A Castro will no longer be the leader of Cuba ― for the first time in almost 60 years.
Raúl Castro is expected to step down as Cuba’s president this week, a role he’s filled since his late brother Fidel’s resignation in 2008. The 86-year-old has been grooming his vice president, 57-year-old Miguel Diaz-Canel, to take his place. Castro has said, however, that he intends to remain as head of the Communist Party.
On Wednesday, the Cuban General Assembly nominated Diaz-Canel, an engineer and former education minister, as the sole candidate to succeed Castro as president. The nomination will be voted on later Wednesday and formally announced Thursday, Reuters reports. Diaz-Canel is expected to be approved with almost total unanimity.
“To have someone without the family name or the same aura of revolutionary is a historic shift,” Geoff Thale of the Washington Office of Latin America told ABC News of the impending vote.
If elected, the new president will inherit a country in the throes of change and mired in financial troubles. Observers have questioned whether Diaz-Canel will be up to the challenge to continue the social and economic reforms initiated during his predecessor’s tenure, particularly without the clout of the Castro name. Some have wondered if he may even backtrack on some reforms.
“People in Cuba really haven’t processed yet what it means to have a government without Raúl or Fidel leading it,” Yassel Padron Kunakbaeva, a 27-year-old Marxist blogger, told The Associated Press this week. “We’re entering unknown territory.”
Cuban experts have described Diaz-Canel as a “party ideologue” and “pragmatist” who is not expected to push for dramatic political change. In fact, observers say, Diaz-Canel’s ideology appears, if anything, to have hardened in recent years. He recently spoke out against the historic detente between the U.S. and Cuba achieved during President Barack Obama’s tenure, calling it “a different way [for the U.S.] to try to reach its final objective to destroy the revolution.”
Diaz-Canel is “not there to break the china or disrupt the political system,” Thale told ABC. “But he is going to face serious economic problems and questions of his legitimacy.”
As president, Raúl Castro took steps to modernize Cuba’s centrally planned economy — an unfinished effort that’s yielded mixed results. The private sector was expanded, and fallow state-owned land was leased out to farmers, among other reforms.
Castro also oversaw the historic thaw in relations with the U.S. and introduced new — though still limited — social freedoms, such as expanding internet access and allowing Cubans to travel and own cellphones.
But the Cuban economy has remained sluggish, growing by just 2.4 percent per year on average over the past decade — well short of the 7 percent annual growth that government officials say is necessary for the country to develop, according to Reuters. The inefficient Soviet-style state economy still employs three out of every four Cuban workers, who earn an average of $30 a month.
Infrastructure is crumbling, foreign investment is lagging and any hope that Cubans may have pegged on a warmer relationship with the U.S. has faltered as renewed tensions have emerged under President Donald Trump. The state also continues to quash free expression and stifle dissent.
William Leogrande, a professor and Latin America expert at the American University School of Public Affairs, said Raul Castro’s legacy hinges on how well his successor is able to grow Cuba’s economy and continue his path of reform.
“If the updating fails, Raul will be remembered as just one more reform communist who couldn’t force the system to change despite his best efforts,” Leogrande told Reuters.
Castros have ruled Cuba since 1959, when Fidel Castro was first sworn in as prime minister. Fidel, among the world’s longest-serving political leaders, died at the age of 90 in 2016.
This story has been updated with information about Diaz-Canel’s nomination.