Miguel Díaz-Canel, the loyalist groomed to succeed Raúl Castro, on Monday was formally named chief of Cuba's Communist Party, giving him unprecedented civilian control of a nation grappling with a shattered economy, food shortages and a citizenry increasingly emboldened to criticize the government.
The long-expected consolidation of power came after Castro, the former president and revolutionary figure who helped his brother cement a communist regime in Cuba, officially announced his retirement at age 89.
Cuba's Communist Party announced on Twitter that Díaz-Canel, the nation's president, had been chosen as the party's new first secretary. The appointment comes on the last day of the Communist Party's Eighth Congress, a carefully scripted event in Havana meant to herald the arrival of a new generation of leaders as the last of the old guard rebels depart amid the island's worst economic crisis in decades.
Throughout the congress, the 60-year-old Díaz-Canel — who was born after the revolution that ushered Fidel Castro into power — has pushed a theme of "continuity." While Cuba is in urgent need of an economic jump start, few anticipate that his leadership will mark a significant departure from how the government operates, especially as he looks to consolidate the support of party loyalists.
"It's been embedded in Cuba's DNA — all the habits, the totalitarian populism, the allergy to criticism, the repression of independent thought," said Ted Henken, a Cuban expert at Baruch College in New York. "These habits will die very hard, whether it's Díaz-Canel or somebody else."
Díaz-Canel's rise through the communist ranks has been years in the making. Widely considered a loyal bureaucrat, Díaz-Canel rose through the ranks of the Communist Party, making his name as the party chief in two provinces before he was named vice president of the country in 2013. That's when Raúl Castro announced that he would vacate the presidency in 2018, handing over the presidency to Díaz-Canel.
In 2018, Díaz-Canel became the president, while Raúl Castro retained the more powerful role as the party's first secretary.
In announcing his retirement Friday, during the congress' opening day, Raúl Castro heaped praise on Díaz-Canel while also urging delegates to remain close to the core tenets of the nation's Soviet-style economy, something he said he was certain his successor would continue to do.
"We have already said that Díaz-Canel is not the result of improvisation, but of a thoughtful selection of a young revolutionary with the conditions to be promoted to higher positions," Raúl Castro said.
In footage aired from the congress on Cuban state TV, Díaz-Canel spoke with delegates in a socially-distanced closed-door session about the need for new blood in the Communist party, saying he's looking for "the best ... the best revolutionary qualities, the best ideological qualities, the best professionalism, charisma, work and experience."