Saturday 26 May 2018

Castro rule ends in Cuba after 59 years as Raúl hands over power

People go on with their daily lives in the sun-drenched backstreets of Havana yesterday.
Photo: Getty Images
People go on with their daily lives in the sun-drenched backstreets of Havana yesterday. Photo: Getty Images

Rachel Alexander

Cuba marked the end of an era as Miguel Diaz-Canel was formally elected as the country's new president, succeeding Raúl Castro and becoming the first non-Castro to lead the island in six decades.

The silver-haired Diaz-Canel - a top Communist Party figure who has served as first vice president since 2013 - is the island's first leader born after the 1959 revolution.

Miguel Diaz-Canel (left) with Raúl Castro. Photo: Getty Images
Miguel Diaz-Canel (left) with Raúl Castro. Photo: Getty Images

Mr Diaz-Canel was elected in a landmark vote of the National Assembly a day before his 58th birthday.

The chamber erupted into applause as the results were read out, with many of the delegates smiling and shaking hands warmly with Mr Castro and Mr Diaz-Canel.

As Mr Diaz-Canel walked to the front of the chamber, he high-fived the front line of delegates, embracing Mr Castro as he took to the stage.

Then the 86-year-old Mr Castro raised his successor's arm in the air in victory, prompting another wave of applause from the delegates - some in their shirt sleeves, others wearing military fatigues.

Between them, father of the nation Fidel and his younger brother Raúl made the Caribbean island a key player in the Cold War and helped keep communism afloat despite the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Raúl has been in power since 2006, when he took over after illness sidelined Fidel, who seized power in the revolution.

Mr Diaz-Canel, who has spent years climbing the party ranks, was named the sole candidate for the presidency on Wednesday.

Yesterday's symbolic vote took place on the anniversary of the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, when Fidel Castro's forces defeated 1,400 US-backed rebels seeking to overthrow him.

There was a small surprise, a single dissenting vote to Mr Díaz-Canel's nomination as president, as he was confirmed by 99.83pc of the ballot.

Havana has long hailed the showdown as American imperialism's first great defeat in Latin America.

Mr Diaz-Canel, who some say bears a passing resemblance to American actor Richard Gere, is a fan of The Beatles and whose penchant for wearing jeans has set him apart in Havana's corridors of power.

Although he has advocated fewer restrictions on the press and a greater openness to the internet, he also has a ruthless streak, with harsh words for Cuba's dissidents and the United States.

Crucially, he will remain under the watchful eye of Raúl, who will continue to serve as the head of Cuba's all-powerful Communist Party.

Once sworn in, Mr Diaz-Canel will be expected to pursue reforms begun by Castro to open up Cuba's economy to small private entrepreneurs and reach a rapprochement with the US, its Cold War arch-enemy.

In 2015, Havana and Washington renewed diplomatic ties, with then president Barack Obama making a historic visit to the island a year later.

But steps towards a normalisation of ties have been severely curtailed since Donald Trump arrived in the White House last year.

Mr Diaz-Canel will also inherit a youthful population hungry for change.

Cuba watchers and domestic analysts say he will favour continuity over change in the early days of his presidency, however, a view confirmed by his first speech as president to the assembly.

"The mandate given by the people to this house is to give continuity to the Cuban revolution in a crucial historic moment," Mr Diaz-Canel told the assembly.

He delivered a long homage to Raúl, calling him the best student of his brother Fidel.

Irish Independent

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