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Cuba's Communist Party picks leader

President Diaz-Canel replaces retiring Raul Castro as head of nation’s regime by Tribune News Service | April 20, 2021 at 2:00 a.m.

Miguel Diaz-Canel 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 Raul 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 Diaz-Canel, the nation's president, had been chosen as the party's new first secretary. The appointment came 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 Diaz-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 Diaz-Canel or somebody else."

Diaz-Canel's rise has been years in the making. Widely considered a loyal bureaucrat, Diaz-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 Raul Castro announced that he would vacate the presidency in 2018, handing over the presidency to Diaz-Canel.

In 2018, Diaz-Canel became the president, while Raul Castro retained the more powerful role as the party's first secretary.

In announcing his retirement Friday, during the congress' opening day, Raul Castro heaped praise on Diaz-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 Diaz-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," Raul Castro said.

In footage aired from the Congress on Cuban state TV, Diaz-Canel spoke with delegates in a socially-distanced closed 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."

"I have to keep preparing them, defining what paths they are going to take," he said.

Cuba's leaders are under increasing pressure to improve the lives of its 11 million citizens. The island's economy contracted 11% in 2020, according to government figures, as the pandemic halted tourism and then-President Donald Trump instituted a series of economic sanctions designed to squeeze the Cuban government. Cuban citizens, as they have during previous hard times, are again forced to wait in long lines for goods. Remittances from the United States have dwindled under Trump sanctions, and President Joe Biden has yet to undo any of the restrictions.

This year, Cuba unified its dual currency system, a measure meant to make the economy easier to navigate for much-needed foreign investors. While some state salaries were increased, the prices of goods have nevertheless skyrocketed. The government also announced an expansion of some small private businesses, a list that includes software programming, small-scale veterinarians and music teachers -- but doesn't allow journalists, health care practitioners or architects.

Shortly before the Congress, Cuba announced it was loosening long-standing restrictions on the sale of beef and dairy, and the slaughter of cows, allowing farmers to "do as they wish" with livestock as long as state quotas are met. The announcement was made as the island is dealing with acute food shortages.

"He is by necessity going to be focusing on what is unpleasant," John Kavulich, the president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, said of Diaz-Canel. "I believe he very well may be a one-term president, not because he's forced out, but because he will have completed those transition tasks."

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