For the first time in 60 years, the Castro family on Thursday turned over leadership of Cuba to a non-Castro in an event that was historic but of uncertain importance for the impoverished communist island.
Miguel Diaz-Canel, a Communist Party stalwart selected by President Raul Castro and party leaders five years ago for this moment, left no doubt that survival of the 1959 revolution led first by Fidel Castro, then brother Raul, would remain his top priority.
“The mandate given by the people to this house is to give continuity to the Cuban revolution in a crucial historic moment,” he told the National Assembly.
There were no surprises in his speech because party elders didn’t want any. He was chosen because he is viewed as a younger Communist who hews hard to the doctrinaire dreams of Fidel and Raul.
Diaz-Canel has scored points with the Cuban people for expanding internet availability and showing some socially liberal tendencies, but his history is that of a true believer in the revolution and the Castros. He was once a bodyguard for Raul.
Yet, Cuba watchers hope Diaz-Canel might be more amenable to change than the octogenarians who selected him if for no other reason that at 57 he is comparatively young.
The truth is change may be forced upon him because Cuba’s economy is a sputtering mess that is losing the Venezuelan oil it got under the late Hugo Chavez, has huge debts and lacks a benefactor like the Soviet Union.
Rapprochement with the United States begun under President Barack Obama looks dead for now, because his successor Donald Trump has essentially turned Cuba policy over to the Miami hardliners who back our failed trade embargo in place since 1962.
Much of Obama’s work has been undone, which means the United States has been dealt out of any positive role in Cuba.
Without much hope it will happen, we would urge Trump to redirect his policy toward positive engagement with the island. The current policy — which is essentially the old policy — has accomplished precisely nothing. We urge U.S. Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz to remember that trade with Cuba offers plenty of opportunity for Texas farmers and ranchers and business at the Port of Houston.
And we would urge Diaz-Canel to truly be a modern leader for Cuba. It is time for the island to leave its own failed policies behind so that its people have more freedom, better lives and some say in who is running the show.
Whether he can do that under the watchful eye of Raul Castro, who remains head of the military and the Communist Party and has shown a taste for only mild change, remains to be seen. We wish him luck.