SANTA CLARA / HAVANA, Cuba (Reuters) – The man likely to become Cuba's next president comes from a younger generation of leaders and has worked to modernize the island, but he is also a longtime communist party apparatchik that is not demanded comprehensive political change.
Miguel Diaz-Canel, 57-year-old first vice-president, is expected to replace the 86-year-old Raul Castro on Thursday by the National Assembly, making him the first leader since Cuba's 1959 revolution, to be born after that.
Dioz-Canel, a trained electronics engineer, was often more contemporary than his old khaki predecessor Raul and his brother Fidel, who ruled the Caribbean island for the past six decades.
A young party leader in the province, Diaz-Canel opposed party orthodoxy by supporting an LGBT-friendly cultural center that reportedly listened to rock music and wore long hair.
At the national level, Diaz-Canel called for more critical coverage of events in state media and broader Internet access to open one of the world's least-connected societies. He often comes to meetings with a tablet device.
Ultimately, however, Diaz-Canel seems to be a Castro-hand-picked consensus candidate who has gained trust by working his way through the ranks for over three decades and sticking to the party's political and economic line.
His recent public statements have focused on the need for continuity and the fight against imperialism, a defiant and tedious message, with Cuba facing new tensions since President Donald Trump took office.
"There are reasons to expect it to become more flexible and modern," said Arturo Lopez-Levy, a former Cuban government analyst who grew up in Diaz-Canel's hometown of Santa Clara and now lectures at the University of Texas ,
"But there is no evidence that he is a reformist and assumes that he will give up the one-party system or stop favoring the state sector over the non-state sector."
Diaz-Canel's political views remain mostly a mystery. Political campaigns are banned in Cuba and Diaz-Canel has avoided showboating, which has ended the careers of other political pretenders over the years.
Many Cubans, frustrated by the slow pace of economic recovery under Castro, hope that Diaz-Canel will simply wait for his turn before he is in charge.
However, his room for maneuver will remain limited as the Communist Party remains the driving political force, led by Castro until 2021 Castros party leader will be Jose Ramon Machado Ventura, 87 years old.
Some members of the small Cuban dissident community – considered by the government as working for the United States to destabilize the government – have condemned Diaz-Canel's presidency has already begun, saying it will simply be more the same.
An opponent, Hildebrando Chaviano, dismissed him as "Mr. Nobody" without political action. Fidel Castro's long tenure had produced a generation of followers, not leaders. Fidel Castro formally handed over his power to his brother in 2008 and died in 2016.
RAUL CASTRO'S MAN
While Diaz-Canel's public role had been reserved nine years since his entry into the government, the inhabitants of his home province lived there Villa Clara raves about him as a handsome, friendly "man of the people" who does things.
He grew up in a modest one-story house with a crumbling stucco façade, where locals say it is one of the harshest neighborhoods in the provincial capital, Santa Clara.
A clever student, as a former teacher said, taught at the university before his political career began, and he became party leader in Villa Clara during Cuba's economic crisis of the 1990s following the collapse of his main ally, the Soviet Union.
Fuel was in short supply, so he drove to work in shorts instead of commuting from the Soviet Lada, as with other party leaders.
"His proximity to the citizens was his trademark," said Ramon Silverio, 69, owner of Santa Clara's El Mejunje ("The Blend") cultural center, which serves lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) nights holds.
Silverio praised Diaz-Canel for supporting El Mejunje at a time when homophobia was the order of the day in the party.
The culture lover Diaz-Canel brought his two children from his first marriage to his youth events and danced there himself in the evening.
He worked long hours and conducted surprise inspections of state-owned enterprises to counteract corruption, resulting in a nickname "Diaz y Noche ", a pun on his name and a television crime drama Day and Night.
In 2003, Diaz-Canel was promoted to party leader in Holguin province, a hub of Cuba's burgeoning tourism industry and foreign investment. In 2009, he was called to Havana to become a university minister, and Castro made him his right hand in 2013, praising him for his "solid ideological strength."
"He is the man Raul trusts and gives him credit under the military and the old Revolutionary Guard," said Carlos Alzugaray, a former Cuban diplomat.
Diaz-Canel has represented Castro at important political events, welcomed foreign dignitaries and traveled abroad on behalf of the government.
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A video leaked last year by a closed party congress in which Diaz-Canel argued hardliners against independent media, dissidents, and Western embassies, disappointed many Cubans who hope he will becomes a reformist.
But some analysts say that this is more evidence of Diaz-Canel's political skill than of his political views, since he has to reassure the party's hardliners, who were frightened by Fidel Castro's death and Trump's election. Trump has thrown a cloud over the relaxation achieved in 2014 between Raul Castro and former US President Barack Obama.
This dexterity will be crucial if Diaz-Canel wants to impose change through a kind of cautious development that Castro has established – enough to make Cuban socialism sustainable, but not so much as destroying the system ,
Faced with Diaz-Canel, Fidel and Raul Castro lack the clout as historic leaders of the revolution, their ability to command authority will depend on the economy, analysts say.
"The new president must create a new political consensus, he will not inherit anyone," said Rafael Hernandez, editor of the journal Temas, which is affiliated to the Ministry of Culture, but takes a reformist stance.
"Within two or three months, people will ask why their lives have not improved."
Sarah Marsh reports in Santa Clara and Nelson Acosta in Havana; Additional coverage by Marc Frank in Havana and Patricia Zengerle in Washington; Arrangement by Frances Kerry