SANCTI SPIRITUS, Cuba – Following decades of rule by Fidel Castro and his younger brother Raul, an era in which their last name was synonymous with political power in Cuba, the current president is striving to overcome his initial lack of name recognition by touring all parts of this Communist-ruled island and meeting citizens face-to-face.
When Miguel Diaz-Canel was handed the reins of power by Raul Castro on April 19, 2018, the 57-year-old then-first vice president had an unblemished record of service in the Communist Party and the highest ranks of the Cuban government, but he was virtually unknown to ordinary people on the street.
He now no longer is, and that is primarily due to his constant touring of different provinces over the past 21 months.
Typically accompanied by several of his ministers, Diaz-Canel uses these visits to take the island’s pulse, speak with citizens and local officials and gather ideas for lifting the country out of its economic doldrums and unleashing its productive forces.
The tours tend to last two days, with the president and his aides splitting up to visit different sites - including factories, markets and schools - before reuniting for an event that Diaz-Canel, a former minister of higher education, presides over at the local university.
His first two years in power have been marked by numerous challenges: natural disasters, a tightening of economic sanctions by the United States under President Donald Trump and the loss of regional allies due to right-ward political shifts in Bolivia, Brazil and Ecuador.
Diaz-Canel’s decision to boost access to the Internet also has empowered civil society to lodge complaints (though exclusively via social media) about an increase in repression, longstanding restrictions on free travel and arbitrary arrests.
“We’ve found a lot of creativity here,” the president said during a recent trip to the central province of Sancti Spiritus. “We turned to the Cuban people when we discovered we were in a complicated situation. The people proposed solutions that stemmed from their own experiences.”
During each visit, Diaz-Canel asks people how they are doing, what is on their minds, what complaints they have and what can be improved. The polarization that is apparent in social media discussions about Cuba is conspicuously absent.
Ordinary Cubans, meanwhile, told EFE that they are pleased that the president visits and shows interest.
But they say (albeit never on-camera) that it would be best if Diaz-Canel would show up without prior notice so recently painted railings and shiny buildings do not mask the daily struggle people face to put food in the refrigerator, find transportation and pay for the cost of home repairs.
“It’s good that he’s concerned, that he keeps helping us. We’re in need of everything here,” Marta, a retiree, told EFE while waiting in line at a state-run store.
Aida, who works at the University of Sancti Spiritus, located in the like-named provincial capital, urged the president to continue his efforts help people and blamed Trump for the end of the historic thaw in US-Cuba relations launched in 2014 by his predecessor, Barack Obama. “That man is crazy,” she said of Trump.
Servando Garcia, a man in his 60s who works as a security guard, praised Diaz-Canel’s efforts since taking office.
“He’s doing very well. He reminds us of Fidel, of all the trips he made. This is a man of the people too.”
Diaz-Canel is considered a protege of Raul Castro, who still holds considerable power in Cuba as leader of the Communist Party.
But unlike Raul, who mostly avoided public appearances after taking over as president from his older brother in 2008, the new head of state’s style more closely resembles that of Cuba’s late iconic revolutionary leader, who died in 2016.
That personal touch was on display just a month into Diaz-Canel’s tenure when he rushed to the scene of a plane crash in Havana that killed 112 people.
Speaking of his recent visit to Sancti Spiritus, he said he had received a warm welcome and attributed that to the close bond the state has forged with citizens.
“It has a lot to do with the government practice of constantly visiting the territories, immersing ourselves in people’s problems and seeking out solutions and very clearly explaining what doesn’t have a solution,” the president said.
“Because there are accumulated problems and there are problems that we’re not in a position to solve.”