Diaz-Canel has kept a relatively low profile as he has worked his way up through the Communist Party of Cuba. The decision to appoint a low-profile but influential loyalist appears to be consistent with the Castro brothers' public distrust of more radical, ambitious young politicians, such as former Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque and former Vice President Carlos Lage, who were fired in 2009 amid widespread reports that they had grown too ambitious for the taste of the Castros. The Castro brothers have repeatedly made public their belief that younger politicians in Cuba are not ready to assume serious responsibilities. Even with Diaz-Canel's appointment, there is no guarantee he will succeed the Castros. It does, however, represent a significant move toward integrating the younger generation into leadership positions, signaling a greater willingness of the old guard to transfer power.
Raul Castro, 81, had alluded earlier in the week that he would serve only one more term, but his abdication has been a long time coming. Not only are the Castros and their revolutionary companions too old to guarantee their continued presence in government much longer, there are also significant pressures pushing Cuba along the path of slow economic and possibly political reforms. Castro hinted as much in his acceptance speech, saying that there were reforms coming to Cuba that could even require referendums, though he stated that he is not the person to restore capitalism to the island. Nevertheless, there are many reforms already under way, including recent changes allowing Cubans to travel off the island. Furthermore, Castro's decision to serve only two terms in office sets a precedent that is congruent with his notion that all political officials in Cuba should have two-term limits.
Combined with other democratic reforms, such a change could be expected to put Cuba in a position to engage politically with the United States, where momentum is building to loosen the embargo on Cuba. The Cuban community in the United States has aged, and its politics have changed. With U.S. President Barack Obama having won the state of Florida in the 2008 and 2012 elections, there is less pressure on the Democratic Party to support the embargo, which used to be a deciding issue in Florida elections. Furthermore, while there remain cohorts within U.S. politics that oppose lifting the embargo, there are also significant business interests in the United States pushing to have the embargo lifted. Frequent business and congressional delegations — including a seven-member U.S. House of Representatives delegation that met with Castro on Feb. 19 — belie the rhetorical tension between the two countries.
Uncertainty in Venezuela
Yet there remain obstacles to be overcome on both sides. The United States will not reconcile with Cuba until Havana makes some sort of political gesture, such as releasing U.S. Agency for International Development contractor Alan Gross, who was jailed on accusations of attempting to set up wireless Internet connections undetectable by the Cuban government. In Florida, the Cuban government may be bargaining for the release of five Cuban citizens accused and convicted of espionage in the United States.
But the biggest question facing the Cuban government is whether regime change in Venezuela could leave Cuba without the more than 100,000 barrels per day of subsidized petroleum products. Uncertainty pervades Venezuela: President Hugo Chavez reportedly has returned, but he has yet to make a public appearance. Considering the economic challenges in Venezuela, a new leadership in Caracas will have to make difficult financial decisions and thus may not prioritize Cuba the way Chavez did. And although there is not likely to be an immediate or catastrophic shift, it remains a risk for Cuba, which has long relied on outside financing.
Despite this risk, the Cuban regime seems set to proceed at a very measured pace. In promoting a two-term limit, Raul has moved Cuba along the path toward political reform. Yet his methods are consistently measured, and rapid change should not be expected to come from within Cuba any more than it has in the past five decades. Instead, this week's moves signal slow progress toward reforming the revolution, and the most radical change will come from outside the island nation.