Cuba's new leader just faced his first crisis.
It gave us a glimpse of his governing style
Mimi Whitefield, The Miami Herald
Soon after a passenger plane crashed near Havana's airport last week, killing 111 people, Cuba's new president Miguel Díaz-Canel arrived at the scene as the wreck of the Boeing 737 still smouldered.
Then he addressed the nation on state television, visited the morgue, the hospital where survivors were taken, and the hotel where family members of the crash victims were being put up until the bodies of their loved ones were identified. He hugged, gripped shoulders and listened.
He met with the aviation authorities heading up the investigation of the crash and last Sunday visited emergency workers drilling on disaster responses to the coming hurricane season.
The week before, he chatted with students at a high school computer lab, donned a hair net to tour a dairy processing plant that makes soy yogurt, visited a clinic in Havana's Lawton neighborhood, and stopped by an old technical school complex that had been converted into 145 apartments. He even visited a waste management site where he learned that 40 of the 90 trucks needed to collect Havana's trash were out of service.
And those were just a few of the stops Díaz-Canel has made in the little more than a month since he assumed the reins of Cuba's Council of State and Council of Ministers from Raúl Castro, who still heads the powerful Communist Party. He's also met with visiting world leaders, hosted a gathering of the U.N. Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean in Havana, and headed up a meeting to plan for the 500th anniversary of the city of Havana next year.
When Díaz-Canel, 58, was selected for the post, there were broad questions about how he — decades younger than the historic generation of Cuban leaders and not even born at the time of the 1959 Revolution — might govern.
Would he spend all his time huddled with his Council of Ministers working on continuity or would he prove to be more a man of the people?
"What is interesting is what a public figure he's been. He's been on the front page of Granma almost every day," said William LeoGrande, an American University professor who focuses on Cuba. "There's a very public effort to communicate to Cubans that Díaz-Canel is the legitimate leader. He has recognized the importance of the symbolic role of the Cuban president."
Critics of Díaz-Canel, including the Cuban-American delegation in Congress, have called him Castro's "puppet" and say the transition of power in Cuba was a "sham." On the island, his appointment to the presidency also was met with little enthusiasm by the Cuban population.
Even as he assumed the presidency, it was clear Castro would still be in charge.
In his speech at Díaz-Canel's inauguration, Castro said he will continue to head the Communist Party until the next party congress in 2021, and that the plan is to have the same person, presumably Díaz-Canel, at the helm of the party as well as the Council of Ministers and Council of State at that time.
Until then, Castro "will spearhead the most important decisions for the present and future of the nation," Díaz-Canel said in his first speech as president.
So at least until until 2021, Díaz-Canel faces a difficult political road.
"He leads by consensus, not by force of personality," said Pedro Freyre, who heads the international practice at Akerman law firm and has clients who do business with Cuba. "I expect him to be very cautious until he gets his footing. He has a very delicate balancing act to perform between the competing interests of the FAR [the Revolutionary Armed Forces], the party, the ministries and the other Cuban stakeholders."
In order to succeed as president, Díaz-Canel must be perceived as an independent leader, said Domingo Amuchastegui, a former Cuban intelligence analyst who now lives in Miami: "He doesn't want to be viewed as Raúl's protege or Raúl's baby. He needs to do his best and Raúl will back him up as strongly as possible."
During his speech before Cuba's National Assembly of People's Power in April, Díaz-Canel signaled that he might be a more hands-on president who was interested in mingling and getting Cubans' opinions: “We will have to exercise an increasingly collective leadership, strengthening the participation of the people,” he said.
As he waited in line with everyday Cubans to vote for National Assembly deputies in March, Díaz-Canel told reporters: "There has to be a focus on ties to, links with the people to listen to the people, deeply investigate the problems that exist and inspire debates about those problems."
The topics he's focused on most recently — food and agricultural production, healthcare, education, the internet, housing and getting the garbage picked up — are all issues that resonate with the Cuban population. But politically, he hasn't deviated from the party's paramount goal: survival of the revolution and the Cuban state.
"I think that by his style and the topics he's focusing on, he's showing that he's interested in continuity in politics but also understands the need for new blood in the Cuban state," said Arturo López-Levy, a lecturer at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley and a former Cuban intelligence analyst.
"Does having more contacts with the Cuban people solve the problems of the country? No," said López-Levy, but "it could make it less difficult to address those problems."
Díaz-Canel — the first non-Castro president since 1976 — faces a difficult but necessary reform agenda set in motion but not fully implemented by Raúl Castro and mounting economic problems.
Among the most difficult challenges that Díaz-Canel faces are unifying Cuba's unwieldy dual currency system and multiple exchange rates, attracting foreign investment, kick-starting Cuba's moribund economy and implementing reforms that will take Cuba toward more of a market socialism. Also left on his plate is constitutional reform and dealing with a tenser relationship with the United States.
Analysts say he'll need every bit of political credibility he can muster to push through reforms that are needed to make the Cuban economy more sustainable but that could be unpopular because there will be winners and losers.
"His most difficult task will be dealing with the consequences of necessary market reforms and the probable greater inequity that will result," said López Levy.
"The delay in currency unification is probably the No. 1 thing preventing Cuba from having sustainable growth," said LeoGrande. "No. 2 is the inefficiency of state enterprises. Twenty percent of the state budget still goes to subsidizing state enterprises."
The next big clues on how Díaz-Canel plans to govern will come in July when the National Assembly meets to approve his Council of Ministers. Castro has said the National Assembly also will set up a commission at that meeting to present a draft text of the new constitution, which will be debated by deputies as well as the Cuban population in coming months.
"Raúl Castro will continue to be extraordinarily influential in decisions made at the party's Political Bureau level, but Díaz-Canel also is a member of the Politburo and has a seat at that table," said LeoGrande. "Raúl Castro has made it clear that he sees Díaz-Canel as his protege and wants him to succeed. This transition is very much like Raúl Castro himself — structured and calibrated."
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