Politics·CBC IN CUBA

Cuba's Communist Party may still bear Castro influence beyond 2018 succession

Vice-President Miguel Diaz-Canel represents the next generation of Communist Party leaders in Cuba, but Raul Castro's influence could still loom, in addition to that of members of the extended Castro family, CBC's Evan Dyer reports from Havana.

Hard to predict both the internal workings of the party, and the will of the Cuban people

Cuban President Raul Castro addressing a massive rally on Revolution Square in Havana on Tuesday in honour of his late older brother, Fidel, plans to remain first secretary of the Communist Party and commander of the armed forces when stepping down from the presidency in early 2018. (Juan Barreto/AFP/Getty Images)

They sat in places of honour at the huge rally in Revolution Square on Tuesday night, faces wrinkled by time but olive-green uniforms neatly pressed. The veterans of the rebel army that defeated the forces of Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista 56 years ago are now a dwindling band of octogenarians.

President Raul Castro, 85, is one of them. And as he listened to his brother's eulogies, he surely knew as well as anyone that an era is coming to an end.

Raul Castro has acknowledged as much, announcing that he will leave the presidency on Feb. 24, 2018, after Cuba holds its next elections. (The actual voting is, of course, something of a formality in a one-party state.)

Diaz-Canel offers a new look

The appointed successor is already known: Vice-President Miguel Diaz-Canel, who represents the next generation of Communist Party leaders.

A 56-year-old lover of rock music in a country where it was once officially frowned on as degenerate, Diaz-Canel represents the Cuban Communist Party's best hope for the future. He dresses office casual, carries a tablet and knows how to interact with ordinary people almost like a politician who has to campaign for votes.

Cuban Vice-President Miguel Mario Diaz-Canel is the appointed successor in Cuba, but it remains to be seen whether he'll wield any true power. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

But Diaz-Canel also cultivated the leaders of the old generation, particularly the Castros, and never deviates from party dogma in his public statements.

Others who have seemed to be favoured have had mysterious falls from grace, such as former foreign minister Felipe Perez Roque or party economist Carlos Lage. One Castro protege, Arnaldo Ochoa, ended up in front of a firing squad accused of drug trafficking.

Cuban Kremlinologists agree Diaz-Canel has the inside track to become president. A more important question, say those who know the system from the inside, is how much of a difference it will make. There are reasons to believe it won't mean much.

Tall poppies get their heads chopped off

Miriam Leiva Viamonte was a member of the party elite. As a senior official of the Foreign Ministry, she travelled the world, sometimes in the company of the "maximum leader," as Castro was sometimes called.

She was expelled from the party when she failed to take a hint that she should divorce her economist husband, Oscar Espinosa Chepe, then considered a "counter-revolutionary" for questioning Cuba's economic model.

Former Communist and senior Cuban foreign ministry official Miriam Leiva Viamonte is seen in Havana's Playa neighbourhood, where she has lived for the past 41 years. (Evan Dyer/CBC News)

Though subjected to years of intense official harassment, privations and many detentions, she has remained in the country.

She says she believes a kind of paralysis is gripping the party's next generation. People want to position themselves to benefit from the transition and not be left behind but know there are also risks to standing out in a party that prizes conformity.

"You never really know who's going to be the successor. Because when they express what they shouldn't have said, they are put aside, or in prison, or even shot," she said. "That's what has trapped the country, and them."

Is the presidency overrated?

Leiva Viamonte says Diaz-Canel is being handed an empty chalice by Raul, who plans to hold on to his posts as first secretary of the Communist Party and commander of the armed forces, leaving the president with no real power base of his own.

"The Communist Party is the most important institution in Cuba, and by the constitution, it's the party that rules in Cuba," she said. "Who has the party is the ruler, and, of course, he has the military to support him. He's only going to step down from his executive leadership."

As Cuba's top general, Raul will also control much of the economy. While he was minister of defence, Raul launched various business projects and de facto gave the military control over much of Cuba's economy, including many of the hotels that welcome Canadian tourists to the country.

And so Raul will remain in power after 2018, assuming he is still alive.

The real question for communist rule in Cuba is: what happens when Raul dies?

Offspring a mixed group

Fidel Castro was always intensely private about his family life. He has at least seven children, and probably several more. Earlier this month, three of his sons came to see Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at his Havana hotel to inform him that their father was too sick to receive him.

But Fidel's offspring have shown little ambition for power.

Students participate in the massive rally on Revolution Square in Havana on Tuesday in honour of the late Cuban leader Fidel Castro. (Juan Barreto/AFP/Getty Images)

Raul's progeny are a different story.

Alejandro Castro is Raul's son and was groomed for power from an early age by his uncle Fidel. 

Alejandro is believed to have taken command of Cuba's shadowy security agencies, giving him a real advantage in any contest for power.

Raul's daughter Mariela runs Cuba's national centre for sex education.

Raul's son-in-law Luis Alberto Rodriguez Lopez-Callejas — the husband of his daughter Deborah — is also a contender. Raul has allowed both his son and his son-in-law to rise to the rank of colonel in the country's armed forces.

Little is really known about relations between the next generation of the Castro family, although things are rumoured to be tense and competitive.

Raul Castro purged Fidel's closest collaborators from top jobs when he assumed the presidency in 2008, replacing them with his own.

Fidel Castro met Vietnam's former president Tran Dai Quang in his last known meeting with an international leader. (Alejandro Castro/Courtesy of Granma/Reuters)

Some Cubans believe that Diaz-Canel is just a placeholder, designed to buy the Castro family time to manoeuvre. The fact he is not related helps to dispel the impression that Cuba is ruled by a family dynasty, but the real intention is that after a few years, a Castro will replace him.

But of course, the real inner workings of Cuba's Communist Party are opaque to all but a few insiders.

And there is another factor that may make all of the jockeying and power games irrelevant. That is the Cuban people, now mostly living on official salaries of between $20 and $40 a month, and increasingly impatient for real change.


  • An earlier version of this story said that Fidel Castro had a daughter named Mariela. In fact, she is the daughter of his brother, President Raul Castro. This story has also been amended to remove an erroneous reference and edit a photo caption that confused Fidel's son Alejandro, with Raul's son, also named Alejandro.
    Dec 01, 2016 12:25 PM ET


Evan Dyer

Senior Reporter

Evan Dyer has been a journalist with CBC for 18 years, after an early career as a freelancer in Argentina. He works in the Parliamentary Bureau and can be reached at evan.dyer@cbc.ca.