After six decades of Castro rule, Cubans greet end of era with a shrug

After six decades of Castro rule, Cubans greet end of era with a shrug

Cubans view shift with indifference, not hope, as current vice-president Miguel Díaz-Canel is expected to replace Raúl Castro

When Cuba’s president stands down this week, it will mark the first time in nearly six decades that the island will be led by somebody whose last name is not Castro.

On Wednesday, the country’s national assembly selected the current vice-president, Miguel Díaz-Canel, as the sole candidate to replace Raúl Castro, in a nomination likely to be backed unanimously and officially announced on Thursday.

The handover will mark the end of an era: Cuba without the Castros has been the holy grail for Florida-based Cuban exiles – and a policy vigorously pursued by a dozen successive US presidents. But on the streets of Havana, indifference – not hope – is in the air.

No posters or billboards referring to the changeover are to be seen, the identity of the new leader is hardly a topic of conversation, and nobody doubts that the existing political system will remain intact. As the Cuban saying goes: nobody can fix it, but nobody can knock it down.

“A new president isn’t going to change anything so it’s not important for me,” shrugged María Victoria Esteves, 27, on her way to buy bread. “I think everything’s going to stay the same.”Yadiel Sintra, 30, a builder working in Cuba’s private sector, said he wasn’t even aware the country was about to get a new president. “I’ve just found out talking to you!” he said.

Díaz-Canel is widely expected to represent continuity, and few Cubans expect any dramatic shift, said Rafael Hernández, a political analyst and member of the Communist party.

There are no direct presidential elections in Cuba. When legislators for the National Assembly were elected this March, 605 candidates stood unopposed. Every one was elected.

“If a new president were to represent a fundamental change in people’s lives, Cubans would be very focused on this,” he said. “But the fact is they don’t see it like this.”

Though relieved of the presidency, Castro, 86, will remain a political presence, staying on as first secretary of the Communist party until 2021.

“The new president will have more power in the day-to-day,” said Hal Klepak, author of a biography of Raúl Castro. “But whenever there are crises or major problems with the US, foreign policy, or the economy, Raúl’s word will remain the last word.”

Díaz-Canel, a cautious reformist hand-picked by Raúl Castro, will be expected to walk the tightrope of implementing more market-oriented reforms without sacrificing Cuba’s social policies.

Health and education remain free at the point of use in Cuba. The country has the most doctors per capita of any country in the Americas, and life expectancy is 79. And while Cubans on state salaries feel the pinch when buying meat and vegetables, essential foodstuffs are guaranteed by the state.

Human rights groups say that the government continues to punish dissent and public criticism.

The number of long-term political prisoners in Cuba dropped significantly under Raúl Castro, as the government shifted from long-term incarceration to short-term arrest and release, which typically lasts hours. But the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation say that last year more than 5,000 people were arrested for political reasons.

Although he has been in government for over a decade, Díaz-Canel’s politics are unknown to most Cubans. His relative obscurity reflects the top-down way public affairs are practised on an island where there is only one legal political party, and where political campaigning is prohibited by law.

A former minister of higher education, Díaz-Canel has been criticised for coming across as stiff in his occasional media appearances, but his image is radically different from the late Fidel Castro and his brother Raúl.

As the first secretary of the provincial Communist party in Villa Clara province in the 1990s he was known for his long hair, riding his bicycle and walking around in Bermuda shorts. He was a strong advocate for LGBT rights at a time when homosexuality was frowned upon in the province and by many in the party.

Crucially, he was born after the Cuban revolution. If elected, Díaz-Canel will also be the first non-soldier in charge of the nation since 1959.

“Accusations that Cuba is a military dictatorship have cut deep,” said Klepak. “It’s useful to have somebody who has come up through the system and didn’t arrive there through the use of arms.”

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