World Economy

New Cuba Leader Vows to Modernize Economy

Cuba’s new President Miguel Diaz-Canel delivers a speech after he was formally named president by the National Assembly, in Havana on April 19.
Cuba’s new President Miguel Diaz-Canel delivers a speech after he was formally named president by the National Assembly, in Havana on April 19.

Cuba’s new president has promised to modernize the country’s economy and make the government more responsive to its people, even as he pledged to uphold the values of the country’s socialist revolution.

Miguel Diaz-Canel was sworn in as president on Thursday, becoming the island’s first leader without the Castro surname for the first time in almost 60 years, reported.

At a functionalist conference center in Havana, Diaz-Canel, 57, read a brief speech which sought to reconcile revolutionary continuity with a recognition of the need for change. He said there would be no “capitalist restoration”, but promised to make better use of the internet and push on with “the modernization of our social and economic model”.

Raul Castro, 86–who stood down as president after 12 years in the office but remains first secretary of the Communist party–embraced Diaz-Canel, and gave his presidency a ringing endorsement.

But he left no doubt where power still lies. In an uncharacteristically long speech, in which he repeatedly joked and went off script, Castro emphasized the need to fight corruption–and said he would stay on to guide his successor.

Castro said he expected Diaz-Canel to serve two five-year terms as president before replacing him as first secretary of the party when he retires in 2021.

Internet access has expanded rapidly in recent years, but still remains below the regional average. All major international news websites can be accessed from the island, but government censors block critical blogs as well as webpages financed by the US state department.

Communist party insiders say Diaz-Canel is aware of the economic benefits that wider internet access could bring the island’s economy, but fears the island’s political system could be overwhelmed.

Under the Obama administration, USAid worked on developing a “Cuban twitter” aimed at fomenting unrest, and in January the US State Department launched a Cuba Internet Task Force, which Havana sees as another attempt to undermine it.

Diaz-Canel assumes office at a tricky time for the island after the Trump administration partially reversed the fragile detente announced by Castro and Barack Obama in 2014.

Cuba’s main ally, Venezuela, is in crisis, and has heavily cut back on highly subsidized oil shipments to Cuba, upon which the island is heavily reliant.

One of Diaz-Canel’s first tasks as president will be to unify the island’s byzantine dual-currency system. Analysts say that if not managed correctly, unification could provoke inflation which could hit the purchasing power of poorer Cubans who form the base of the government’s support.

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