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Cuban authorities approved President Raul Castro's hand-picked successor Wednesday as the sole candidate for president, nominally ending the Castro family's 59-year grip on power.
Miguel Díaz-Canel, Castro's first vice president, was unanimously selected by the National Assembly and is expected to be formally appointed president Thursday.
Díaz-Canel, 57, a former governor of two provinces and former education minister, will be Cuba's first nonmilitary ruler since 1952.
But his path to leadership was mostly paved by Communist Party discipline and a muted public persona, fueling skepticism that generational change in the island's government will bring democratic reform.
"It doesn't matter who the figurehead is, whether it's Fidel [Castro], whether it's Raul, whether it's this new idiot. Idiot. Tonto útil. A useful idiot. He's just a new useful idiot on the world stage," said Rep. Ileana Ros-LehtinenIleana Carmen Ros-LehtinenOne bipartisan remedy to the wave of anti-LGBTQ legislative attacks? passing the Equality Act High-speed rail getting last minute push in Congress Bottom line MORE (R-Fla.), who was born in Cuba and fled the Castro government as a child.
Still, a peaceful transfer of power to a civilian is an unexpected change for a government that's been led by essentially the same cadre since 1959.
Marguerite Jiménez, director for Cuba at the left-leaning Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), said 86-year-old Raul Castro respected the constitutional term limits he set for himself after taking power upon his brother Fidel's retirement.
"The key thing here is that this transition is historic, generational and institutional," said Jiménez.
"Miguel Díaz-Canel has really risen in the ranks in an institutional and relatively meritocratic way," she added.
Previous potential successors had been summarily dismissed by Castro, notably in the house cleaning that led to Díaz-Canel's appointment as first vice president in 2013. Over the past five years, Díaz-Canel doubled down on his party discipline.
"Díaz-Canel’s trick has been to play by the rules," said Geoff Thale, an expert on Cuba at WOLA. "Díaz-Canel has not been a profile character, and that’s in part what’s allowed him to get to this point where some of his predecessors didn’t."
Despite the regime's near-absolute political control of the island, Díaz-Canel will take control as the island faces an economic crisis aggravated by a failing sugar crop and cooling relations with the United States.
"Díaz-Canel has got sort of a dilemma. If he undertakes the types of economic reforms that he needs to, that’s going to upset the party. If he doesn’t make those changes, economically it’s going to go downhill. Either way he loses," said John Caulfield, former chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana.
And some observers believe those economic realities, plus Díaz-Canel's relative youth — he was born a year after Fidel Castro took control of the island — could signify the beginning of change for Cuba.
Rep. Eliot EngelEliot Lance EngelLawmakers pay tribute to Colin Powell NYC snafu the latest flub from a broken elections agency Cynthia Nixon backs primary challenger to Rep. Carolyn Maloney MORE (D-N.Y.), the ranking member in the House Foreign Affairs Committee, expressed hope that a new generation could force reform in Cuba along the lines of how Eastern Europe dropped communism in the 1990s.
"The transfer of power is only meaningful if with the transfer is reform. And sometimes, when you have a transfer you wind up getting reform from people that you would've thought were unlikely to be reformists," he said.
"I remember Margaret Thatcher with her famous quote, 'we can do business with Mr. Gorbachev.' When everyone thought [former Soviet Premier Mikhail] Gorbachev was going to be just like all the others, and it turned out to be different, so let's hope for the people of Cuba," he added.
Still, like Gorbachev, Díaz-Canel is expected to cautiously step into his new role.
"I expect that he will be cautious at first," said Caulfield.
But Caulfield added the island's economy is at a point where difficult choices are imminent.
"In his first year, he’s going to have to indicate the direction the country is going in the economy," said Caulfield. "His only chance is to figure out how he can manage the party to allow the economic reforms to move ahead more dramatically."
Díaz-Canel, Ros-Lehtinen said, "will soon be a household name," but his relative obscurity will make the foreign relations aspect of his new job even more difficult.
Cuba's top ally in the region, Venezuela, is going through economic collapse, and Latin America's leaders are keen to keep their distance from the South American country.
"It’s interesting that Cuba has gotten the least warm reception in Latin America that I’ve seen recently," said Caulfield. "A lot of Latin Americans think Cuba is at least partly responsible for the disaster in Venezuela."
Díaz-Canel will have both internal and external reasons not to look to the country's traditional enemy, the United States, for support.
After a rapprochement under former President Obama, U.S.-Cuba relations have deteriorated under President TrumpDonald TrumpSenate rejects attempt to block Biden's Saudi arms sale Crenshaw slams House Freedom Caucus members as 'grifters,' 'performance artists' Senate confirms Biden's nominee to lead Customs and Border Protection MORE.
And Díaz-Canel will take power with nearly zero credibility among Florida's influential Cuban-American community.
"This guy has been one of Castro's cronies and mouthpieces. He doesn't represent the Cuban people and he doesn't represent a change. This is just another crony of Raul Castro," said Rep. Mario Diaz-BalartMario Rafael Diaz-BalartAnother voice of reason retires Defense contractors ramp up donations to GOP election objectors Bottom line MORE (R-Fla.), the son of Cuban refugees.