Last week, Cuban leader Raúl Castro playfully suggested that he might step down — "I am going to be 82 years old," he told reporters on Feb. 22. "I have the right to retire, don't you think?" — and on Sunday he made it official. As Cuba's parliament ratified Castro for a second five-year term, Castro announced it will be his last, meaning that in 2018, someone not named Castro will lead the island nation for the first time since 1959. That person may well be Miguel Díaz-Canel Bermúdez, a 52-year-old rising star in Cuba's Communist Party and the man Raúl Castro has apparently anointed as his successor.
The post-Castro Cuba, assuming Raúl does step down as planned, won't necessarily be post-communist. Castro, who has gradually assumed power from his ailing older brother, Fidel Castro, since 2006, told the parliament that he "was not chosen to be president to restore capitalism to Cuba" but rather "to defend, maintain, and continue to perfect socialism," though he said his ongoing reforms nudging Cuba toward freer markets will make the country "less egalitarian, but more just." Fidel Castro made a rare public appearance in parliament for his brother's re-election but left before Raúl's speech.
Díaz-Canel was elected to become first vice president of the Council of State, the No. 2 position, and Raúl Castro explicitly said appointing him to the position, normally held by Castro loyalists as old or older than the brothers, is a moment of "historic transcendence" that "represents a definitive step in the configuration of the future leadership of the nation." Any number of things could derail Díaz-Canel before 2018 — he could fall out of favor with Castro, or be sidelined by another politician from his generation — but assuming he takes control in the gradual transition Raúl Castro laid out Sunday, what exactly can we expect of the relatively unknown politician, and of his post-Castro Cuba?
First, the man: Díaz-Canel got his degree in electrical engineering, and taught at the regional university in Villa Clara province before entering politics and rising to de facto governor of both that province and Holguin. After 16 years as provincial party chief, he became the youngest-ever member of the ruling Politburo in 2003 and minister of higher education from 2009 to 2012. Largely unknown outside of Cuba, Díaz-Canel "is widely seen inside Cuba as a technocrat" who earned Raúl Castro's trust "not only with youth and loyalty, but also by being a good manager," says Damien Cave in The New York Times.
"Tall, dapper, and carefully groomed with a 52-year-old's salt-and-pepper hair, Díaz-Canel presents a serious public face before TV cameras, even as some people who know him describe him as a sharp-minded jokester who can be surprisingly relaxed in private," says The Associated Press' Andrea Rodriguez. One official tells the AP that "he's a much more flexible type than he seems, open-minded and above all intelligent."
Cuban journalists who worked with Díaz-Canel in the 1990s and 2000s have a similar impression, says Juan O. Tamayo in The Miami Herald. One recalls him as "something of an ideologue, but he was smart and you could talk to him," while the other calls him "very smart, above all affable and accessible" and given to joking. "He loved to exercise and had something of a narcissistic streak about his body image," but he doesn't have a reputation as a ladies' man or heavy drinker. His parents were reputed to be wealthy before the revolution, and Castro went out of his way to reinforce Díaz-Canel's reputation as a key driver of the slow shift toward private enterprise.
But as important as Díaz-Canel will be to the post-Castro Cuba, Raúl Castro still "seemed intent on changing how his successors will rule," says the Times' Cave. "In an announcement more surprising than his retirement plan, Mr. Castro said he hoped to establish term limits and age caps for political offices, including the presidency," and get those changes enshrined in the constitution before he leaves office, possibly through a referendum. So while tapping a 52-year-old is a momentous generational passing of the baton, Raúl Castro will apparently ensure that Cuba won't have any more Castros, literally or figuratively.