On the 19th April 2018, Miguel Diaz-Canal became the new President of Cuba – the first non-Castro to hold the position since 1959. It’s a nice headline, right? But what does it actually mean for Cuba and its people, and will anything really change?
The first thing to say is that this is not a revolution. Diaz-Canal is a loyal member of the Communist Party, had been serving as the first vice president since 2013, and was handpicked by Raúl Castro to be his successor. With this in mind, it seems unlikely that there will be any immediate radical changes, especially since Raúl will remain as the head of the Communist Party and the Army. Most observers do recognise, however, that Diaz-Canal is his own man with his own ideas, and that over time he will likely seek to implement change in his own way.
Diaz-Canal was born in 1960, just after the revolution, and so communist Cuba is all he has ever known. He knows it well though, having served in local government in both Villa Clara and Holguin, and this gives him an understanding of everyday Cuban life – from which some feel the Castros were too far removed in recent years.
This is a man who has in the past spoken out to support of an LGBT-friendly centre in Santa Clara, and ridden to work on a bicycle during a national fuel shortage. He has also shown himself to be in favour of increased internet availability and seems to accept that Cuba cannot cut itself off from the world forever if it is to thrive in the modern world. There is also talk of trying to phase out the dual-currency system, which occasionally makes travelling through Cuba somewhat perplexing. More and more Cubans are now using the tourist-CUC in their everyday lives, and it seems a matter of time before a single currency is in use. How much time, who knows? This is Cuba after all!
Sadly, the arrival of Trump has led to the deterioration of Cuba-US relations, which had begun to improve under Obama. This has created uncertainty which not helped the Cuban economy and has added to the challenge facing the new president. Tourism has become such a huge source of income for the country in recent years, and a recent downturn in tourist numbers after the boom of the last few years is hurting.
It seems likely that Diaz-Canal will resume plans to relax rules on Cubans starting private businesses, which had been put on hold during the transition period. From a purely selfish point of view as a travel company, this is excellent news – the quantity and standard of casa particulares we can book keeps getting better, and on our recent trip, I had some of the best Cuban food I’d ever tasted in locally owned paladares. . Even away from the traditional tourist hotspots, you can usually find some excellent options for places to sleep and eat, meaning that exploring some of the lesser-known towns and cities are becoming a much more comfortable experience.
On our recent trip to Cuba I tried to get some kind of feeling for what people thought about the change, and whilst it’d be fair to say that I didn’t sense any wild excitement, the few people I asked were cautiously optimistic. There is naturally some frustration amongst younger Cubans at the lack of opportunities compared to elsewhere in the world, and so this new era does offer some hope to them and to those who are trying to grow their fledgling businesses.
For others, like our guide in Havana, it is more important that the country remains a safe and healthy place for him and his family to live. Cuba is a truly unique country with a vibrant and welcoming culture, and whatever negative stories are told by foreign news outlets, the low crime rate and free healthcare are the envy of many countries worldwide. The challenge will be to keep these things intact while the country slowly adjusts to the modern world.
So, change is coming, but how much and how quickly remains to be seen – we just hope that the things which make Cuba such a fun and fascinating place to visit will remain the same for years to come.