Miguel Diaz-Canel, likely leader of post-Castro Cuba


Havana (AFP)

When it finally turns the page on the Castro era next month, Cuba will likely look up to a model Communist Party man, Miguel Diaz-Canel, to steer it through a period of uncertainty.

As first vice-president, the tall 57-year-old appears to be the man anointed to take over, although his appointment is subject to an April vote in the National Assembly chosen on Sunday.

President Raul Castro's assumed successor has spent three decades climbing to the summit of the Communist Party, ideally placed to continue to implement the economic reforms initiated by his 86-year-old mentor.

He will be the first Cuban leader born after the 1959 revolution -- and perhaps crucially for some of the generals that will be under his command -- the first not to have fought for it.

"There is a tradition in Cuba of strong men at the head of the State," said Cuban watcher Arturo Lopez-Levy of the University of Texas-Rio Grande.

But "the profile of Muguel Diaz-Canel seems weaker," Lopez-Levy added.

"He has no more power than what he has been given."

In Havana's corridors of power, the jeans-wearing Diaz-Canel stands out, a self-declared fan of the Beatles with a passing resemblance to the actor Richard Gere.

He has advocated greater openness to the internet and a more critical press.

His supporters say that he "knows how to listen" and is a man of simple tastes.

- Ruthless side -

Though he was often portrayed as a moderate with a quiet disposition, a video of a private meeting with Communist Party members released last year showed another side -- a ruthless man with hardline views lashing out against Cuban dissidents and the US.

He has avoided interviews and controversy in general, and speaks only at public meetings. A father of two children from his first marriage, Diaz-Canel remarried, to Liz Cuesta, an academic specializing in Cuban culture.

After studying electronic engineering in the central province of Villa Clara, he became a university professor before going to work for Cuba's all-powerful Communist Party.

In 1994, he was appointed the party's provincial secretary in Villa Clara, where locals were impressed to see him riding his bicycle, portraying a simplicity uncommon among the regime's leaders.

In 2003, while serving in the eastern province of Holguin, he joined the select 15-member Political Bureau, an essential step for any aspirant to power.

In 2009, Raul Castro, who had inherited power from his ailing brother Fidel three years earlier, tapped him to be higher education minister.

Then, in March 2012, he acceded to one of the eight vice-presidency positions in the Council of Ministers. In 2013, he was appointed to the powerful Council of State.

If he assumes the presidency, he will be the head of the Armed Forces and will have to deal with the guard generals who have been part of the military apparatus since the Revolution.

Many of them occupy high office in the Communist Party and the government.

An arduous task for a man whose only military experience is a three-year stint in an anti-aircraft missile unit between 1982 and 1985 as part of his military service.

Diaz-Canel will have a guiding hand on his shoulder, however.

Castro will continue to serve as head of the Communist Party, and last year traced out a roadmap, party-approved "guidelines" to implement the political and economic reforms he has initiated.