Cuba will be without a Castro for the first time in nearly 60 years

How will Cuba's new president, raised in the shadow of the revolution, bring meaningful change to Cuba?

Cuba's First Vice-President Miguel Diaz-Canel queues at a polling station in Santa Clara. (Credit: ALEJANDRO ERNESTO/AFP/Getty Images)
Cuba's First Vice-President Miguel Diaz-Canel queues at a polling station in Santa Clara. (Credit: ALEJANDRO ERNESTO/AFP/Getty Images)

My grandmother was 19 years old in 1959, when Fidel Castro’s revolution began.

My father was 10 years old in 1980, when his parents were able to surreptitiously secure a Spanish visa and escape to America.

I am 22 years old in 2018, born in the United States to Cuban-American parents, when a Castro will no longer be President of Cuba for the first time in three generations.

On November 25, 2016, I stood alongside my family and hundreds of other Cuban exiles in Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood as they banged pots and pans and waved Cuban flags to celebrate the death of Fidel Castro, the former Cuban president who remained in office for nearly 50 years.


“I thought he would really live forever,” my grandmother said, almost with a sigh of relief. “But people forget there still is a powerful Castro in Havana.”

On Thursday, that era will end.

Raul Castro, Fidel’s brother, will step down as President of Cuba, a position he’s held since 2008, and for the first time in decades, the country won’t be led by a Castro brother.

How will Miguel Diaz-Canel, the next president of Cuba, handle the problems left unresolved by the Castro brothers? And what’s next for the country?

Raul’s Legacy

For better or for worse, Raul and Fidel Castro fundamentally changed Cuba’s political and economic system by shaping it into the one-party communist-run state it is today.


Under Fidel, Cubans were granted free health care and education, and because of that, the country boasts first-world levels of literacy and life expectancy. But Fidel’s rein left painful scars from which the country is still struggling to heal.

Critics of his regime were silenced, or worse, killed, like my grandmother’s first husband, who was shot to death in his home in 1970.

UMAPs (Military Units to Aid Production) were operated by the state government from 1965 to 1968. The agricultural labor camps were seen as Fidel’s most brutal tool of repression, where “pacifists” and LGBTQ individuals were sent to be “rehabilitated” through forced labor.

But the most apparent downside of Fidel’s legacy is material scarcity. Everyday necessities like transportation, food, medicine, soap, and internet access are either in short supply or cost-prohibitive to ordinary Cubans.

This is the Cuba Raul Castro inherited 10 years ago.

The younger Castro brother promised his administration would make the revolution “prosperous and sustainable,“and is best known for reshaping Cuba’s policies after the fall of the Soviet Union. Raul allowed for some foreign investment into the country, as well as permitting the creation of small, Cuban-run businesses. Fidel would have called these changes “concessions to the enemy,” but to Raul, they were essential to Cuba’s future.


He famously held a joint meeting with President Obama in March 2016, the first official contact between U.S. and Cuban governments in over 50 years.

“We agree that a long and complex path still lies ahead,” Castro said. “What is most important is that we have started taking the first steps to build a new type of relationship, one that has never existed between Cuba and the United States.”

There are 580,000 self-employed license holders in Cuba today, including cab drivers, tradesmen, owners of bed-and-breakfasts, and construction contractors. According to Reuters, the private sector in Cuba includes 429 cooperatives, many of them previously state establishments.

Most state workers do not pay income tax, while the self-employed, farmers, and workers who make more than 2,500 pesos per month (equal to roughly over $100, three times the average wage) do.

Cuba’s new leader will be tasked with striking a complicated balance between continuing the modern reforms Raul set motion, while staying loyal to the reluctant state Communist Party, ever wary of any change.

The new president

At just 57 years old, Miguel Diaz-Canel grew up in the shadows of the Revolution.

Diaz-Canel has a long history in Cuban politics. He was previously first vice president to Raul Castro, and before that, he served as minister of higher education. He headed the Communist Party of Cuba in Villa Clara from 1994 to 2003, one of the most economically depressed time periods in Cuban history.

Friends of Diaz-Canel recalled to NBC News a time when he helped operate a safe haven for hippie-types and LGBTQ individuals in the 1980s.

Profiles paint him as an approachable politician who prefers basketball over baseball, jeans over olive green khakis.

But he has also been described as having the personality of a “wet paper towel.” When Cubans were asked their opinions on Diaz-Canel last year, they generally responded with shrugs. 

Because he lacks the charisma and Castro name, he will be judged solely on what he can accomplish for the people of the Cuba.

There is one thing for certain, however, and that is Diaz-Canel will emphasize continuity over change. He will remain under the watchful eye of Raul Castro, who will continue serving as head of the Communist Party.

On Wednesday, the day the National Assembly chose Diaz-Canel as Castro’s successor, Cuban television announcers used the words “unity” and “continuity” in their broadcasts. The hashtag #SomosContinuidad (We are continuity) was pushed on social media by the state-run media. The government wanted to make crystal clear the idea that the end of the Castro dynasty in Cuba does not mean the end of their brand of communism.

And this is part of the problem.

Will change come to Cuba?

Beyond all the palace intrigue surrounding who the National Assembly chooses to succeed a Castro, there are real Cuban people hustling every day to make ends meet. Scarce resources have made Cubans incredible improvisers with a resilient spirit. But this new generation of Cubans is hungry for change.

“For us, [life without Castro as president] is like trying to imagine a new color, one that you haven’t seen before,”  a 22-year-old DJ named Charlie told the Washington Post. “We don’t want capitalism. That won’t work for us. But what we want is something that we haven’t seen yet.”

It is now up to Miguel Diaz-Canel to provide Cubans with that “something,” and In the current tense political climate, that will be no easy task.

Amid rising Cold War era-like tensions, Canada made the decision earlier this week to pull their diplomats from Cuba following mysterious “health attacks.” Canada’s decision mirrors that of the United States, which under Trump cut 60 percent of staff at the Embassy in Cuba after U.S. diplomats complained of similar health problems. Officials have said they experienced unexplained losses of hearing, sharp pain in their ears, vertigo, disorientation and extreme fatigue. The cause of the attacks, as well as who is perpetrating them, is unknown.

The Brookings Institute published a report Monday titled “U.S.-Cuban relations are about to get worse.” In it, senior fellow on Latin American foreign policy Ted Piccone cites the recent appointments of hardliners like John Bolton and Mike Pompeo to top national security positions as part of the reasons why relations will become even more frayed then they are now.

During his first few months in office, President Donald Trump announced the cancellation of President Obama’s “one-sided” deal with Cuba and began to rollback the piecemeal progress that was made during his administration, placing tighter restrictions on who can and cannot travel or conduct business in Cuba.

Restricting individual travel to the island will have a direct impact on the Cuban people. Individual travelers are more likely to stay in bed-and-breakfasts run by Cuban families instead of state-run hotels and use taxis to get around instead of government-owned tour buses.

Trump’s Cuba policy will likely be perceived by the Cuban government and its people as yet another example of U.S. aggression against the island.