Within 10 days of Miguel Diaz-Canel's big promotion to vice president of Cuba in February, he was already being tapped as a stand-in for reticent, 81-year-old President Raul Castro. It was Diaz-Canel, not Raul or Fidel Castro, who gave Cuba's first public condolences when the communist government lost its best friend and benefactor, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.
"We're saddened, but more determined than ever," Diaz-Canel said in a speech broadcast on national television. "Our tears will be worthless if they don't come with a commitment to carry on the beloved leader's vision."
Diaz-Canel's appointment makes him the designated successor to Fidel and Raul — and has put him on the Cuban equivalent of a media blitz. It's the first step in what appears to be a carefully orchestrated campaign to ready the island for an uncertain post-Castro future.
Relatively Young And Unconventional
Cubans are now wondering what sort of vision Diaz-Canel will have for their country. The island has been under the stern hand of Fidel and Raul Castro since 1959, and the vast majority of Cubans, like Diaz-Canel himself, have never lived under another leader.
Raul Castro says his current five-year term, which ends in 2018, will be his last. But given Castro's age, Diaz-Canel could take over sooner. Many Cubans are only beginning to form impressions of the new vice president, but he is especially well known in his home province of Villa Clara, where he first rose to be the top Communist Party official, according to Rafael Hernandez, editor of the Cuban journal Temas.
"This is the only political leader in Cuba that has conducted a radio show, so he has a communication capacity," Hernandez says. "He was known in Villa Clara because he used to sit down and drink beer and talk in the streets. The majority of Cuban politicians are not like that. I mean, the majority of the old bureaucrats are not like that."
The adjective most often used here to describe the tall, burly Diaz-Canel is "young," even though he's 52. Archival photos show him wearing his silvery hair a bit long in the back, in the style of a mullet. His reputation is that of a low-key, technocratic manager who listens and doesn't lecture, but his only experience at the national level came when he became Cuba's minister of higher education in 2009.
To most Cubans, Diaz-Canel is still a question mark.
Inheriting A Slew Of Structural Problems
At a busy intersection at the foot of the steps to the University of Havana, a young Fidel Castro once delivered fiery stem-winders as a gun-toting law student. But in a country where public protests are banned, the place has long ceased to be a democratic forum.
Ask young people here today about Diaz-Canel's tenure at the head of Cuba's struggling university system, and he evokes praise — but no discernible passion. After 53 years of Castro family rule, students like Carla Sanchez are more inclined to recite fuzzy platitudes about his duty to carry on the revolution.
"What young people want is someone with a fresh way of thinking who will move our country forward," Sanchez says.
Cuba's elderly leaders seem to be betting that Diaz-Canel can earn loyalty by delivering economic growth and good governance along the reform path charted by Raul Castro. Students like Jesus Manzo can expect to earn $25 a month if they graduate to government jobs, pushing many to instead leave the country or work as tour guides and hotel clerks.
"The big problem we have is our salaries," Manzo says. "We graduate and then take jobs that are far below our education level."
It's just one of the accumulated structural problems Diaz-Canel will face if he inherits the unenviable task of second act to the Castros. During a visit to New York in March, dissident Cuban blogger Yoani Sanchez said she hopes Diaz-Canel would turn out to be another Mikhail Gorbachev — a figure who could engineer the soft undoing of the island's socialist system.
Internal and external pressures will surely build for Diaz-Canel to do so, and there won't be a Castro around to push back.