By Ron Shillingford
Cuba has undergone a historic shift by elevating a relatively unknown Communist Party official, Miguel Díaz-Canel, to replace retiring President Raúl Castro.
It was no surprise that the National Assembly selected First Vice President Díaz-Canel last week as the sole candidate to succeed 86-year-old Castro. The official handover of power was also the anniversary of the US-backed Bay of Pigs invasion defeated by Cuban forces in 1961.
The Cuban regime has carefully presented a profile of a man who is a staunch communist but in touch with Cuba's younger generation as it transitions away from Castro's contemporaries.
Apparently, he likes the Rolling Stones, The Beatles and has an iPad, according to PR information.
Díaz-Canel, 57, will carry the weight of the presidency as relations with the United States become more antagonistic and Cuba's main economic lifeline, Venezuela, deteriorates.
After he graduated from college in the central city of Santa Clara, he served his three years of obligatory military service and jumped right into party politics.
In 1987, he joined the Young Communists' Union and rose through the ranks. By 1994, he was named first party secretary in Villa Clara province. Neighbours say he didn't move to the larger homes provided by the government to people in that position and took a genuine interest in helping the community.
In 2003, he was named first secretary of the more populous province of Holguin in eastern Cuba and was named to the Communist Party's Politburo, one of its highest decision-making bodies.
In 2013, Castro named Díaz-Canel First Vice President of the Council of State, placing him in line to be his replacement.
Díaz-Canel maintained a separate career track throughout his time in politics. After finishing his military service, he was an engineering professor at the University of Santa Clara. Years later, he was named Cuba's minister of education.
Cuban media celebrated his approach to that role, boasting that he was one of the first high-ranking government officials to bring a laptop to government meetings and push for more technology in Cuba's underfunded classrooms.
He has hosted meetings in Cuba with many heads of state and has led government delegations abroad.
The few times he has spoken publicly, Díaz-Canel made clear he believes in the Marxist-Leninist ideology that formed the basis of the Castro revolution. He has fully embraced the country's suspicion of the Americans.
"Imperialism can never be trusted, not even a tiny bit, never," he said last October, echoing the words of Cuban revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevara on the 50th anniversary of his death.
Rob Miller is director of the Cuba Solidarity Campaign in the UK. He said: “We congratulate the Cuban people on electing their new Provincial and National Assemblies. We wish the new president all the best for the future and the challenges ahead in continuing to develop Cuban society in the face of the US blockade of the island that has gone on far too long.”
Miller does not foresee much change in the lives of the 11.5 million Cubans there. “This is a new younger generation of leaders mostly born after the revolution,” he said. “However, they have said that they wish to continue with their socialist system and develop the gains of their revolution most notably in health, education, culture and social care.
“This path has again been supported by the population with over eight million Cubans participating in the elections.”
Miller added that he is “sure Raúl Castro will continue to be a wise counsel over the coming years but he is elderly and I suspect he is looking forward to complete retirement soon. However, while he is able I am sure he will continue to support and work for the Cuban people as he has done all his life.”
People in the Cayman Islands regularly visit Cuba and some form relationships with Cubans. Will Díaz-Canel appointment change the way they interact with the island? “I doubt it very much,” Miller said. “The best thing would be for the United States to end the blockade which I am sure would make it easier for everyone in the region.”