Every observer of the Cuban political process has been asked repeatedly since Sunday to read the tea leaves and give an opinion about what the appointment of Miguel Diaz-Canel means to the process of reforms in Cuba. I think the proper response is “cautiously optimistic”. It represents the continuation of a transition started in 2006, which more than just a liberalization or reform process, it’s about the institutionalization of the revolution, perhaps mixed with a market economy akin to China or Vietnam, rather than a personality-driven system. Will he become Cuba’s Gorbachev, leading the process towards a complete transition, or Cuba’s Egon Krenz, the appointed dauphin that could not control the inevitable? (There are many parallels between his career so far and Krenz’s.) Or will he be able to complete the transition Raul Castro envisions?
Diaz-Canel is what many always thought would be the generational successor to the Castros: a technocrat raised during the exuberant 60s, coming of age during the gray 70s, propelled by the mirage of prosperity of the 80s and a survivor of the crisis of the 90s. It was obvious that a member of that generation would get to be appointed heir apparent one day. We didn’t get the charismatic and popular (Robaina) or the brilliant and respected (Lage), instead we got the opaque provincial party cadre who made his ascension by virtue of unquestioned loyalty. It’s interesting than even Raul Castro, inside Cuba, had to present him as “not an upstart or improvised”, not exactly a ringing endorsement and a sign of his so far being just one more on a back bench of virtually indistinguishable role players. Like many of them, he doesn’t seem to have a power base beyond Raul’s support. Meanwhile, the reaction outside Cuba circles has been along the lines of “Hey, his last name is not Castro, he’s young –only in Cuba would a 52 year old being promised to take over at 57 be considered young– and he’s a Beatles fan!”
Perhaps the most interesting point for now is the contrast of Diaz-Canel with the man he succeeds, the dour Machado Ventura, one of the most hard line of the históricos generation and who was always considered to be the inflexible ideologue, the one opposed to reforms of any kind. (A long time ago, in the heady days of Robertico Robaina as an energizing cheerleader of a process that had, I remember seeing Machado Ventura visibly uncomfortably wearing a head band with an irreverent, rather than solemn, slogan. He didn’t even wear it on his head, he wore it as an arm band.) His appointment in 2008 as Vice President was interpreted as a signal of the backstop of the reform process, so naturally we are inclined to see his replacement as the opposite. Machado Ventura’s generation was focused on seeking victories, on prevailing against an enemy in a conflict. Diaz-Canel is perhaps more pragmatic, more inclined to look for a solution to a problem. His main task, like Raul’s, is to fix the economy, and there’s plenty in his plate. He won’t be able to rely on the tired sloganeering and socialist populism to propel the country forward. In a previous post he proved to be more down to earth and more tolerant than the typical province party chief –allowing tattoos and transvestites festivals, the flourishing of a rock movement, even riding a bike to work and waiting in line for pizza. Time will tell if he’ll lead the nation with a similar ear-to-the-ground, pragmatic and tolerant style.