The Cuban Revolution has, at last, a new president with a new name and a new face, the gray-maned 57-year-old Miguel Díaz-Canel, who wears the uniforms of a businessman, not a soldier.
Fidel Castro is dead. His 86-year-old brother, Raul, is stepping aside. But nobody should believe the Castros are gone, or that there’s a new revolution in the Revolution. Raul remains the head of the Communist Party, which is the body that determines all political life in the country, and behind him is a coterie of military officers whose power is matched only by their anonymity.
“We know there are senior figures in the leadership,” says the eminent Latin America scholar William LeoGrande at American University, “we just don’t know who they are.” These officers are “the ones who protect Cuba from the U.S.,” says LeoGrande, and they were the ones who never really trusted the thaw in relations offered by U.S. President Barack Obama, which President Donald Trump is doing his best to thwart.
Díaz-Canel is first and foremost a product of the Cuban Revolution. Born soon after Fidel Castro triumphantly entered Havana in 1959, he studied electrical engineering. Steeped in revolutionary ideology, he quickly rose through the echelons of the Communist Party in his hometown of Santa Clara, famous as the site of the mausoleum that holds the remains of the iconic Argentine revolutionary Che Guevara.
As Cuba’s first vice president, Díaz-Canel was less a contender for power than the anointed poster boy for the “new” Cuba that Raul had under construction, one seemingly more open to the world and, especially, to business. “Raul is very much in favor of building institutional strength and doing things by the book,” says LeoGrande. He added that if Díaz-Canel had not been approved by the National Assembly on Thursday—as he was by 603 votes from 604—it certainly would have upset the apple cart.
But who will really be running the show? The situation is in some respects similar to other nations where revolutionary soldiers came to power in the 1950s and ’60s and constructed civilian façades, while the real power lay with the intelligence and security apparatuses. In Algeria, for instance, the question of who rules the country often has been answered by the enigmatic designation “Le Pouvoir”—The Power. And in Cuba there is a particularly good reason for anonymity.
In the 1980s, in the wake of the Nicaraguan revolution and at the height of renewed efforts to spread Cuba’s influence in Central and South America, Fidel and Raul personally authorized cartel drug-running operations from Colombia to the United States using Cuban territory and territorial waters to evade U.S. Coast Guard vessels. The payoff was supposed to be funding for communist revolutions around the world. But the operation eventually was busted by the FBI, which apprehended the facilitators—the runners, couriers, speedboat drivers—who talked.