'Viva Diaz-Canel'?: Cuba's next president won't be a Castro, creating delicate time for Canada-Cuba relations

For decades in Cuba, the chants of “Viva Castro!” backed one bloodline, famously declared even by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s father, Pierre Trudeau, in 1976. Soon, there may be a different cry in Cuba’s streets: “Viva Diaz-Canel!”

Cuba’s next president will be a non-Castro for the first time in nearly 60 years, ending an era in which the island’s revolution has been presided over by a generation of charismatic guerrilla leaders with a longtime personal affinity for Canada’s Trudeau family.

Power will likely be turned over to a plainspoken moderate, creating a delicate period of diplomacy between Canada and the Communist-led island.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, centre, sits with Cuba’s President Raul Castro, right, andDiaz-Canel, left, at Havana University on Nov. 16, 2016. Trudeau was on an official visit.(Enrique De La Osa/Associated Press)

What happens next, as 86-year-old Raul Castro steps down after two terms as president, will likely be determined Wednesday at the National Assembly in Havana. In a two-day process, the smart money says that First Vice-President Miguel Diaz-Canel, 57, a popular fixture in the Communist political apparatus, will be announced on Thursday to succeed him.

“This is a harbinger of generational change that’s already begun in Cuba,” former Canadian ambassador to Cuba Mark Entwistle said. 

“He does not come from the older generation of the kind of guerrilla fighters from the mountains who derive a lot of their legitimacy from that historical experience.

“He comes from a different place, he has a very different style, a different way of presenting himself, and he’s not from the same centres of political power.”

Diaz-Canel talks to a resident before casting his vote during an election of candidates for the national and provincial assemblies, in Santa Clara March 11.(Alejandro Ernesto/Reuters)

Diaz-Canel, described as a problem-solving party loyalist who started in politics as a bicycle-riding retail politician in Santa Clara province, has a quieter disposition and isn’t one of he fiery orators the Castros were. He has,however, been “groomed” for this role, Entwistle said, raising his global profile with frequent trips abroad to meet state leaders and ambassadors.

It was Diaz-Canel who met the Trudeaus on the tarmac in 2016 when the prime minister arrived for his state visit in Havana.

As Cuba’s president, he will have to deal with an economy that’s stagnating and an antagonistic U.S. administration that has rolled back some of the good will established during Obama’s 2015 state visit and thaw. 

Canada remains a friend, but Dalhousie University Cuba expert Emily Kirk fears those links are “waning.”

She cites a recent episode, in which Ottawa this week began removing family members of embassy staff posted in Havana, following reports last year of mysterious ailments causing concussion-like conditions. Several Americans and Canadians reported suffered dizziness and hearing loss.

Diaz-Canel, right, listens to Raul Castro during a closing session at the National Assembly in 2012.(Ramon Espinosa/Associated Press)

Although the theory they were subjected to a “sonic attack” has been dismissed, the family members have been removed, apparently in an “abundance of caution,” Entwistle said.

The former ambassador doesn’t expect the Cuban government to view the shrinking of Canada’s diplomatic footprint on the island — even if it only involves relatives — as a slight. The embassy should continue to function as always, he said.

Kirk, however, calls the move “foolish,” and believes it’s bound to offend.

“I have no doubt that colleagues who are diplomats there are going to be very upset with this decision. In terms of challenges with Diaz-Canel and Canada-Cuba relations, that’s tough to say,” she said, noting there remains no evidence of earlier reports about an acoustic attack.

It’s a potentially trying period for Canada-Cuba relations that won’t be helped by the loss of a personal Castro-Trudeau rapport.

Raul Castro, left, shakes hands with Diaz-Canel at the closing of the legislative session in Havana. Diaz-Canel, one of six vice-presidents, is expected to be named president this week. (Ramon Espinosa/Associated Press)

The change in leadership will be watched closely in Ottawa, as Canada-Cuba relations have long been buoyed by a warm friendship between and Trudeaus and the Castros. Somewhat controversially, the prime minister praised Fidel Castro, Raoul’s older brother, as a “remarkable leader” in 2016. Fidel Castro served as an honorary pallbearer in 2000 at Pierre Trudeau’s funeral in Montreal.

“The [bilateral] relationship is a unique and special one. It’s 70 years of unbroken relations,” Entwistle said.

Preserving bonds with Canada will hardly top Diaz-Canel’s agenda, though — not while he manages domestic concerns and the struggle for many people to make a living wage.

Although he’s expected to continue the reforms introduced by Raoul Castro, such as the embrace of some private enterprise, the selling of homes and some broadening of internet services, his transition comes as Cubans are looking for a better quality of life without forsaking the “gifts” of the revolution, including health care and free education, experts say.

A woman hangs a sign on her front door that reads in Spanish ‘There’s sandwiches’ in Havana. Cuba has nearly 600,000 private entrepreneurs, but private growth stopped when the government froze new licences for private bed-and-breakfasts, restaurants and other popular businesses.(Desmond Boylan/Associated Press)

Average wages are $ 30 a month US, infrastructure is crumbling, with roads and homes are in disrepair, and Cubans are dealing with a divisive economic system perpetuated by Cuba’s double currency system, Kirk said.

“Because of the fall of the Soviet Union, you have what’s called an inverted economic pyramid, whereby the people working in the tourist sector are making far more than those who aren’t,” she said. “A doctor will make $ 50 to 70 a month, whereas if you work in the tourist sector, you can make in the thousands.”

One of Diaz-Canel’s challenges will be to create one unified currency at home.

Castro apparently has faith that even if he doesn’t share the legacy of the Castro name, he will share a socialist vision and “manage the Cuban ship of state much as the revolutionary generation has done,” Robert Wright, editor of the book Our Place in the Sun: Canada and Cuba in the Castro Era, said in an email.

“I would not expect to see Diaz-Canel introduce radical changes to Cuban economic policy, for example, or to Havana’s relationship with Washington, which is always the top-of-mind foreign-policy issue for Cuban leaders.”

Nor does Wright foresee a great departure for Canada’s “conventional-but-cordial” relationship with Cuba under his leadership.

“It’s likely that, for Canadians who would like to see Ottawa push Havana a little more forcefully on human rights and economic reforms, the transfer of power to someone who does not bear the surname Castro will be seen as an opportunity.”

Even so, Entwistle stresses that the Cuba-Canada relationship runs deeper and broader than just the Trudeaus and the Castros. Two million Canadians continue to visit Cuba annually, and Cuba and Canada trade more than $ 1 billion Cdn worth of goods per year, with joint ventures in mining and tourism.

Diaz-Canel is a pragmatist, the former ambassador said, one who will likely carry on a Castro legacy, maybe with gradual reforms toward privatization.

“While there may no longer be that personal connectivity from the past, that extends to continuing a friendship with Canada as it was,” Entwistle said.

Castro’s retirement won’t necessarily mean he’s out of the picture, either. He’s likely to continue wielding some influence as head of Cuba’s Communist Party.

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