Havana (AFP) – 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.”
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.
His supporters say he knows how to listen and is a man of simple tastes.
– Ruthless side –
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. A father of two children from his first marriage, Diaz-Canel remarried to Liz Cuesta, an academic specializing 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.
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.
– A guiding hand –
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.
Diaz-Canel will have a guiding hand on his shoulder, however.
Castro will continue to serve as head of the Communist Party, and last year traced out a roadmap of party-approved “guidelines” to implement the political and economic reforms he has initiated.