When Miguel Diaz-Canel, the newly designated first secretary of the Communist Party of Cuba and who has been the President of the country since October 10, 2019, was born on April 20, 1960, it was barely a year since the revolutionary movement led by Fidel Castro had won power by overthrowing Fulgencio Batista’s regime. Fidel’s brother and fellow revolutionary Raul Castro, who gave way to Mr. Diaz-Canel as the first secretary after a 10-year tenure, was then Defence Minister, a post he held till February 2008.
When Mr. Diaz-Canel became a member of the Central Committee of the CPC in 1994, after having taught engineering at Villa Clara University and having worked his way up the party’s ranks in Villa Clara province, Cuba was three years into the “special period” — an economic crisis that began after the collapse of the Soviet Union, on which the Cuban economy was heavily dependent.
Fidel had then allowed the functioning of a limited private sector and opened up Cuba to tourism and Mr. Diaz-Canel was in charge of the works in the province — from infrastructure to running the economy, etc. His work during his period propelled his rise further in the party to first secretary in Holguin province in 2003 and the appointment to the Politburo in the same year. In 2009, he became the Minister of Higher Education where he helped set better standards by introducing tougher entrance exams in universities.
Within four years, when Raul Castro took over as President and later as First Secretary from his brother, Mr. Diaz-Canel was elevated to the post of first vice president and signalled to be the heir-apparent to the two powerful posts in the country as it transited from its revolutionary-era leadership. His prior work promoting gradual reform during a tough period clearly won him plaudits.
In some ways, Mr. Diaz-Canel offers continuity to the Raul Castro regime, which undertook a series of cautious but steady reforms. The revolutionary-era Cuban communists transformed Cuba, which was run by a corrupt military dictatorship that presided over a country with severe inequalities and an economy that was dominated by external interests in the 1950s, into a socialist economy with heavy emphasis on education and universal health care, resulting in a highly literate society with a high human development index. But the collapse of the planned economy after the fall of the Soviet Union and the continued embargo imposed by the U.S. since 1960 resulted in recurring economic crises due to shortage of materials and resources.
Reforms that furthered more liberalisation of the economy — allowing small businesses, self-entrepreneurs and cooperatives, providing more autonomy to state-owned corporations, and recognition of private property with restriction, greater flexibility in foreign investment — besides setting up of special development zones were all done during Raul Castro’s tenure. Besides, these reforms, the economic relations with Venezuela also helped shore up oil supplies easing the pain from the embargo. While the reforms, along with the détente with the U.S. in the later stages of the Barack Obama presidency which also allowed remittances from Cuban émigrés, helped the economy register steady growth in the 2010s, the re-imposition of sanctions by the Trump regime followed by the Covid-19 crisis resulted in an 11.9% contraction in the country’s GDP in 2020.
Mr. Diaz-Canel finally managed, early this year, to implement the long-standing plan to abolish the system of dual currency in Cuba, which was necessitated during the special period to prevent Cubans from dumping pesos and for state-owned enterprises to import cheaply using dollars. The dual system had created inequalities in payments for workers in the mixed economy with some working in sectors such as tourism and other private enterprises earning much more than those in public institutions. But the transition to a single currency will go through some pain as it will take time to address the distortions.
The six-decade-long rule by the participants and leaders of the revolution had enjoyed significant support among older Cubans, who have benefited from its achievements over time, but younger ones, well-educated and informed, seek more freedoms. The generational change in the leadership of the CPC and the state could help stem the discontent with the regime but it will be a tough task for Mr. Diaz-Canel to live up to younger people’s aspirations as the economy struggles.
The older generation communists were also adamant that the one-party state was the only way-out for the socialist policies to remain, even as they embarked upon economic reforms that gradually allowed for the presence of a market economy. It remains to be seen if Mr. Diaz-Canel and the post-revolutionary leadership could further democratise Cuba at the grassroots and allow for more political freedoms, even as it continues its gradual economic reform.