Cuba finds itself at a crossroad. For the first time since 1959, the nation will be governed by someone other than a member of the Castro family.
Fidel Castro died in November 2016, and his replacement as President, his brother Raul stood aside on the 19th of April, opening the way for the 58-year-old former Vice-President Miguel Diaz-Canel to ascend to the top of the ladder.
In his first speech as President, Mr Diaz-Canel stated that he fully intends to preserve the single-party system, promising to keep the country on the path of the revolution that propelled his predecessors to power. Interestingly, he did also promise to continue the economic reforms of Raul Castro, which has seen the liberalisation of business regulations in recent months.
However, Raul Castro is not destined for a peaceful retirement. He has signalled that he intends to stay on as the head of the Cuban Communist Party until 2021, and will no doubt be keeping a close eye on the new President. Indeed, Diaz-Canel seems to acknowledge this, stating that Castro “will still preside over decisions of major importance for the present and future of the nation.” It appears that while Castro has stepped down from the day to day running of the nation, he will still wield significant behind-the-scenes power, and will no doubt seek to protect the legacy of his family.
International reaction to this news has been mixed; while the Cuban government received congratulations from the governments of China, Russia, Britain, Spain and across Latin America, the Trump administration was significantly less welcoming. State Department Spokeswoman Heather Nauert accused the Cuban government of “silencing independent voices” in order to “maintain its repressive monopoly on power.”
This marks something of a departure from the attempts at rapprochement spearheaded by Barack Obama’s administration.
The handover itself was a historic moment, not least because of it occurring on the anniversary of the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, where 1400 US-backed rebels were defeated while attempting to overthrow the newly established communist government.
As Castro vacated his seat at the front of the chamber, it was immediately filled by Diaz-Canel, much to the delight of the assembled party delegates.
The handover was smooth, but the new President must still be ready to chart the rough waters of government as he seeks to protect the legacy of his predecessors against a new generation of reform-minded Cubans.