Childhood & Early Life
Díaz-Canel was born on April 20, 1960, in the city of Placetas in Villa Clara, Cuba. His parents were Miguel Díaz-Canel, a mechanical plant worker in Santa Clara and Aída Bermúdez. He grew up in a rapidly changing Cuba, where Fidel Castro had assumed premiership a year before his birth, in 1959.
Hailing from a worker’s family, Díaz-Canel benefited from the revolution. Castro completely reformed the education system, which had become stagnant and corrupted under Fulgencio Batista’s rule. It greatly helped the academically gifted Díaz-Canel in pursuing a good education.
After finishing high school, he enrolled at the University "Marta Abreu" of Las Villas, in Santa Clara, Cuba to study electronics engineering, graduating in 1982. Díaz-Canel then enlisted in the Cuban Revolutionary Armed Forces to do his obligatory three years of military service. After he was discharged from the military, he immediately jumped into politics.
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In 1987, Miguel Díaz-Canel became a member of the Young Communists' Union and quickly rose through the ranks to be selected as the first party secretary in the Villa Clara province. His then-neighbours attest to his dedication. They say that he did not move to the larger homes allocated to the officials in that position.
He was highly competent at his job and supported LGBT rights in a country where there is still public antipathy towards homosexuality. In 2003, he was named to the same position in the Holguín Province, a more prosperous part of Cuba.
He was soon promoted to the Communist Party’s politburo, its decision-making body. He served directly under Fidel Castro. Cuba was undergoing several significant changes at the time. In the early 2000s, the country was mired in economic problems. The election of socialist and anti-imperialist Hugo Chávez to the Venezuelan presidency in 1999 eased a lot of a pressure off from Cuba. In a historic deal, Fidel Castro agreed to send medical help to Venezuela in return for oil.
In the next few years, several other South American countries, including, Bolivia, Panama, and Brazil, elected left-leaning governments. Fidel and his politburo focused on building economic, social, and political relationships with these countries. Colloquially named the Pink Tide, the elections of left-wing governments demonstrated to many the desire of the people of South America to distance themselves from the neo-liberal economic model.
Cuba and Venezuela set up the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA) in December 2004 in order to redistribute wealth evenly throughout the member countries, to protect the region's agriculture, and to oppose economic liberalization and privatization. Most of the South America countries joined ALBA in the subsequent years, ushering in considerable economic prosperity in the continent. Fidel Castro stepped down as the President of Cuba and Raúl Castro was elected to succeed him in February 2008.
Díaz-Canel had previously served as an engineering professor at the University "Marta Abreu" of Las Villas, his alma mater, maintaining a separate career track in the education sector throughout his time in politics. In May 2009, he was picked as the Minister of Higher Education in Raúl Castro’s government.
He brought about several changes in the ministry. A proud iPad user himself, Díaz-Canel sought to introduce technology into the Cuban education system, which had become archaic. The Cuban media praised him for these initiatives, noting that he was one of the first high-ranking government officials to bring a laptop to government meetings and advocate for more technology in Cuba's underfunded classrooms.
Granma, the official newspaper of the Central Committee of the Cuban Communist Party, regularly printed articles on Díaz-Canel's visits to schools around the country. During his visit to Santiago de Cuba, the southeastern city where Fidel Castro’s ashes were buried, he urged the teachers to make sure that Fidel’s legacy of free education continues, stating that, “If we took the oath that Fidel would always be with us... this work must become a bulwark.”
He held the position of the Minister of Higher Education until March 22, 2012, when he was chosen as the Vice President of the Council of Ministers (deputy prime minister), effectively becoming the first person who was born after the revolution to hold the office.
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In 2013, he was given the additional responsibility of the first Vice President of Cuba, serving directly under Raúl Castro as his deputy. Over the years, there had been other potential successors to the Castros but none was given as much prominence as Díaz-Canel. They groomed him, designating him to progressively more important roles in the government.
The state media has documented Díaz-Canel’s meetings with the leaders of Mexico, Germany, Spain, India, Pakistan, South Africa, El Salvador, Portugal, the United Arab Emirates, and the Vatican. He has helmed Cuban delegations to Russia, Japan, China, North Korea, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Bolivia, Angola, and the 2016 Summit of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States.
In early 2018, Raúl Castro announced that he wished to retire from the presidency. On April 18, 2018, Díaz-Canel was picked to be the only candidate to be Raúl’s successor. A day later, the Cuban National Assembly voted on the matter and Díaz-Canel was officially confirmed as the next President of Cuba. He took the oath of office on the same day. Despite Díaz-Canel’s ascension as the new President of Cuba, Raúl Castro still holds the position of the First Secretary of the Communist Party of Cuba.
Unlike his predecessors whose lives are well-documented, there is a sense of mystery surrounding Díaz-Canel, and it is by design. According to Christopher Sabatini, a lecturer of international relations and policy at Columbia University, New York, US, the Cuban regime has taken care to present the profile of a man who is staunchly communist but at the same time, can appear as relatable to Cuba’s young demographic.
The few times he has spoken publicly, Díaz-Canel has demonstrated his conviction towards the Marxist-Leninist ideology that forms the premise of the Cuban revolution and a clear distrust for the US government. Delivering a speech on the 50th death anniversary of Ernesto "Che" Guevara, he echoed the words of the legendary Argentine revolutionary, “Imperialism can never be trusted, not even a tiny bit, never”.
In mid-2017, Cuban dissident Antonio Rodiles leaked a video where Díaz-Canel was heard accusing embassies of the United States, Norway, Spain, Germany and Britain of supporting "subversive activity" on the island. He pledged to crack down on dissidents and curb the freedom of independent media.
This is a precarious time for Cuba in global politics. Its relationship with the US has worsened since the latter accused the former of being “responsible” for a series of mysterious health ailments affecting US embassy personnel on the island and called back several diplomats, after the tentative détente announced by Castro and Barack Obama in 2014. One of its oldest allies, Venezuela, has significantly cut the high subsidy on the oil shipments to Cuba, due to its internal issues.
In his first speech as the President of Cuba, Díaz-Canel has vowed to modernise the economy. He is also an advocate for wider internet access. Raúl Castro has stated that he expects Díaz-Canel to hold the office for two five-year terms and replace him as the First Secretary of the party after he retires in 2021.