Curtain Falls on Castro Era as Engineer Made Cuba President

(Bloomberg) -- Miguel Diaz-Canel took over as Cuba’s president Thursday, moving quickly to downplay expectations of change in an island ruled by the Castro family for six decades.

“The mandate given by the people to this legislature is the continuity of the revolution,”’ Diaz-Canel told the National Assembly. The former vice president said he would lead “with the conviction that all Cubans will be faithful to the legacy of the Commander-in-Chief Fidel Castro.”

Looking over his shoulder to make sure he sticks to that mandate is former President Raul Castro, who will remain as head of the Communist Party, the ultimate source of power on the Caribbean Island. That may tie the hands of Diaz-Canel as he tries to deal with the biggest economic crisis on the island since the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s.

Falling support from longtime ally Venezuela and President Donald Trump’s tightening of restrictions on travel and trade have undermined an economy that relies increasingly on international tourism and foreign invetment.

Jorge Piñon, director of the Latin America and Caribbean energy program at the University of Texas at Austin, estimates that shipments of Venezuelan oil to Cuba, once as high as 115,000 barrels per day, have fallen by at least 40 percent in the past decade. If they disappear altogether, Cuba will have trouble paying its fuel bill, Piñon says.

End of Era

It is the first time the island has been controlled by someone other than Raul and Fidel Castro since the brothers led the 1959 revolution, building a government that has tightly controlled much of the economy and everyday life ever since.

A former minister of higher education and an electrical engineer by training, Diaz-Canel rose up through the Communist Party to become vice president in 2013. His ascent to the presidency is a testament to his survival skills. Several contemporaries who were being groomed for the same job ended up banished to far-flung provinces or low-ranking ministries.

The Communist Party also selected six vice presidents, only one of whom, Ramiro Valdes Menendez, 85, fought in the revolution.

The new makeup of the government “bends slightly toward the side of reform and change,” said James Williams, president of Engage Cuba, a Washington-based coalition of companies that wants to lift the U.S. embargo against Cuba. “How far they will go remains to be seen.”

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