering a standing ovation in the chamber.

Formerly first vice president, Diaz-Canel, who succeeds Fidel and Raul Castro, has spent three decades climbing to the summit of the Communist Party. And now he will be tasked with pushing through with the economic reforms that were initiated by his 86-year-old mentor. He becomes the first Cuban leader born after the 1959 revolution -- and perhaps crucially for some of the generals that will be under his command, the first not to have fought in it.

"There is a tradition in Cuba of strong men at the head of the State... (but) the profile of Miguel Diaz-Canel seems weaker," said Cuban watcher Arturo Lopez-Levy of the University of Texas-Rio Grande. "He has no more power than what he has been given."

1. Diaz-Canel to continue Castro brothers' legacy: Cuba's new president, Miguel Diaz-Canel, began his term on Thursday with a promise to defend the socialist revolution led by the Castro brothers since 1959, giving a strident speech that also emphasized the need to modernize the island's economy.

2. Cuba's new period to be characterised by 'modernization of the economic and social model': Diaz-Canel, who has risen the ranks of the Communist Party over three decades, said the new period would also be characterized by "modernization of the economic and social model." He said there would be no compromise in Cuba's foreign policy, which is marked by volatile relations with the United States. In a repetition of a long-held stance by Havana, he said he would hold dialogue with anybody who treated Cuba as an equal.

3. Diaz-Canel a fan of The Beatles: In Havana's corridors of power, the jeans-wearing Diaz-Canel stands out, a self-declared fan of The Beatles with a passing resemblance to the actor Richard Gere. He has advocated greater openness to the internet and a less restricted press. He likes rock-and-roll tunes, carries a tablet computer and has a Facebook account, though posts appear to be managed through official channels.

4. Is Diaz a man of quiet disposition? His supporters say he knows how to listen and is a man of simple tastes. Though he was often portrayed as a moderate with a quiet disposition, a video of a private meeting with Communist Party members released last year showed another side -- a ruthless man with hardline views lashing out at Cuban dissidents and the US. He has avoided interviews and controversy in general, and speaks only at public meetings.

5. Diaz-Canel's former life: A father of two children from his first marriage, Diaz-Canel remarried to Liz Cuesta, an academic specialising in Cuban culture. After studying electrical engineering in the central province of Villa Clara, he became a university professor before going to work for Cuba's all-powerful Communist Party. 

6. Canel's political journey: In 1994, he was appointed the party's provincial secretary in Villa Clara, where locals were impressed to see him riding his bicycle, portraying a simplicity uncommon among the regime's leaders. In 2003, while serving in the eastern province of Holguin, he joined the select 15-member Political Bureau, an essential step for any aspirant to power. In 2009, Raul Castro -- who had inherited power from his ailing brother Fidel three years earlier -- tapped him to be higher education minister. In March 2012 he acceded to one of the eight vice-presidency positions in the Council of Ministers. And in 2013, he was appointed to the powerful Council of State. As president, he also becomes head of the Armed Forces and will have to deal with the guard generals who have been part of the military apparatus since the Revolution. Many of them occupy high office in the Communist Party and the government. It will be an arduous task for a man whose only military experience is a three-year stint in an anti-aircraft missile unit between 1982 and 1985 as part of his military service.

7. Díaz-Canel, an electrical engineer by training and a career bureaucrat, has been careful to avoid those snares. He forged strong bonds with the Castros during a youthful stint in military service that — according to a former military man who served in a similar unit — included time in a detachment that provided personal security to both Fidel and Raúl.

Diaz-Canel will have Raul Castro's guiding hand on his shoulder.

8. The Communist Party also selected six vice presidents, only one of whom, Ramiro Valdes Menendez, 85, fought in the revolution.

The new makeup of the government “bends slightly toward the side of reform and change,” said James Williams, president of Engage Cuba, a Washington-based coalition of companies that wants to lift the U.S. embargo against Cuba. “How far they will go remains to be seen.”

9. Cubans see no hope in this new leader: For many Cubans, struggling with economic hardships and frustrated with the government's emphasis on continuity rather than change, the transition in leader is seen as unlikely to bring much beyond the symbolism of a new leader.

"We always wish the symbolic would translate into real and concrete actions for our lives," said Jose Jasan Nieves, 30, the editor of an alternative news outlet to the state-run media monopoly. "But this isn't the case."

Cubans hope the next government can revive one of the world's last Soviet-style centrally planned economies, which has failed to improve under Castro's limited market reforms. Castro's time in office will also be remembered for his landmark agreement with former U.S. President Barack Obama to restore long-severed diplomatic ties and seek an end to decades of hostilities between the two countries. Relations have been strained again under President Donald Trump.

10. Fidel Castro, who led a band of rebels that overthrew a U.S.-backed dictator and then ruled for decades, handed over power to Raul Castro in 2008 as his health deteriorated. He died in 2016.

Raul Castro will retain considerable clout as he will remain head of the Communist Party until a congress in 2021.