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Castro is down, but not out of Cuban politics

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Cuban President Raul Castro (L) and First Vice president Miguel Diaz-Canel talking during the Permanent Working Committees of the National Assembly of the People's Power in July 14, 2017. JORGE BELTRAN / AFP

Cuban President Raul Castro is set to step down Wednesday, ending the Castro brothers' six-decade grip on power.


The National Assembly is expected to choose First Vice-President Miguel Diaz-Canel to preside over the Council of State. The 57-year-old has been Castro's right-hand since 2013.

A new era?

However, change won't be immediate. Although 86-year-old Raul is stepping down,he will remain the leader of the Communist Party until 2021 in order to oversee the transition. Diaz-Canel himself has expressed a desire for continuity.

"There's a certain continuity because he was a man of Castro, but there's a certain renewal because in a way all these men are going to die and the Castro business model is over," says Philippe Moreau Defarges,  an expert in international affairs.

"Cuba may find a new way, a new balance between nationalism, borde and trade opening and that is difficult. But to a certain extent, men don't matter. What is important is that time has passed and it must be a new era," he completes.

The change, however, is being seen with skepticism in Havana, as Cubans don't have a direct participation in the vote. In March, they elected the National Assembly, whose 605 members are tasked with voting in the new president.

"We don't know what's going on because there's a high secrecy that is contrary to everything happening in the outside world. In this country, it isn't clear who the candidates for the presidency are. There's uncertainty because we don't know what's going on," denounces 50-year-old Pablo Morales Machado, who lives in Havana.

"It is unclear what kind of policy is being implemented, who the National Assembly intends to elect and why. We are totally blind."

Castro's legacy

On January 1, 1959, Dictator Fulgencio Batista was overthrown in a revolution led by Fidel Castro. The leader, then ruled the communist country for almost 50 years before relinquishing power to his brother Raul in 2006..

Raul officially took over as president in 2008 and, since then, the island has changed, mainly as a result of the renewed relationship with the US.

"Cubans can now buy and sell cars and homes, there's a more active private sector, they're able to travel abroad and all of this is a huge change when we see the rule of the 90s or the 2000s," explains Mark Keller, a Cuba expert at the Economist Intelligence Unit.

"We've also seen the renegotiation of Cuba's external debt, which could eventually lead them to international finance again. We briefly saw the rapprochement with the US, even if it's not on the same level as it was with Obama, it's still a vastly better relationship than it was when Raul came to power."

However, Keller says the reforms, which were mainly introduced between 2008 and 2012, haven't advanced too much since. He explains this stagnation comes from the unwillingness to give people too much economic freedom and the fact that there are some hard-liners from the revolutionary generation that believe in the socialist system and oppose the reforms.

Finally, when it comes to the broader Castro legacy, Keller explains it has two pillars: the social gains, especially when it comes to improvements in health and education, all while in the context of an authoritarian system that offers very little personal freedom to the people.