HAVANA, Cuba- There is a black Audi parked outside my apartment building in the neighborhood of Vedado, Havana. The registration begins with the letter M, which indicates that it belongs to the Ministry of the Interior. Two security guards with thick mustaches surveying the people who enter my building.
From a passageway overlooking the outdoor patio I watch a Sunday lunch. In one of the chairs, with graying hair and slightly pink skin, dressed in a gray shirt and holding a beer in his left hand, sits the vice president of Cuba, Miguel Diaz-Canel, accompanied by his wife.
The man poised to become the first Cuban head of state not named Castro in almost 60 years, is reclining in his chair and conversing normally without gesturing too much. One arm is outstretched over the shoulder of his wife, Lis Cuesta, while the other clutches his beer, appropriately a ‘Presidente’.
One of my neighbors tells me a couple of hours later that the vice president and his wife came to lunch because his mother is a friend of Cuesta. My friend also tells me that Díaz-Canel "is a cool, jocular guy," who “enjoys a drink” and is a Barcelona soccer fan.
Who is Díaz-Canel?
Assuming there are no surprises, on Miguel Mario Díaz-Canel Bermúdez, 57, will be named the new president of Cuba’s Council of State on Thursday. In so doing, he will become the communist-run island’s first head of state since the triumph of the Cuban revolution in 1959.
Representative of a new, younger generation of Cuban leaders, he has a Facebook account - albeit a very dry and formal one - and carries a tablet computer in meetings.
An electronic engineer by training, he graduated from the university of his native province of Villa Clara but is more a product of the cadres of the Cuban Communist Party, choosing to follow a political career rather than science.
Although he does not have the same degree of military training like most of the party's top echelons, he did briefly don olive green for three years after graduating in the early 1980s.
He returned to the university classroom as a teacher and that is where his rise in politics began. At the end of the 1980s, he joined the party's youth wing, the Union of Young Communists (UJC) in Villa Clara.
A communist with rock musician looks
The UJC is the farm system for the Communist Party (PCC), a laboratory for political cadres and the stage for aspiring young communist leaders. In the early 1990s the collapse of the Soviet Union plunged the island into a crisis that saw its economy contract by 36%, but Diaz-Canel's star continued to shine as he rose to second secretary of the UJC's national committee.
In 1994, Díaz-Canel was made provincial first secretary of the Cuban Communist party for Villa Clara, a kind of local governor.
In a rupture with the stereotypes of the Cuban leaders of the time he sported long hair that made him look like a rock musician, dressing in jeans and sports shirts. It was a carefree change from the typically stern looking types, dressed in well-ironed military uniforms, that Cubans were used to.
"You saw him everywhere in the city, he was young and he was attentive. The women loved it," says Alfredo Suárez, a 65-year-old retiree in Villa Clara.
Mercedes Del Monte, 68, who worked for the provincial party in Villa Clara in the years when Diaz-Canel was the first secretary, said: "He is an extremely effective and reliable man, he worked until late at night and cared for all his subordinates, even the lowest ones."
Alejandro Almaguer, a 55-year-old bricklayer, recalls two episodes that won over many locals in Villa Clara. "Cuba was going through its worst part in the special period (economic belt tightening after the end of Soviet subsidies), but the leaders were still living well with their perks," he says. "Miguel did not; the man was riding a bicycle when the other leaders were in cars with drivers."
In the 90s, the island had so little oil that it was barely enough to supply the population with random electric power for a few hours a day. Almaguer says that the provincial hospital one day ran out of electricity and Diaz-Canel went from bed by bed to apologize. One of those patients was Guillermo Fariñas, a prominent dissident who on hunger strike and ended up hospitalized.
During his time as a leader in Villa Clara, Díaz-Canel also stood out for supporting several cultural projects. Among them music festivals that promoted local rock bands, despite many years when that brand of music was ideologically frowned on.
He also famously approved a gay club in Santa Clara, El Mejunje, featuring transvestite shows, a first in Cuba.
The smiling Díaz-Canel enjoying lunch with my neighbors, is more like the happy and energetic Díaz-Canel who led the province of Villa Clara. However, the Diaz-Canel that Cubans have gotten used to seeing in the news, is austere and gray.
Critics say his party duties ended up making him an overly-obedient communist; the kind of leader who cares more about not looking bad to his superiors than satisfying social concerns.
"He is a man without nuances. He neither displeases, nor enamors you. He has made it clear that he is not a man of change, that he has gotten where he has because he obeys orders. There is nothing in his speeches, in his positions, that make us think he is especially smart," says Francisco Perdomo, a professor at the Raúl Roa Higher Institute of International Relations.
After all, Díaz-Canel is a son of the generation of Cubans born in the early years of the revolution. They were raised in the boom years of the revolution, inculcated to follow orders without question.
In 2003, he was transferred by the central committee to lead the province of Holguin, cementing his place on the radar of the Castros, and a potential trusted figure for the unavoidable generational handover that would come.
In 2006, things got complicated when Fidel Castro became ill and was forced to give up his political powers to his brother. Díaz-Canel's prospects took a giant leap when Raúl Castro removed eight ministers and four vice-presidents from the Council of State from their posts. Among them were two top party prospects from the new generation of young leaders who, like Díaz-Canel, were gradually occupying important positions within the government apparatus: Foreign Minister Felipe Pérez Roque and vice president Carlos Lage Dávila.
Reformer or not?
In 2009, Raúl Castro handed over the Ministry of Higher Education to Díaz-Canel, who undertook the task of reinforcing socialist ideology in Cuban universities.
"At the suggestion of the country's top leadership, we had to develop several changes that were aimed at carrying out more ideologically political work among young people. Teaching plans were modified," says Magalys Almanza, an employee at the Ministry of Higher Education.
On February 24, 2013, Miguel Díaz-Canel became the first vice president of the Council of State.
Despite being three decades younger than Raúl Castro, Díaz-Canel has not said or done anything to suggest that his ideology is not Marxist. His speeches are loaded with the same rhetoric and the same revolutionary slogans with which Cuban politicians have filled the podiums since 1959.
In 2017, in a leaked video on the internet, he was seen lashing out at would-be reformers in a meeting of party cadres, effectively silencing rumors that had him pegged as the agent of change in Cuba.
In the video he appears angry, attacking "subversive projects" of self-employed entrepreneurs, the Catholic Church, independent journalists, and some foreign embassies, and calling them enemies of the Cuban state.
Obama’s opening, he said was just another way of trying to “destroy the Cuban revolution.”