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Analysis: Castro brothers' successor may inherit a very different Cuba

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Fidel Castro, left, and his brother, Raul, are preparing to pass the torch of power to a new generation.

By Carlos Rajo, Telemundo

News analysis

(Editor's note: An earlier version of this article led to a correction)

Raul Castro’s recent announcement that he will leave power in 2018, and his appointment of 52-year-old Miguel Diaz-Canel as first vice president and his de facto successor, are signs of the glacial pace of political change in Cuba.

Certainly, these announcements won’t satisfy those who for decades have been waiting for the Castro brothers’ exit.

Nevertheless, the move marks the beginning of the passing of the torch of power to a new generation.

For the first time in half a century, there is the real possibility that a person who did not fight in the Cuban Revolution will lead the country. Diaz-Canel was not even born when Fidel Castro overthrew Fulgencio Batista in January 1959. Since then, a Castro has been in power in Cuba: first the now-retired, 86-year-old Fidel, and from 2006 to now, his younger brother, Raul, 81.

This generational change does not mean that Cuba will move to a different political system. There is no going back to capitalism, Raul Castro told the National Assembly on Sunday. Nevertheless, the move toward a generational change must be seen in the context of other reforms implemented by the younger Castro.


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Cuba's new Vice President Miguel Diaz-Canel, right, was not even born when Fidel Castro overthrew Fulgencio Batista in January 1959.

These reforms already are changing the face of Cuban socialism. Castro has introduced private farms, cooperatives in industries and activities outside agriculture, and an array of small business. Granted, these are restricted and heavily regulated, but still they are earning profits and starting to create a segment of wealthier, successful entrepreneurs. Cubans are also now allowed to sell houses and cars, and more recently, to travel abroad if they can get a visa from another country.

While little is known of Diaz-Canel’s ideology, it is likely that as the appointed Castro successor he is on board with the reforms.

The U.S. State Department reacted tepidly to Castro’s announcement and made clear that it would not be sufficient to prompt a lifting of the U.S. trade embargo. Although President Barack Obama doesn’t have election constraints in formulating a Cuba policy in his second term, the issue remains emotionally and politically charged in the U.S., and Congress is not likely to change its mind and lift the embargo while a Castro remains in power.

That doesn’t mean relations can’t change, however.

For instance, the Obama administration could remove Cuba from the list of states that sponsor terrorism. Cuba had been on that list since 1982, when it had the financial support of the Soviet Union and could afford to help guerrilla groups in Central and South America.

Cuba doesn’t have the resources to help armed groups - or even the political will to do so. Cuba is not Syria, North Korea or Iran in terms of being a threat to the U.S.

However, the lifting of the embargo is likely only after a period of more normal relations between the countries. There is also a legal obstacle: According to the Helms-Burton Act of 1996, the U.S. will recognize the legitimacy of a Cuban government only when someone other than a Castro is in power. For now, at least, it seems that won’t happen until 2018.

Demotions
The generational change in Cuba is real. Not only does Diaz-Canel take the place of the 83-year-old Jose Ramon Machado Ventura, but the composition of others organs of power is younger as well. Eighty percent of the members of the National Assembly were born after the revolution, and the average age of members of the Council of State is 57, with about 60 percent having been born post-revolution.

As is the tradition in Cuba, Diaz-Canel owes his influential position to one of the Castros -- in this case, Raul. As far back as 2003, the younger Castro talked about the “solid ideological firmness” of the electrical engineer, who also has served as a university professor and party boss in the Cuban provinces of Villa Clara and Holguin. Notably, Diaz-Canel served in the armed forces under Raul Castro and earned a reputation as a good manager of the military’s diverse commercial enterprises.

A look at the life and times of the Cuban leader who has outlasted nine U.S. presidents.

Diaz-Canel will have to be careful. There have been several young leaders who once looked like they had been chosen as a Castro successor but later fell from grace. In every case -- Roberto Robaina, Carlos Lague, Felipe Perez Roque -- they went from being the heir apparent to being suddenly demoted without much ceremony or explanation. The difference is that all were put in their positions of power by Fidel Castro and were demoted when they fell out of favor with him. Diaz-Canel is said to be Raul Castro’s favorite.

Assuming that nothing extraordinary happens before 2018, that Raul remains healthy and that there are no ideological purges – “corruption” is the favorite accusation of the Cuban leadership when it comes to making demotions --  the big question for Cuba, and for Diaz-Canel himself, is the success of Raul’s reforms.

If they work well, perhaps the regime will develop a sort of hybrid socialism-communism with a dynamic, state-controlled capitalist economy. Or maybe day by day the reforms will penetrate Cuban society and ultimately destroy one the few communist systems left in the world. Diaz-Canel, meanwhile, will start toying with the torch of power.

Only time will tell whether -- when the day comes in 2018 or sooner -- the Cuba that Diaz-Canel has known will still be there for him to rule.

Telemundo is NBC News' Spanish-language partner.

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