EVER since Raúl Castro replaced his ailing brother, Fidel, as Cuba’s president in 2008, he has made clear that his overriding aim is to organise an orderly political and economic transition to ensure that the ruling Communist Party remains in power after both men die. Progress towards that goal has been painstakingly slow, and sometimes crablike. But another step was taken at the opening of a newly installed National Assembly on February 24th, when Raúl began a second presidential term. Not only did he repeat that it would be his last. He also hailed the appointment as first vice-president of Miguel Díaz- Canel, a former higher-education minister, saying this represented “a defining step in the configuration of the country’s future leadership”.
“Who’s he?” was how one Havana resident greeted the news. Mr Díaz-Canel may not be exactly a household name in Cuba but he has been tipped for the top for several years. He has stood in for Raúl on a couple of recent foreign visits. Aged 52, his elevation means that the Castros, both of whom are in their 80s, are at last passing the baton to a generation born after the 1959 revolution. (Fidel gave a short speech at the assembly, in a rare public appearance which could be read as giving his blessing to the new appointment.)
Mr Díaz-Canel is an electrical engineer who spent 15 years as a provincial party secretary before becoming a minister and, last year, vice-president of the Council of Ministers. He is unexpressive in public, but is said to be affable and accessible, with a quick wit and sharp mind. Until fairly recently he wore his hair long, another reminder of the fact that he is a child of the 1960s, not the 1930s. He is known to be a fan of the Beatles, an enthusiasm once frowned upon by the regime.
Whereas Fidel liked to surround himself with young acolytes, Raúl has long shown that he values the practical experience of provincial party officials, to whom he has devolved some powers. Another rising star, Mercedes López Acea, the Havana party secretary, was promoted to the rank of vice-president as well.
As higher-education minister Mr Díaz-Canel expanded a scheme under which Cubans taught students from Venezuela, Cuba’s chief benefactor. He forged close ties with Venezuela’s leaders, including Nicolás Maduro, the de facto president. With Mr Chávez seemingly dying of cancer, it is vital for Cuba’s leaders that Mr Maduro should succeed him and continue to provide subsidised oil.
Raúl once praised Mr Díaz-Canel for his “ideological firmness”. The new man’s private views are unclear. In the 1990s he was linked to a group of communist reformers that surrounded the then foreign minister, Roberto Robaina, who openly argued for economic liberalisation in Cuba.
Raúl Castro has allowed Cubans to buy cars and homes, to lease farmland and to set up small businesses. Last year he scrapped curbs on foreign travel. As a result, this month Yoani Sánchez, a blogger and opponent of the regime, has been able to visit Brazil—though she has faced protests organised by the Cuban Embassy in Brasília and members of Brazil’s ruling Workers’ Party.
There are signs that Raúl is running out of reformist steam. His tone in his speech to the assembly seemed at times almost resigned. “I was not chosen to be president to restore capitalism to Cuba” he stressed (Mr Díaz-Canel nodded in agreement). He announced no new economic reforms. It will be Mr Díaz-Canel’s job to get to grips with the “issues of greater scope, complexity and depth” that Raúl said the government was grappling with. First among these is allowing private wholesale markets.
Various putative dauphins were raised up by Fidel only to fall from grace, accused of corruption or of excessive ambition. One of them was Mr Robaina, sacked in 1999. He now spends his days painting and running a restaurant in Miramar, an elegant district of Havana. Mr Díaz-Canel is presumably aware of the risks involved in his elevation. But this time it looks as if the chosen successor may be the one who actually succeeds.
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