April 19, 2018 / 4:55 AM / 4 months ago

Cuba set to swear in new president to replace Raul Castro

HAVANA (Reuters) - An era will end in Communist-run Cuba on Thursday when President Raul Castro retires, likely handing over the reins to his right hand man Miguel Diaz-Canel, born the year after brothers Fidel and Raul led their 1959 leftist revolution.

Cuba's President Raul Castro (C-L) and First Vice-President Miguel Diaz-Canel (C-R) arrive for a session of the National Assembly in Havana, Cuba, April 18, 2018. Irene Perez/Courtesy of Cubadebate/Handout via Reuters

However after nearly 60 years of Castro rule, the change is not expected to herald sweeping reforms to the island’s state-run economy and one-party system, one of the last in the world.

First Vice President Diaz-Canel, 57, is seen as a stalwart of the Communist Party, designated by the constitution as Cuba’s guiding political force, who has worked his way up the party’s ranks over three decades.

Raul Castro, 86, will retain considerable power as he will remain head of the Communist Party until a congress in 2021.

For many Cubans, struggling with economic hardships, the transition in leader is seen as merely symbolic.

“We always wish the symbolic would translate into real and concrete actions for our lives,” said Jose Jasan Nieves, 30, the editor of an alternative news outlet to the state-run media monopoly. “But this isn’t the case.”

Lawmakers will gather at 0900 ET at a convention center in a leafy Havana suburb to announce the results of their vote on the unopposed candidacy of Diaz-Canel, put forward by a party-backed commission on Wednesday. He will be immediately sworn-in.

The results of votes for unopposed candidates for the vice presidents and members of Cuba’s council of state, its top executive body, will also be announced.

Cubans hope the next government can resurrect one of the world’s last Soviet-style centrally planned economies that has failed to improve under limited market reforms by Castro.

Cuba's President Raul Castro takes part in a session of the National Assembly in Havana, Cuba, April 18, 2018. REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini

Those domestic economic woes have been exacerbated over the last year by a decline in aid from ally Venezuela and a partial rollback of the U.S.-Cuban detente, dampening a tourism boom.

Analysts say it will be tricky for Diaz-Canel to get the party and government to deepen the reform process, given his predecessor struggled to do so despite his clout as one of the revolutionary leaders.

Cuba’s relationship with the United States, that has nosedived since Donald Trump was elected U.S. President, is another major challenge Diaz-Canel will inherit.

Washington has reduced staffing at its Havana embassy to its lowest level since the 1970s due to a spate of unexplained illnesses among its diplomats - a political move to justify unraveling the detente, critics say.

The U.S.-Cuba detente, under former U.S. President Barack Obama in 2014, was one of the highlights of Castro’s presidency and part of his broader opening of the island in order to preserve Cuban socialism beyond his “historic generation”.

Castro allowed Cubans to travel more freely and to own cellphones and property, while expanding internet access, albeit continuing to limit public dissent.

On the economic front, he encouraged the creation of small private businesses from hairdressers to restaurants while encouraging more foreign investment.

But he did not get around to implementing most of his planned reforms, including key ones such as the unification of Cuba’s dual currency system - that will fall now to Diaz-Canel.

For more than two decades, two currencies have legally circulated in Cuba at multiple exchange rates, distorting the economy. The peso is used to pay most wages and local goods, while the CUC is used in the tourism industry, foreign trade and upscale eateries and stores carrying imported goods.

“People are waiting for a solution to the monetary duality,” said Jose Luis Gomez, a waiter at a Havana restaurant. “There is no profitable economy in the world with two currencies.”

Tourists take selfies in front of the Capitol in Havana, Cuba, April 9, 2018. Picture taken on April 9, 2018. REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini

Reporting by Sarah Marsh; Editing by Michael Perry

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