(Repeats to widen distribution)
By Daniel Trotta
HAVANA Nov 30 With revolutionary leader Fidel
Castro dead and his brother Raul vowing to step down as
president in 15 months, it will soon be the hour of heir
apparent Miguel Diaz-Canel, an advocate for modernizing Cuba's
state-run media and abysmal internet access.
Fidel Castro died last Friday aged 90 and the 85-year-old
Raul Castro, who took over as president in 2008, says he will
step down in February 2018 at the end of his second five-year
Diaz-Canel was elevated to the position of first
vice-president in 2013, putting him next in line for the
At 56, he is a relative youngster in the ruling Communist
Party's leadership and will need to appeal to younger
generations if Cuban communism is to thrive beyond the Castro
He has already established press and internet freedom as
signature concerns, a potentially disruptive change in a
one-party state that has monopolized the media for nearly 58
Otherwise, however, he has a much weaker public profile than
the Castros and it is not clear what policy changes he would
Until now, he has held to the party line or avoided public
comment on key issues such as economic and political reforms or
relations with the United States, which were overhauled by Raul
Castro and U.S. President Barack Obama over the past two years.
Still, experts say his position as heir apparent is solid
and that he would have to stumble badly for someone else to
leapfrog him and become the next president in Cuba's arcane
system for choosing its leader.
Born after the Castros took power in 1959, Diaz-Canel is a
child of their revolution who rose through the Communist Party
by cultivating relationships within the political elite while
avoiding the show-boating that ended the careers of other
"He has the advantage of having outlived his predecessors
(as heir apparent)," Christopher Sabatini, a Cuba expert at
Columbia University's School of International and Public
Affairs, said on Monday.
Other apparent successors to the Castros have emerged over
the years only to fall suddenly.
Among them were Carlos Lage, then 57 and one of Cuba's
secondary vice-presidents, and Felipe Perez Roque, then 43 and
foreign minister. They were both sacked in 2009 as part of a
purge by Raul Castro for appearing too ambitious, unwittingly
collaborating with Spanish intelligence agents and for speaking
ill of older leaders.
Diaz-Canel has been careful not to eclipse Raul Castro and
is so cautious as to come off as dull and gray, his public
statements largely unmemorable.
"He's sublimated any ambitions he may have had, so the
question is what his role and power will be among the old guard.
Most people try to imagine him bridging the new generation and
the historic one. That should be challenging," Sabatini said.
That reserved behavior and the government's secretive nature
make Diaz-Canel largely a mystery to all but Cuba's political
U.S. officials say they know little about him, and most
Cubans outside his hometown of Santa Clara know even less.
If he does take over in 2018, Diaz-Canel will be following
59 years of rule by the Castro brothers, one who was gifted with
abundant charisma and the other who commanded the absolute
respect of top military and political figures.
"He will be the first civilian president of the revolution
and that will require the confidence of the military," said
Arturo Lopez Levy, a former political analyst for the Cuban
government whose mother taught Diaz-Canel at university.
Raul Castro, who founded Cuba's Revolutionary Armed Forces
and served as his brother's defense minister for 49 years, will
remain first secretary of the Communist Party for three years
after he steps down as president, retaining significant power.
"Raul Castro will still be around and he will be a big
source of legitimacy," Lopez Levy said.
BIKE PATH TO THE TOP
Diaz-Canel's path from young provincial party chief to heir
apparent started on a bicycle in the city of Santa Clara, where
he was born in his parents' home three blocks from the main
Two decades ago, his career was taking off as Cuba suffered
a severe economic crisis following the fall of the Soviet Union.
Average Cubans had no choice but to opt for a bicycle, or
walk to work, while political leaders commuted in their
Diaz-Canel chose to pedal. He would navigate the provincial
capital Santa Clara, vying for space on narrow streets clogged
with horse-drawn carts, motorcycle taxis and pedestrians.
"Everybody was screwed, and the people saw the first
secretary on a bicycle. He didn't do it to look for popularity.
He did it because that's how he was. He was very
straight-forward," said Jose Antonio Fulgueiras, 62, president
of the journalists' union in Villa Clara province who covered
Diaz-Canel's rise as a politician and considers him a friend.
Beyond its populist touch, the bicycle gave Diaz-Canel
greater stealth as he approached state enterprises for surprise
The fight against corruption became his trademark, and he
would ride that bike, figuratively, to the upper reaches of
After nine years as leader in Villa Clara, Diaz-Canel took
the same job, as first secretary, in Holguin province in 2003.
He was also promoted to the 14-member Politburo, the highest
leadership of the Communist Party.
In Holguin, he lacked the hometown advantage but did well
enough to be summoned to Havana in 2009 to serve as minister for
Then on February 24, 2013, the National Assembly promoted
him to first vice-president, a significant generational shift.
Diaz-Canel was the first Cuban born after the 1959
revolution to ascend to the No. 2 job.
Despite his attempt to remain unexciting, Diaz-Canel has had
his provocative moments, especially with regard to Cuba's strict
control of the official media.
He has often called for a more dynamic and open media, and
has welcomed the internet, still available to only a small
minority of Cuba, as a tool to help the people rather than a
threat to the government.
Only 5.6 percent of Cuban homes had access to the internet
in 2015, according to a 2016 U.N. report. Full-fledged internet
access would dilute the disciplined message reported by official
media, but Diaz-Canel says trying to stop the internet's spread
is a losing proposition.
"Prohibiting it would be an almost impossible delusion that
doesn't make sense," he told reporters shortly after becoming
The government would later extend Wi-Fi signals to public
places across the country. It is unknown whether or how much
Diaz-Canel was responsible for that measure.
To compete with the public's demand for social media, he
says Cuba's state-run media needs to change, calling for an end
to secrecy, urging more "polemical" coverage of news and telling
the Communist Party it should allow more constructive criticism.
"Society is demanding more."
(Reporting by Daniel Trotta; Editing by Kieran Murray)