A new era opens in Cuba as Raul Castro prepares for a successor

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For the first time in the lives of most Cubans, a man not named Castro is set to take over the leadership of the Communist-run island nation.

A new president is scheduled to be selected during a two-day National Assembly meeting that begins Wednesday — and it’s likely to be a Cuban official who wasn’t even born yet when Fidel Castro led his revolution down from the mountains to take over the government in 1959.

Fidel Castro had long said he expected to die while still in office, but following a mystery illness and botched intestinal surgery in 2008, he was forced to step down. He died in 2016.

His younger brother Raul Castro replaced him as head of state, the Cuban Communist Party and the island’s military, promising to make their revolution “prosperous and sustainable.”

Now Raul Castro, 86, is leaving office, apparently convinced that the best way to ensure the survival of his and his brother’s revolution is to begin a transition that he can help oversee.

“When the National Assembly reconvenes next year on April 19th,” Raul Castro said in 2017, “I will have concluded my second and last term in front of this state and government and Cuba will have a new president.”

The voting will take place Wednesday, the state-run newspaper Granma reported, with results announced Thursday.

Heirs apparent?

For years, many Cubans speculated that Raul Castro’s daughter Mariela — a member of the National Assembly and advocate for gay and transgender rights — or his son, Alejandro — a colonel in Cuban counterintelligence who represented the island in secret talks with the US — would be the next Castros to take power.

But neither is now in the running, Cuban government officials say.

Instead, Cuba’s first vice president is the apparent successor to Raul Castro: a 57-year old technocrat named Miguel Díaz-Canel, who has promised to hew closely to the course set by the Castro brothers.

“I believe in continuity,” Díaz-Canel told reporters recently when asked about his vision for Cuba’s future. “I think there always will be continuity.”

“Continuity” most likely means continued restrictions on the private sector for Cubans, tight controls on foreign investment and no openings to the single-party political system.

Will a new leader make a difference?

Few people expect much to change in the only Communist-run country in the Western hemisphere, at least not right away.

“Cuba will keep being Cuba, no one can change it,” Elián González, the boy found on an inner tube off the Florida coast in 1993, told CNN. González, then 5 years old, was placed with relatives in Miami but returned to Cuba with his father following a court battle. He was seen frequently with Fidel Castro, whom he described as being like a father to him.

Now González, 24, has emerged as one of the most effective advocates for the revolution and many Cubans believe he will one day have a leadership role.

“Cuba won’t change if another administration comes, if another president comes,” he said.

Cuban leaders say they are “perfecting” their revolution while resisting external pressures to open the economy and political system.

Castro will remain a powerful figure

Even though Raul Castro, according to Cuban government officials, plans to move to Santiago de Cuba, the city where his brother Fidel was buried, he is still expected to exercise a large measure of control over the Cuban government and have the final say on important decisions.

Castro will remain first secretary of the Communist Party of Cuba, a member of the National Assembly and, even if he is no longer president, the most powerful public figure on the island.

This week marks the anniversary of the Cuban government victory over CIA-trained Cuban exile forces at the Bay of Pigs, a highly symbolic moment for Castro to step down and for his replacement to be chosen in a secret vote by the National Assembly.

Stacked with members of the Cuban Communist Party, the only political party allowed on the island, and fervent supporters of the revolution, the National Assembly nearly always votes unanimously for the proposals made by the top Cuban leadership.

Despite their efforts to join the National Assembly, government opponents have either lost or not been allowed by the government on the ballot in municipal elections.

A revolutionary leader

Even as Cuba’s economy struggles and officials tweak the island’s economic model with little apparent success, there is no transformational leader waiting in the wings.

“You see it on signs everywhere here, ‘Fidel is Cuba,'” said Vicki Huddleston, the former head of the US diplomatic mission in Havana. “You won’t be seeing signs that say ‘Raul is Cuba.’ He was a placeholder. The next head of Cuba will be a placeholder. There is no charismatic leader like Fidel was.”

For opponents of the Cuban revolution who expected support for the government to crumble when Fidel Castro died, a peaceful transfer of power could indicate they have even longer to wait for change to occur.

Supporters of the Cuban government said their revolution will survive the departure of the Castros.

“Many people say ‘when the Castros’ mandate ends’ but I don’t believe the ideology will end; not what they have taught us, nor the ideas of the Castros,” Elián González told CNN. “Cuba is more than its government.”

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