What's in a name? Why a Castro-less Cuba may not mean a changed one.

Former President Raúl Castro, brother of revolutionary leader Fidel, handed over the presidency Thursday to Miguel Díaz-Canel. His first task will be getting the economy back on track, but just how radical an approach he can take is uncertain – as is whether he wants one.

Alexandre Meneghini/Reuters
A woman holds up an image of the late Cuban leader Fidel Castro and then-Cuban President Raúl Castro during a rally in Havana on April 16. Raúl Castro's successor, Miguel Diaz-Canel, was sworn in on April 19.

Reinaldo Flores, an unemployed transit worker in his 50s, walks through the streets of Cerro, one of Havana’s poorest neighborhoods. The street is flanked by once-grand buildings in faded shades of blue, green, and orange.

In some ways, it’s a typical day for Mr. Flores: he’s looking for work. But for him and tens of thousands of others across Cuba, today is also dramatically different.

It’s the first day in his life his president’s named something other than Castro.

Cuba’s National Assembly, a group of more than 600 handpicked politicians who run unopposed, nominated the island’s next president this week. Vice President Miguel Díaz-Canel, the only candidate put forth, will be Cuba’s first leader in nearly 60 years who wasn’t part of the revolution that overthrew US-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista and installed a Communist government on the island. Mr. Díaz-Canel is also the first leader in nearly 70 years who isn’t part of the armed forces.

The changing of the guard – after decades of leadership by Fidel Castro and 12 years under his brother Raúl – is significant. But, observers say, it’s largely symbolic. In a centralized system that works on a “one state, one party” principle of entrenched revolutionary values, the rise of a new head of state without direct ties to the Castros’ uprising is more likely to lay the groundwork for future change than create big waves in the short term.

Cuba’s economy is struggling. Vital benefactors like Venezuela are distracted by their own crises, there’s little foreign investment, infrastructure is crumbling, and the dual currency system is increasingly burdensome. These are issues observers say need to be tackled head on. Although Cuba’s “old guard” is nominally clearing the way for a new generation of leadership on the island, Raúl Castro is still top dog in Cuba’s Communist Party and armed forces, unlikely to give Díaz-Canel much wiggle room to create significant changes anytime soon.

“If the situation Cubans are living doesn’t improve, the political changes will be in vain,” Mr. Flores says of the historic transition of power.

While many in the United States view a non-Castro Cuban president as a chance to shed some of the historic baggage that’s held back relations between the two nations, in Cuba there’s less optimism. Most are wondering what they can expect – or if they should expect anything at all.

“The change in government doesn’t leave us with a lot of hope, but it does leave us with a big question: What is going to happen to Cuba?” says Boris González Arena, a journalist for the local news site Diario de Cuba.

Irene Perez/Cubadebate/Reuters
Cuba's former President Raul Castro (center-left) and former First Vice-President Miguel Diaz-Canel (center-right) arrive for a session of the National Assembly in Havana, Cuba, on April 18, 2018. Mr. Diaz-Canel was sworn in to replace Mr. Castro as president on Thursday.

‘Like-minded’ leader?

Cuba has changed significantly under Raúl Castro’s two presidential terms. He did what for many was the unthinkable: warming ties with the United States, allowing private micro-businesses and entrepreneurship to blossom, and doing away with exit visas required for Cubans to leave the island. But he was still a Castro, lending him a certain cachet, and many question whether Díaz-Canel will have the same support for policies that push against the grain of the revolutionary project.

Cuba’s economy is weak, with many outside economists pointing to 2016 as a full-blown recession. Sugar harvests were devastated by hurricane Irma, and US tourism dollars that prop up the self-employed are flagging. The dual currency is creating imbalances in human capital, with those working in the tourism sector earning significantly more than highly-trained doctors or engineers.

The first task for Díaz-Canel will be getting the economy back on track, but just how radically he can approach the problems is at question – if he has a different approach in mind, to begin with.

“We have to consider that more likely than not [Díaz-Canel] was chosen as the next leader because he’s like-minded” with the Castro generation, says Gustavo Flores-Macías, an associate professor at Cornell University who specializes in Latin American politics. In a video leaked last year, Díaz-Canel is seen lambasting the US and emphasizing the same hardline ideology as his Castro predecessors, accusing dissidents and independent media of subverting the state. 

On Thursday, Castro said he expected the new leader to serve two five-year terms as president and take over for him as head of the Communist Party when Castro steps down in 2021 – the date many here view as the more realistic gateway to change by a new generation of leaders.

Cuban blogger Regina Coyula, who was born just before Castro’s 1959 rise to power, hasn’t written anything about the presidential transition on her widely read blog, “La Mala Letra” (“Bad Handwriting”). For her, this week is less significant than the long game.

“Whatever the new president does will be overseen by the Communist Party,” she says. As head of the party and the armed forces, Castro is still in control of some of the most economically important sectors, like tourism, placing yet another limit on Díaz-Canel’s power.

“There’s always the chance that [Díaz-Canel] has hidden his true perspective and he will surprise all of us,” says Ms. Coyula, acknowledging that it’s not something she’s holding her breath for. “In any case, it’s up to him now to bring fresh air into our economy.”

Despite the desire for economic change, not all Cubans on the island want to see a complete overhaul of the Castro’s revolutionary agenda.

“We want things to change, but we also want the things that make Cuba what it is to remain,” says Aliot Castro, a teenager. He tics off security, public health, and free education as elements that are worth maintaining by any future president. His friend Alejandro Lázaro agrees about continuity, but “we want a future with more possibilities for youth, a new way of thinking from the government,” he says.

Residents proudly boast to visitors that violent crime is essentially zero on the island (The US Embassy, however, says nonviolent crimes against tourists are common, like pickpocketing). When the Cuban revolution launched, roughly one-quarter of Cubans could not read. Today, the education system serves as a model for nations around the region, and literacy is almost universal. Medical professionals are essentially exported and traded for needed resources, like oil, with nations from Venezuela to Brazil.

“Cuba’s human capital, and its deep investment in human capital for decades, is crucial for the island. It’s something most anyone on the left or right can agree on,” says Mr. Flores-Macias.

Today’s transition of power takes place on the anniversary of the failed US-backed Bay of Pigs operation against Castro, and coincides with new bumps in the US-Cuba relationship. President Trump last year announced some rollbacks to Obama’s historic diplomatic rapprochement with Cuba, and more than half of US diplomats have been ordered off the island following mysterious hearing loss and what were initially described as suspected “sonic attacks.”

During the conclusion of the two-day National Assembly session today, where Raúl Castro stepped down, Díaz-Canel promised to defend the regime created by his predecessors.

“The revolution continues,” he said.

The Castros’ armed revolution and rise to power via force has little “to do with the changes taking place now,” says Dimas Castellanos, a former university history professor here who researches race on the island. Raul’s generation of guerrilla fighters are giving up their posts, if not all of their power, he says.

“But even if [Díaz-Canel] doesn’t want to, the new president must make changes. The warehouses are empty. The only thing that can’t happen now is that nothing changes.”

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