HAVANA, Cuba — As Cuban President Raul Castro prepares to step down next month, ending his family’s six-decade grip on power, his successor will be faced with major challenges, including the implementation of economic reforms vital for the island’s future.
On Sunday, Cubans went to the polls to ratify a new National Assembly, who will choose the future president. That transition will take place on April 19.
“We have walked a long, long, long and difficult road,” Castro said after casting his vote in Santiago de Cuba, the birthplace of the 1959 revolution spearheaded by his brother Fidel, who died in 2016, 10 years after handing power to Raul.
Raul — who is now 86 — will remain at the head of the all-powerful Communist Party of Cuba until the next congress in 2021.
But his number two, Miguel Diaz-Canel, is poised to take his place as president.
If Diaz-Canel does indeed assume the role, the discrete 57-year-old vice-president — the first Cuban leader to have not fought in the revolution — will be faced with a balancing act of reform and staying true to the principles of “Castroism.”
Diaz-Canel insisted Sunday that “the triumphant march of the revolution” would continue.
But economist Pavel Vidal, a former advisor to Raul Castro and now a professor at the Javieriana University in Cali, Colombia, said: “The new government will arrive with limited political capital, less popular recognition and without historical legitimacy.”
The road ahead will be littered with obstacles, as Cuba’s new leader will inherit reforms sketched out by his predecessor, while the economy struggles to take off — with an average 2.4 percent growth between 2008 and 2017.
“The key question is whether changes will make a difference to the economy — the most critical issue for many Cubans,” said Michael Shifter, president of the Washington-based think-tank Inter-American Dialogue.
Among the most urgent tasks is the elimination of Cuba’s dual currency system.
Experts say favorable exchange rates offered to the state sector distort an economy already weakened by its obsolete model and the US trade embargo in place since 1962.
At the same time, the new president must relaunch foreign investment and get people back to work in manufacturing, given that the island imports most of what it consumes.
Experts say Castro’s successor must also offer a real legal framework for small businesses, who are gaining ground and generate revenues far higher than the average $30 monthly state salary.
“If Diaz-Canel wants to convince young people, he will have to communicate that individual initiative and income inequality are now compatible with the aims of the revolution,” said the former British ambassador to Cuba, Paul Webster Hare, who is now a professor at Boston University.
In terms of diplomacy, the future Cuban leader will also have to face up to fresh antagonism from the United States.
Since Donald Trump arrived in the White House little over a year ago, relations between the two countries have taken a nosedive in the wake of as-yet unexplained attacks on US diplomats that have left them with serious injuries.
“The Cuban government has vast experience in successfully resisting and deterring interventionist policies,” said Arturo Lopez-Levy of the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, adding he expected that policy to continue under the new leader.
In light of these daunting challenges, Castro has left nothing to chance, drawing up a party-approved roadmap that sketches out political and economic guidelines for the country until 2030.