In Cuba’s Change of Leadership, More Black Officials in Power


While official statistics reflect that less than 10 percent of the population is black, in reality, most estimates put the number far higher.

The Cuban government under the Castros has historically been viewed as one made up mainly of white men, especially those of advanced age. Although it has generally had at least one Afro-Cuban in a high-ranking position, cynics dismissed them as symbolic figures.

Although skeptics doubt that too much will change to address the disparities faced by many black people in Cuba, even some of the government’s harshest critics acknowledged that the diversity shift was an important development.

“Yes, it has great significance,” said Ramón Colas, a black anti-Castro activist who sought political asylum in 2001 and now lives in Mississippi. “The Cuban revolution has historically been white, and seen from the outside as a revolution by white men, where black people were part of the crowd, spectators who were silent or applauded, but never participated.”

Mr. Colas said the election, a process in which Mr. Castro and the Communist Party had full control, showed that the former Cuban leader has “big ears” and was willing to listen to the outcry from black civic and arts organizations. But he noted it would be even more noteworthy if the three black people on the council used their positions to push for racial equality.

Photo

Cuba’s new president, Miguel Diaz-Canel, center, at the National Assembly in Havana last week.

Credit
Adalberto Roque/Agence France-Presse, via Associated Press

“Wouldn’t it be great if they used those positions to say, ‘As a black Cuban, I am against injustice against black people in Cuba?’ ” he said. “I doubt that they can do that. They are not allowed. Fidel declared that racism is a problem that ended.”

If anything, Raúl Castro’s move to shift high-ranking positions to black leaders was an acknowledgment that racism and discrimination had not, in fact, been solved by the revolution.

In his remarks on Thursday, Mr. Castro said the struggle to move beyond percentages continued.

“We still have the battle of proportions, not just in numerical aspects, but qualitative — in decision-making slots,” he said. “Three women were elected vice president of the Council of State, two of them black — not only for being black, but for their virtues and qualities.”

While inequality persists in the country, the Castro revolution did make important strides for black people.

Before the revolution, social stratification was profound, with black Cubans open to far less opportunity and enduring far more discrimination than their lighter-skinned fellow citizens. When Fidel Castro came to power after the revolution, one of his early edicts essentially sought an end to racism.

The result was that systemic racism as it exists in the Americas is far less present in Cuba, and social and educational opportunities generally more present for black Cubans — even those living far from the capital. For many of the revolution’s proponents, it was one of the major achievements at a time when the United States was still requiring black people to drink from separate water fountains.

Alejandro de la Fuente, a Harvard University Cuba studies professor who has written extensively on Afro-Cubans, said inequality diminished in several ways. His research showed, for example, that in the 1980s, the life expectancy gap between black and white people was better in Cuba than in Brazil or the United States.

Also, the number of black Cubans who attended college was close to the number of white Cubans, he found, whereas in the United States, twice as many white people as African-Americans attended university.

But the improvements, brought on by socialized education, were offset by the economic nose-dive Afro-Cubans faced after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s. More Cubans started living on cash remittances sent from the United States. And almost all the Cubans sending money from the United States were white.

Mr. de la Fuente noted that both of the black women named to the council, Inés María Chapman Waugh and Beatriz Jhonson Urrutia, are engineers from eastern Cuba, which makes them an example of the kind of educational mobility possible for black women in the country. Mr. de la Fuente said their promotions were largely symbolic, but still important.

“Even if this was window-dressing, it would mean they feel the need to dress the window in a certain color, and that is something one would not have said 30 years ago,” Mr. de la Fuente said.

Photo

Waiting for the carriage carrying the ashes of Fidel Castro in central Santiago de Cuba.

Credit
Mauricio Lima for The New York Times

Only 9 percent of Cubans identified themselves as black in the 2012 census, a sign that most Cubans don’t see benefits to self-identifying as Afro-Cuban, he said. Most estimates have the number of black people in Cuba much higher.

“If you go by the one-drop rule, like you have in the United States, Cuba is like 90 percent black,” Mr. Colas said with a laugh.

Katrin Hansing, a professor at Baruch College in New York who is studying racial inequality in Cuba, said the presence of more black people on the council was likely to be met with a collective shrug on the island. The economic disparities have grown so stark, she said, that more shantytowns are popping up on the outskirts of big cities, and people of color largely populate them.

“It won’t change their socioeconomically difficult lives,” Ms. Hansing said. “The Communist Party will not change because there are three more black people at the top.”

In Cuba, many people interviewed agreed, and some did not even know the changes had been made.

In the neighborhood of La Corea, marooned on the outskirts of Havana, most people had more pressing concerns to ponder than the racial balance of the nation’s top officials. Heaps of trash were piled on street corners, covered in thick swarms of flies. A water leak from a pipe beneath the sidewalk flowed unchecked, leaving pools and summoning mosquitoes.

The neighborhood contrasts sharply with the proud, if battered, colonial structures of Old Havana or the resplendent mansions of Vedado or Miramar. Homes are slapped together with rusty shards of corrugated metal or raw cinder block and cement. The streets are so worn in parts they are simply dirt.

In the largely black neighborhood, residents were somewhat divided on the meaning of the new racial composition of the government. Manuel Garro Gómez, 65, seemed to take the official line on the matter. “Cuba says there is no discrimination and that’s largely how it is,” he said. “Before the revolution, there was absolutely no relation between black people and whites. Today we mix easily.”

Down the street, Yasmani Santo, 30, once informed about the change, said it was a decent move.

“This reflects the population a bit more, which I appreciate,” he said. “But I’m not sure it will change anything.” Referring to the neighborhood’s dilapidation, he said: “People come and make promises to fix these things and nothing happens. Let’s see if this new president does anything.”

Abraham Jiménez Enoa, a writer and director at El Estornudo magazine in Havana, said racism was a part of daily life for black Cubans, no matter what the state says. When he has dated white women, his friends offered snide remarks that he was “trying to get ahead.”

He said the police were more likely to stop a black person, especially one who is carrying things like towels or sheets, which are items often pilfered from hotels by Cubans without money to buy their own.

In Old Havana on Thursday, Josué Soto del Sol, 10, smiled and then shrugged when he heard about the appointments of the three black leaders. “It’s good,” he said. “We are all black in Cuba.”

Continue reading the main story

In Cuba’s Change of Leadership, More Black Officials in Power


While official statistics reflect that less than 10 percent of the population is black, in reality, most estimates put the number far higher.

The Cuban government under the Castros has historically been viewed as one made up mainly of white men, especially those of advanced age. Although it has generally had at least one Afro-Cuban in a high-ranking position, cynics dismissed them as symbolic figures.

Although skeptics doubt that too much will change to address the disparities faced by many black people in Cuba, even some of the government’s harshest critics acknowledged that the diversity shift was an important development.

“Yes, it has great significance,” said Ramón Colas, a black anti-Castro activist who sought political asylum in 2001 and now lives in Mississippi. “The Cuban revolution has historically been white, and seen from the outside as a revolution by white men, where black people were part of the crowd, spectators who were silent or applauded, but never participated.”

Mr. Colas said the election, a process in which Mr. Castro and the Communist Party had full control, showed that the former Cuban leader has “big ears” and was willing to listen to the outcry from black civic and arts organizations. But he noted it would be even more noteworthy if the three black people on the council used their positions to push for racial equality.

Photo

Cuba’s new president, Miguel Diaz-Canel, center, at the National Assembly in Havana last week.

Credit
Adalberto Roque/Agence France-Presse, via Associated Press

“Wouldn’t it be great if they used those positions to say, ‘As a black Cuban, I am against injustice against black people in Cuba?’ ” he said. “I doubt that they can do that. They are not allowed. Fidel declared that racism is a problem that ended.”

If anything, Raúl Castro’s move to shift high-ranking positions to black leaders was an acknowledgment that racism and discrimination had not, in fact, been solved by the revolution.

In his remarks on Thursday, Mr. Castro said the struggle to move beyond percentages continued.

“We still have the battle of proportions, not just in numerical aspects, but qualitative — in decision-making slots,” he said. “Three women were elected vice president of the Council of State, two of them black — not only for being black, but for their virtues and qualities.”

While inequality persists in the country, the Castro revolution did make important strides for black people.

Before the revolution, social stratification was profound, with black Cubans open to far less opportunity and enduring far more discrimination than their lighter-skinned fellow citizens. When Fidel Castro came to power after the revolution, one of his early edicts essentially sought an end to racism.

The result was that systemic racism as it exists in the Americas is far less present in Cuba, and social and educational opportunities generally more present for black Cubans — even those living far from the capital. For many of the revolution’s proponents, it was one of the major achievements at a time when the United States was still requiring black people to drink from separate water fountains.

Alejandro de la Fuente, a Harvard University Cuba studies professor who has written extensively on Afro-Cubans, said inequality diminished in several ways. His research showed, for example, that in the 1980s, the life expectancy gap between black and white people was better in Cuba than in Brazil or the United States.

Also, the number of black Cubans who attended college was close to the number of white Cubans, he found, whereas in the United States, twice as many white people as African-Americans attended university.

But the improvements, brought on by socialized education, were offset by the economic nose-dive Afro-Cubans faced after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s. More Cubans started living on cash remittances sent from the United States. And almost all the Cubans sending money from the United States were white.

Mr. de la Fuente noted that both of the black women named to the council, Inés María Chapman Waugh and Beatriz Jhonson Urrutia, are engineers from eastern Cuba, which makes them an example of the kind of educational mobility possible for black women in the country. Mr. de la Fuente said their promotions were largely symbolic, but still important.

“Even if this was window-dressing, it would mean they feel the need to dress the window in a certain color, and that is something one would not have said 30 years ago,” Mr. de la Fuente said.

Photo

Waiting for the carriage carrying the ashes of Fidel Castro in central Santiago de Cuba.

Credit
Mauricio Lima for The New York Times

Only 9 percent of Cubans identified themselves as black in the 2012 census, a sign that most Cubans don’t see benefits to self-identifying as Afro-Cuban, he said. Most estimates have the number of black people in Cuba much higher.

“If you go by the one-drop rule, like you have in the United States, Cuba is like 90 percent black,” Mr. Colas said with a laugh.

Katrin Hansing, a professor at Baruch College in New York who is studying racial inequality in Cuba, said the presence of more black people on the council was likely to be met with a collective shrug on the island. The economic disparities have grown so stark, she said, that more shantytowns are popping up on the outskirts of big cities, and people of color largely populate them.

“It won’t change their socioeconomically difficult lives,” Ms. Hansing said. “The Communist Party will not change because there are three more black people at the top.”

In Cuba, many people interviewed agreed, and some did not even know the changes had been made.

In the neighborhood of La Corea, marooned on the outskirts of Havana, most people had more pressing concerns to ponder than the racial balance of the nation’s top officials. Heaps of trash were piled on street corners, covered in thick swarms of flies. A water leak from a pipe beneath the sidewalk flowed unchecked, leaving pools and summoning mosquitoes.

The neighborhood contrasts sharply with the proud, if battered, colonial structures of Old Havana or the resplendent mansions of Vedado or Miramar. Homes are slapped together with rusty shards of corrugated metal or raw cinder block and cement. The streets are so worn in parts they are simply dirt.

In the largely black neighborhood, residents were somewhat divided on the meaning of the new racial composition of the government. Manuel Garro Gómez, 65, seemed to take the official line on the matter. “Cuba says there is no discrimination and that’s largely how it is,” he said. “Before the revolution, there was absolutely no relation between black people and whites. Today we mix easily.”

Down the street, Yasmani Santo, 30, once informed about the change, said it was a decent move.

“This reflects the population a bit more, which I appreciate,” he said. “But I’m not sure it will change anything.” Referring to the neighborhood’s dilapidation, he said: “People come and make promises to fix these things and nothing happens. Let’s see if this new president does anything.”

Abraham Jiménez Enoa, a writer and director at El Estornudo magazine in Havana, said racism was a part of daily life for black Cubans, no matter what the state says. When he has dated white women, his friends offered snide remarks that he was “trying to get ahead.”

He said the police were more likely to stop a black person, especially one who is carrying things like towels or sheets, which are items often pilfered from hotels by Cubans without money to buy their own.

In Old Havana on Thursday, Josué Soto del Sol, 10, smiled and then shrugged when he heard about the appointments of the three black leaders. “It’s good,” he said. “We are all black in Cuba.”

Continue reading the main story

Fidel Died and Raúl Resigned, but Castros Still Hold Sway in Cuba


But even Mr. Castro, with his revolutionary credentials and fraternal connections, could not pull off all of the changes he had set out to make. Too many old-guard associates put up obstacles when they saw the widening inequalities that accompanied economic reforms. So although Mr. Castro is widely believed to be planning a move from Havana to Santiago de Cuba — on Cuba’s southeastern coast, the other side of the country — he is not expected to leave Mr. Díaz-Canel entirely to his own devices.

Mr. Castro was credited with strengthening institutional control and formalizing the concept of consensus governing. He believes in delegated authority. He has made sure that there are enough internal checks and balances to keep an eye on any successor with big ideas, while still watching this one’s back. Mr. Díaz-Canel was a handpicked successor, and it is not in Raúl Castro’s interest to see him fail.

“Raúl will be watching,” said Andy S. Gómez, a Cuba expert, now retired, who worked at the University of Miami. “Raúl, as first party secretary, will be not only watching him, but, more importantly, being there for him, symbolically, so he can move forward.”

Alcibíades Hidalgo, who was Raúl Castro’s chief of staff for a dozen years, believes that his former boss will hold on to power “until the day he dies.”

Photo

Alejandro Castro Espín, left, Raul Castro’s son, runs the intelligence services for both the armed forces and the Interior Ministry.

Credit
Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Alejandro Castro Espín, 52, is Raúl Castro’s son. Mr. Castro Espín runs the intelligence services for both the armed forces and the Interior Ministry. That is a big task in a country that works hard to stifle dissent and sniff out spies.

Mr. Castro Espín was part of the team that negotiated with President Barack Obama’s administration over restoring diplomatic ties with the United States, a sign that he is part of the most trusted inner circle.

But he also has serious anti-imperialist credentials: The title of a book he wrote in 2009, “Empire of Terror,” offers a not-very-subtle clue of his opinion of Cuba’s big neighbor to the north.

“The most important of the younger generation is Castro Espín,” said Brian Latell, a former C.I.A. analyst who has closely watched the Castro family. “I think he has a lot of influence with his father.”

Juan Juan Almeida, the son of a Cuban revolutionary war hero, grew up with Mr. Castro Espín and lived in his house when they were children. He said he was not convinced that his former best friend had the skills to succeed after his father dies.

“He’s powerful, but his power was given to him by his father,” Mr. Almeida said. “He will last as long as his father’s power lasts.”

Some experts believe that Raúl Castro would have liked to have made his son president, but that it would have looked bad internationally to have another Castro take over.

Gen. Luis Alberto Rodríguez López-Callejas was a Castro by marriage — he used to be married to Raúl Castro’s daughter Débora, and is the father of Mr. Castro’s favorite grandson.

General Rodríguez is president of Gaesa, the holding company that controls the military’s business interests. The military runs all of the hotels and state-run restaurants, convenience stores and gas stations, making General Rodríguez one of the country’s most powerful men.

“He must have 1,200 companies under him,” said Guillermo Fariñas, an outspoken critic of the government who lives in Villa Clara Province. “I think the one who manages the country economically is him.”

Raúl Rodríguez Castro, General Rodríguez’s son, is Raúl Castro’s bodyguard, the kind of position that lends itself to knowing all kinds of secrets, Mr. Fariñas said.

Photo

Mariela Castro, center, is Raúl Castro’s daughter, a Cuban lawmaker, the director of the National Center for Sexual Education and an outspoken supporter of the rights of gay and transgender people.

Credit
Ramon Espinosa/Associated Press

Mariela Castro is Raúl Castro’s daughter. A member of Parliament, she enjoys an international and domestic following, largely because of her support for gay and transgender rights.

“Mariela is part of the scenery,” Mr. Hidalgo said. “She’s a decorative figure with a nice cause. In terms of power, she is far from the role of her brother or her ex-brother-in-law.”

Mr. Almeida said it boiled down to appearances.

“In terms of becoming a vice minister or joining the Council of State, I don’t see her doing that,” Mr. Almeida said. “The idea is to present a democratic face and erase the faces of the past. For the international community, they need to offer a nice friendly face of Cuba, which means not putting forth a Castro.”

Mr. Hidalgo, a former ambassador to the United Nations who later defected and now lives in Miami, does not think it will work.

“They are trying to give an appearance of change to what is fundamentally the same,” he said. “They are trying to continue Castroism without Castros in the near future, which is practically impossible.”

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Cuba’s New President: Loyal Servant of a Revolution He Didn’t Fight


Born one year after Fidel Castro’s forces took control of the island, Mr. Díaz-Canel is the first person outside the Castro dynasty to lead Cuba in decades.

He took the helm of government on Thursday morning to a standing ovation from the National Assembly, which elected him in a nearly unanimous vote. Mr. Castro embraced him, lifting the younger man’s arm in triumph.

Mr. Díaz-Canel’s slow and steady climb up the ranks of the bureaucracy has come through unflagging loyalty to the socialist cause — he “is not an upstart nor improvised,” Mr. Castro has said — but he largely stayed behind the scenes until recent years.

Now, as leader, Mr. Díaz-Canel is suddenly taking on a difficult balancing act. Most expect him to be a president of continuity, especially because he arrives in the shadow of Raúl Castro, who will remain the head of the Army and the Communist Party, two of Cuba’s most powerful institutions.

But Mr. Díaz-Canel also has to figure out how to resuscitate the economy at time when President Trump is stepping back from engaging with Cuba. On top of that, Mr. Díaz-Canel must find a way to manage the frustrations of a Cuban population impatient with the pace of change on the island — without the heft of his predecessor’s revolutionary credentials.

Such credentials have been the bedrock of political power in Cuba ever since Fidel Castro seized control of the nation in 1959. In the ensuing years, the Castros ruled over Cuba with ironclad control, bolstered by a cadre of loyalists, nearly all of whom had fought alongside them in the revolution.

In the end, the most effective opposition to the Castro brothers was time.

Fidel Castro handed power to Raúl in 2006, then died 10 years later at the age of 90. Raúl then ushered in some of the most substantial reforms in decades, and is now orchestrating yet another one — the passing of the torch to a new generation.

After opening up the economy to private investment and entrepreneurialism, expanding travel in and out of the country and re-establishing ties with the great enemy, the United States, Raúl Castro has selected Mr. Díaz-Canel to fill his shoes.

Video

Life After Castro: Who Is Cuba’s Next President?

As Raúl Castro of Cuba steps down, Miguel Díaz-Canel Bermúdez steps up. Here’s a look at Mr. Castro’s handpicked successor and what’s ahead for the communist country.


By DEBORAH ACOSTA and NATALIE RENEAU on Publish Date April 18, 2018.


Photo by Ismael Francisco/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images.

Watch in Times Video »

Despite recent efforts to raise his profile, Mr. Díaz-Canel remains a somewhat unknown figure both domestically and abroad. In 2012, he led the Cuban delegation to the London Olympics and accompanied Raúl Castro to an international conference in Brazil.

Still, “he is someone who has very little exposure to U.S. political or cultural figures,” said Daniel P. Erikson, a former State Department official. “He is simply not a known figure in the U.S., and frankly he isn’t that well-known in the rest of Latin America, either.”

Ever since Mr. Díaz-Canel was named first vice president in 2013, Cubans and Cuba watchers alike have scrambled to find out more about the enigmatic heir apparent, combing through his track record as party leader in the provinces of Villa Clara and Holguín, and later as minister of higher education, for clues on how he will lead.

In each position, according to those who knew him at the time, Mr. Díaz-Canel has been a quiet but effective leader, often with a progressive bent. Many called him a good listener, while others described him as approachable, free of the rigidness and inaccessibility of typical party chiefs.

Through it all, he has also been a relentless defender of the revolution and the principles and politics it brought.

Stories of his Everyman qualities have spread widely in recent years: how he rode his bike to work instead of taking a government vehicle during gas shortages; how he defended the rights of a gay club in Santa Clara in the face of protests; how he patiently listened to academics grouse (sometimes about him) as minister of higher education.

More recently, he was a leading voice in the push for internet access in Cuba, arguing that the nation could not seal itself off from the outside world. Though his beliefs remain very much within the party line, those who know him say he does not adhere to the belief that Cuba can exempt itself from the modernization necessary to participate in the global economy.

But in Cuba, the continuum of political thinking is not black and white. Often, conventional definitions of progressives versus hard-liners do not apply. Leaders can be both, and Mr. Díaz-Canel is an example of that. While he is seen as open to the ideas of others, as a younger man he led a campaign to stifle students who read and discussed literature that was not approved by the Communist Party, according to those who knew him at the time.

Last year, a video was leaked of Mr. Díaz-Canel addressing a group of party officials. In it, he lambastes the United States, claiming that Cuba had no responsibility to meet its demands under the reconciliation brokered by President Barack Obama.

He then went on a diatribe against a website whose work he considered subversive. He told fellow officials that the government would shut it down — no matter whether people considered it censorship.

The video was seen as a way for Mr. Díaz-Canel to shore up his credentials with hard-line factions within the government, and yet a review of his career shows that he has not shied away from confronting activities deemed out of bounds by the government, either.

Mr. Díaz-Canel grew up in the central province of Villa Clara, about three hours from Havana, the son of a schoolteacher and a factory worker. He studied electrical engineering at the Central University of Las Villas, where he was active in political life.

While unknown abroad, from an early age he was viewed as a rising star within Cuba’s Communist Party.

As a young man, he joined the Union of Young Communists, the party’s youth league, where he stood out among his peers. He later worked as a bodyguard to Raúl Castro. According to a friend who knew him at the time, the assignment allowed him to show loyalty to the cause, and drew Mr. Díaz-Canel close to both Raúl and Fidel Castro.

Photo

Mr. Díaz-Canel arriving for a 2015 summit meeting at the European Union headquarters in Brussels.

Credit
Philippe Huguen/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

He served three years in the army, another node of power in the country, after which he resumed his slow climb up the party ladder.

In his 20s, he was named the party’s liaison to Nicaragua, the only other Communist government in the region at the time, a posting viewed as important to the Cuban government.

Rodolfo Stusser, 72, recalled meeting Mr. Díaz-Canel in the late 1980s, while working as a doctor during Nicaragua’s civil war. Dr. Stusser felt the other doctors around him were lazy, not serious about their work. And just as he began liking his life in Nicaragua, he was being deployed elsewhere. He took his complaint to the Cuban Embassy, where he ran into a young Mr. Díaz-Canel, who offered him a ride.

Dr. Stusser unloaded, listing the various injustices he felt were being visited on him. It was almost therapeutic, he recalled. Mr. Díaz-Canel, an up-and-coming member in the party at the time, sat quietly and listened for the duration of the 40-minute drive, he recalled.

“He just heard me,” Dr. Stusser said. “He did not say anything at all. It helped me.”

Not long after, Dr. Stusser found his fortunes reversed in Nicaragua. He was allowed to stay. And an official who was giving him the runaround made time to see him.

Dr. Stusser, who defected in 2010 and now lives in South Florida, always suspected that the soft-spoken Communist Party official who listened but did not speak had quietly worked his connections in Havana and Managua to sort out his issues.

Juan Juan Almeida, 52, recalls hearing Mr. Díaz-Canel’s name come up years later in conversations with his father, who was a prominent member of the Cuban Communist Party at the time. He remembers his father coming home one night in 1993 after a meeting in which officials discussed future leaders of the country.

José Ramón Machado Ventura, a member of the Cuban old guard, proposed a slate of young leaders and Mr. Díaz-Canel’s name was among them.

“Raúl responded: He’s trustworthy, but too young,” Mr. Almeida remembers his father telling him after the meeting. “This was the first time I had ever heard the name Miguel Díaz-Canel.”

From then on, he said, Mr. Díaz-Canel’s name came up often. He moved from one prominent job to another — including provincial posts where he developed a reputation as an effective and loyal functionary.

As first secretary in Villa Clara Province, Mr. Díaz-Canel came to office during the so-called special period, when the generous aid flowing to Cuba from the Soviet Union was abruptly cut off after its collapse.

Back then, Mr. Díaz-Canel took his bicycle to work rather than ride in the air-conditioned car he was entitled to as a prominent leader. It was the sort of move people still talk about in Villa Clara and its capital, Santa Clara.

Mr. Almeida, who also defected to the United States, said he and Mr. Díaz-Canel had many mutual friends, in particular musicians and artists whom Mr. Díaz-Canel had taken the time to support in their careers. The new president also has a son who is a musician in Argentina, Mr. Almeida added.

“He mixes with the intellectual class, goes to concerts and is close to young people,” Mr. Almeida said. “All of the people I know who we have in common speak very well of him. They don’t speak of him in dictatorial fashion.”

Photo

Mr. Díaz-Canel, from left, Mr. Castro and José Ramón Machado Ventura, who was then first vice president at the 2016 May Day parade in Havana.

Credit
Ramon Espinosa/Associated Press

Academics and others in Havana declined to be interviewed about Mr. Díaz-Canel, because the government did not give them permission.

In Santa Clara, Mr. Díaz-Canel is remembered for his Bermuda shorts at a time when party officials wore more formal attire, and for wearing his hair long.

His beliefs also skewed liberal, residents say. He lent his support to one of the country’s only gay clubs, El Mejunje. When it opened decades ago, the club was a point of contention. But Mr. Díaz-Canel, who took his children to the club when it hosted children’s activities, consistently backed the club in the face of controversy.

“He supported us anytime there was a complaint made against us,” said Ramón Silverio Gómez, the club’s director. “He was an ally. And one day when I saw him he said, ‘You can keep counting on my support and my understanding.’”

Yet some saw Mr. Díaz-Canel’s persona as crafted and less genuine than is often supposed. Sure, he rode his bike to and from work. But he was always trailed by his personal security in vehicles, others said.

“It was a bit of demagoguery,” said Guillermo Fariñas, a well-known dissident and Cuban psychologist who grew up with Mr. Díaz-Canel in Villa Clara. “In terms of the gasoline, he was on a bicycle, but there were cars with security going behind him. It was a bit a manipulation of the people.”

Mr. Fariñas recalled how one night, while he was hospitalized, the power went out. This was during the time of greatest shortages in Cuba, in the 1990s.

At about 3 o’clock in the morning, Mr. Díaz-Canel, who was first secretary in the province, went to the hospital and began going from room to room, checking on patients and apologizing for the blackout.

Even back then, Mr. Fariñas was a known dissident. He was in the hospital recovering from a hunger strike.

“When they were outside my room, I could hear the state security agents telling him, ‘No, don’t go to that room. That’s a counterrevolutionary’s room,’” he recalled. “Díaz-Canel was like, ‘What do you mean, don’t go to that room? Of course I’ll go to that room!’”

Mr. Díaz-Canel entered, shook Mr. Fariñas’ hand and said, “Let’s not talk about politics.”

The men chatted briefly before Mr. Díaz-Canel rushed off to see the next patient.

“My impression was that he was doing politics,” Mr. Fariñas said.

Mr. Fariñas also recalled how, after graduation, Mr. Díaz-Canel became a teacher and party functionary at his university, joining a nationwide campaign to fight “negative tendencies” in Cuba.

“They tried to convince people that if you were not a real communist, you had to be sanctioned,” Mr. Fariñas said of Mr. Díaz-Canel. “He was the head of that at the university.”

It was part of the duality of Mr. Díaz-Canel, he added. Mr. Díaz-Canel could be accessible, friendly and modern — mingling with locals, playing basketball with the youth and listening to rock music. But he could also be a staunch advocate of communism and the revolution, willing to silence critics.

“He was very active, very militant and very unconditional in his loyalty to the regime,” Mr. Fariñas said.

Continue reading the main story

Cuba’s New President: Loyal Servant of a Revolution He Didn’t Fight


Born one year after Fidel Castro’s forces took control of the island, Mr. Díaz-Canel is the first person outside the Castro dynasty to lead Cuba in decades.

He took the helm of government on Thursday morning to a standing ovation from the National Assembly, which elected him in a nearly unanimous vote. Mr. Castro embraced him, lifting the younger man’s arm in triumph.

Mr. Díaz-Canel’s slow and steady climb up the ranks of the bureaucracy has come through unflagging loyalty to the socialist cause — he “is not an upstart nor improvised,” Mr. Castro has said — but he largely stayed behind the scenes until recent years.

Now, as leader, Mr. Díaz-Canel is suddenly taking on a difficult balancing act. Most expect him to be a president of continuity, especially because he arrives in the shadow of Raúl Castro, who will remain the head of the Army and the Communist Party, two of Cuba’s most powerful institutions.

But Mr. Díaz-Canel also has to figure out how to resuscitate the economy at time when President Trump is stepping back from engaging with Cuba. On top of that, Mr. Díaz-Canel must find a way to manage the frustrations of a Cuban population impatient with the pace of change on the island — without the heft of his predecessor’s revolutionary credentials.

Such credentials have been the bedrock of political power in Cuba ever since Fidel Castro seized control of the nation in 1959. In the ensuing years, the Castros ruled over Cuba with ironclad control, bolstered by a cadre of loyalists, nearly all of whom had fought alongside them in the revolution.

In the end, the most effective opposition to the Castro brothers was time.

Fidel Castro handed power to Raúl in 2006, then died 10 years later at the age of 90. Raúl then ushered in some of the most substantial reforms in decades, and is now orchestrating yet another one — the passing of the torch to a new generation.

After opening up the economy to private investment and entrepreneurialism, expanding travel in and out of the country and re-establishing ties with the great enemy, the United States, Raúl Castro has selected Mr. Díaz-Canel to fill his shoes.

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Life After Castro: Who Is Cuba’s Next President?

As Raúl Castro of Cuba steps down, Miguel Díaz-Canel Bermúdez steps up. Here’s a look at Mr. Castro’s handpicked successor and what’s ahead for the communist country.


By DEBORAH ACOSTA and NATALIE RENEAU on Publish Date April 18, 2018.


Photo by Ismael Francisco/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images.

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Despite recent efforts to raise his profile, Mr. Díaz-Canel remains a somewhat unknown figure both domestically and abroad. In 2012, he led the Cuban delegation to the London Olympics and accompanied Raúl Castro to an international conference in Brazil.

Still, “he is someone who has very little exposure to U.S. political or cultural figures,” said Daniel P. Erikson, a former State Department official. “He is simply not a known figure in the U.S., and frankly he isn’t that well-known in the rest of Latin America, either.”

Ever since Mr. Díaz-Canel was named first vice president in 2013, Cubans and Cuba watchers alike have scrambled to find out more about the enigmatic heir apparent, combing through his track record as party leader in the provinces of Villa Clara and Holguín, and later as minister of higher education, for clues on how he will lead.

In each position, according to those who knew him at the time, Mr. Díaz-Canel has been a quiet but effective leader, often with a progressive bent. Many called him a good listener, while others described him as approachable, free of the rigidness and inaccessibility of typical party chiefs.

Through it all, he has also been a relentless defender of the revolution and the principles and politics it brought.

Stories of his Everyman qualities have spread widely in recent years: how he rode his bike to work instead of taking a government vehicle during gas shortages; how he defended the rights of a gay club in Santa Clara in the face of protests; how he patiently listened to academics grouse (sometimes about him) as minister of higher education.

More recently, he was a leading voice in the push for internet access in Cuba, arguing that the nation could not seal itself off from the outside world. Though his beliefs remain very much within the party line, those who know him say he does not adhere to the belief that Cuba can exempt itself from the modernization necessary to participate in the global economy.

But in Cuba, the continuum of political thinking is not black and white. Often, conventional definitions of progressives versus hard-liners do not apply. Leaders can be both, and Mr. Díaz-Canel is an example of that. While he is seen as open to the ideas of others, as a younger man he led a campaign to stifle students who read and discussed literature that was not approved by the Communist Party, according to those who knew him at the time.

Last year, a video was leaked of Mr. Díaz-Canel addressing a group of party officials. In it, he lambastes the United States, claiming that Cuba had no responsibility to meet its demands under the reconciliation brokered by President Barack Obama.

He then went on a diatribe against a website whose work he considered subversive. He told fellow officials that the government would shut it down — no matter whether people considered it censorship.

The video was seen as a way for Mr. Díaz-Canel to shore up his credentials with hard-line factions within the government, and yet a review of his career shows that he has not shied away from confronting activities deemed out of bounds by the government, either.

Mr. Díaz-Canel grew up in the central province of Villa Clara, about three hours from Havana, the son of a schoolteacher and a factory worker. He studied electrical engineering at the Central University of Las Villas, where he was active in political life.

While unknown abroad, from an early age he was viewed as a rising star within Cuba’s Communist Party.

As a young man, he joined the Union of Young Communists, the party’s youth league, where he stood out among his peers. He later worked as a bodyguard to Raúl Castro. According to a friend who knew him at the time, the assignment allowed him to show loyalty to the cause, and drew Mr. Díaz-Canel close to both Raúl and Fidel Castro.

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Mr. Díaz-Canel arriving for a 2015 summit meeting at the European Union headquarters in Brussels.

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Philippe Huguen/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

He served three years in the army, another node of power in the country, after which he resumed his slow climb up the party ladder.

In his 20s, he was named the party’s liaison to Nicaragua, the only other Communist government in the region at the time, a posting viewed as important to the Cuban government.

Rodolfo Stusser, 72, recalled meeting Mr. Díaz-Canel in the late 1980s, while working as a doctor during Nicaragua’s civil war. Dr. Stusser felt the other doctors around him were lazy, not serious about their work. And just as he began liking his life in Nicaragua, he was being deployed elsewhere. He took his complaint to the Cuban Embassy, where he ran into a young Mr. Díaz-Canel, who offered him a ride.

Dr. Stusser unloaded, listing the various injustices he felt were being visited on him. It was almost therapeutic, he recalled. Mr. Díaz-Canel, an up-and-coming member in the party at the time, sat quietly and listened for the duration of the 40-minute drive, he recalled.

“He just heard me,” Dr. Stusser said. “He did not say anything at all. It helped me.”

Not long after, Dr. Stusser found his fortunes reversed in Nicaragua. He was allowed to stay. And an official who was giving him the runaround made time to see him.

Dr. Stusser, who defected in 2010 and now lives in South Florida, always suspected that the soft-spoken Communist Party official who listened but did not speak had quietly worked his connections in Havana and Managua to sort out his issues.

Juan Juan Almeida, 52, recalls hearing Mr. Díaz-Canel’s name come up years later in conversations with his father, who was a prominent member of the Cuban Communist Party at the time. He remembers his father coming home one night in 1993 after a meeting in which officials discussed future leaders of the country.

José Ramón Machado Ventura, a member of the Cuban old guard, proposed a slate of young leaders and Mr. Díaz-Canel’s name was among them.

“Raúl responded: He’s trustworthy, but too young,” Mr. Almeida remembers his father telling him after the meeting. “This was the first time I had ever heard the name Miguel Díaz-Canel.”

From then on, he said, Mr. Díaz-Canel’s name came up often. He moved from one prominent job to another — including provincial posts where he developed a reputation as an effective and loyal functionary.

As first secretary in Villa Clara Province, Mr. Díaz-Canel came to office during the so-called special period, when the generous aid flowing to Cuba from the Soviet Union was abruptly cut off after its collapse.

Back then, Mr. Díaz-Canel took his bicycle to work rather than ride in the air-conditioned car he was entitled to as a prominent leader. It was the sort of move people still talk about in Villa Clara and its capital, Santa Clara.

Mr. Almeida, who also defected to the United States, said he and Mr. Díaz-Canel had many mutual friends, in particular musicians and artists whom Mr. Díaz-Canel had taken the time to support in their careers. The new president also has a son who is a musician in Argentina, Mr. Almeida added.

“He mixes with the intellectual class, goes to concerts and is close to young people,” Mr. Almeida said. “All of the people I know who we have in common speak very well of him. They don’t speak of him in dictatorial fashion.”

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Mr. Díaz-Canel, from left, Mr. Castro and José Ramón Machado Ventura, who was then first vice president at the 2016 May Day parade in Havana.

Credit
Ramon Espinosa/Associated Press

Academics and others in Havana declined to be interviewed about Mr. Díaz-Canel, because the government did not give them permission.

In Santa Clara, Mr. Díaz-Canel is remembered for his Bermuda shorts at a time when party officials wore more formal attire, and for wearing his hair long.

His beliefs also skewed liberal, residents say. He lent his support to one of the country’s only gay clubs, El Mejunje. When it opened decades ago, the club was a point of contention. But Mr. Díaz-Canel, who took his children to the club when it hosted children’s activities, consistently backed the club in the face of controversy.

“He supported us anytime there was a complaint made against us,” said Ramón Silverio Gómez, the club’s director. “He was an ally. And one day when I saw him he said, ‘You can keep counting on my support and my understanding.’”

Yet some saw Mr. Díaz-Canel’s persona as crafted and less genuine than is often supposed. Sure, he rode his bike to and from work. But he was always trailed by his personal security in vehicles, others said.

“It was a bit of demagoguery,” said Guillermo Fariñas, a well-known dissident and Cuban psychologist who grew up with Mr. Díaz-Canel in Villa Clara. “In terms of the gasoline, he was on a bicycle, but there were cars with security going behind him. It was a bit a manipulation of the people.”

Mr. Fariñas recalled how one night, while he was hospitalized, the power went out. This was during the time of greatest shortages in Cuba, in the 1990s.

At about 3 o’clock in the morning, Mr. Díaz-Canel, who was first secretary in the province, went to the hospital and began going from room to room, checking on patients and apologizing for the blackout.

Even back then, Mr. Fariñas was a known dissident. He was in the hospital recovering from a hunger strike.

“When they were outside my room, I could hear the state security agents telling him, ‘No, don’t go to that room. That’s a counterrevolutionary’s room,’” he recalled. “Díaz-Canel was like, ‘What do you mean, don’t go to that room? Of course I’ll go to that room!’”

Mr. Díaz-Canel entered, shook Mr. Fariñas’ hand and said, “Let’s not talk about politics.”

The men chatted briefly before Mr. Díaz-Canel rushed off to see the next patient.

“My impression was that he was doing politics,” Mr. Fariñas said.

Mr. Fariñas also recalled how, after graduation, Mr. Díaz-Canel became a teacher and party functionary at his university, joining a nationwide campaign to fight “negative tendencies” in Cuba.

“They tried to convince people that if you were not a real communist, you had to be sanctioned,” Mr. Fariñas said of Mr. Díaz-Canel. “He was the head of that at the university.”

It was part of the duality of Mr. Díaz-Canel, he added. Mr. Díaz-Canel could be accessible, friendly and modern — mingling with locals, playing basketball with the youth and listening to rock music. But he could also be a staunch advocate of communism and the revolution, willing to silence critics.

“He was very active, very militant and very unconditional in his loyalty to the regime,” Mr. Fariñas said.

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Cubans in Florida Have Waited to See Castros Go, but No One Is Celebrating


They know that not having a Castro atop the Cuban government is a significant occasion. But, with Mr. Castro still heading the island’s all-powerful Communist Party, they fear that the ascension of Mr. Díaz-Canel will merely result in more of the same.

“It’s a moment in history,” said Tomás Regalado, 70, a former Miami mayor who hosts a daily Spanish-language radio show. “But it’s not a historical change.”

Journalists from Argentina, Colombia and Argentina have called to interview him on the handoff of power, he said. “And I’ve answered: ‘What handoff?’”

For years, exiles clung to hopes that they might someday be able to return to Cuba. Once Fidel is gone, they thought. But the elder Mr. Castro relinquished power to his younger brother 12 years ago. When he died in 2016, Miami erupted in joyous street celebrations. By then, however, it had long become clear that the revolution would continue to outlive both its leader and its fiercest critics.

“I’m 80 years old, and this has hit me pretty hard,” said Esteban Bovo Caras, a Bay of Pigs veteran who said he was too depressed to attend Tuesday’s ceremony and reunite with his friends. “It’s sad. I thought there would be a revolution against the Castros. But nothing has happened. They’re so entrenched. And Cubans are going to have to keep suffering.”

“I don’t think the fight has been lost, because there will always be someone who will do something,” he added. “But I feel sad, upset, to see how the situation continues, and there’s no way out, and the free world turns its back on it. They could not care less.”

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President Raúl Castro of Cuba, left, with Miguel Díaz-Canel Bermúdez, who is expected to succeed him as president.

Credit
Ismael Francisco/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

While his children also worry about Cuba, he said, they have built their lives here. “It’s a generational shift,” he said. “My grandchildren are more into baseball, soccer and all the nonsense in this country. The battle horses are hanging up their sabers.”

Andy Gomez, the former interim director of the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies at the University of Miami, blamed “Cuba fatigue” for the relative apathy among Cubans in the United States surrounding Mr. Díaz-Canel’s ascension. When Fidel Castro died, he was inundated with media inquiries for days. This time around, he has fielded maybe 15 calls, and no one asks if a major change is underway.

“The Cuban community has moved from a politics of passion to a politics of realism,” Dr. Gomez said. “How many of us are going to go back?”

Jorge L. Piedra, president of the Cuban American Bar Association, which helps independent lawyers on the island, said Mr. Díaz-Canel’s ascension had been met with “a sense of helplessness” by many Cuban-Americans who otherwise care deeply about Cuba policy.

“I don’t know whether it’s the state of politics and everything that’s going on at home and in Washington that has kind of distracted everyone, but I certainly don’t feel that it’s getting the attention that I would have expected for such a major event,” Mr. Piedra, 48, said.

Patrick Hidalgo, 39, an entrepreneur who was director of the White House Business Council under President Barack Obama, suggested that some Cuban-Americans born in the United States are more concerned with what’s happening here than with Cuba’s future under a new president who is unlikely to veer from Raúl Castro’s hard line.

“The problems in the U.S. are so significant that that’s what we’re more focused on. It affects our daily lives — health care, education, lack of jobs, lack of rising wages, authoritarian tendencies under our own leadership,” he said.

At the Bay of Pigs ceremony, Victoria Armengol Gempton, 34, helped her two children, Emma, 6, and Charles, 3, lay flowers on the monument to the fallen. Four generations of her family — starting with Ms. Gempton’s grandmother, Myrna Millán, whose husband, Pepe, died in the invasion — continued the tradition of attending, as they did when Ms. Gempton was a child.

“I want my kids to know what it’s like to fight for freedom,” she said.

Brigade 2506 veterans greeted friends they had not seen in months or years, sometimes commenting on each other’s appearance and health. The priest who used to lead their Mass has developed Alzheimer’s and cannot deliver it anymore, said Felix Rodriguez, 77, cane in hand as he sat in a plastic white chair to protect his frail back.

Mr. Rodriguez dismissed questions about the importance of Mr. Castro’s succession, calling Mr. Díaz-Canel’s selection political window-dressing.

“We know that absolutely nothing is going to change. It’s going to be exactly the same,” said Mr. Rodriguez, a former C.I.A. agent who helped capture the Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara in Bolivia in 1967.

“The Communist Party controls Cuba. Raúl Castro has put up a figurehead. The only time when there might possibly be a change is the day Raúl dies.”

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Raúl Castro Prepares to Resign as Cuba’s President, Closing a Dynasty


HAVANA — Raúl Castro, who took over from his brother Fidel 12 years ago and led Cuba through some of its biggest changes in decades, is expected to step down on Thursday and hand power to someone outside the Castro dynasty for the first time since the Cuban revolution more than half a century ago.

During his two terms as president, Mr. Castro, 86, opened up his Communist country to a small but vital private sector and, perhaps most significantly, diplomatic relations with the United States. It was a notable departure from his brother’s agenda, yet it was possible only because he, too, was a Castro.

His handpicked successor, Miguel Díaz-Canel Bermúdez, 57, is a Communist Party loyalist who was born a year after Fidel Castro claimed power in Cuba. His rise ushers in a new generation of Cubans whose only firsthand experience with the revolution has been its aftermath — the early era of plenty, the periods of economic privation after the demise of the Soviet Union, and the fleeting détente in recent years with the United States, its Cold War foe.

Officials started gathering here in Havana on Wednesday morning and put forward Mr. Díaz-Canel as the sole candidate to replace Mr. Castro, all but assuring his selection by the Communist Party.

Though Mr. Díaz-Canel’s path to the top office has been forecast for years, many an heir apparent before him has fallen by the wayside in the search for a successor to lead the country, whether because of party disloyalty, snide remarks or projecting too much power for the Castros’ liking.

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President Raúl Castro of Cuba, left, taking part in a session of the National Assembly in Havana on Wednesday.

Credit
Alexandre Meneghini/Reuters

In that delicate balancing act, Mr. Díaz-Canel, a former provincial leader who became the most important of Cuba’s vice presidents, has shown the sort of restraint prized by the Castros. But that same caution has left him an enigma both inside and outside the country.

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