Cubans wary of future as lawmakers meet to replace Castro
Cuban lawmakers were set to start a two-day session on Wednesday to name the first non-Castro president in more than 40 years, ushering in younger Communist leaders who will be under pressure to bring greater prosperity and revitalise the creaking economy.
The replacement for President Raul Castro is widely expected to be First Vice-President Miguel Diaz-Canel, 57, an engineer who embraces technology and appears socially liberal but is considered a safe pair of hands to follow the elderly leaders who fought the 1959 revolution, as they retire.
The next president is likely to be cautious at first, seeking to consolidate support among conservatives despite a desire for faster development of an economy smaller than it was in 1985, when Cuba had the support of the Soviet Union.
Gathered at a convention center in a leafy Havana suburb, 605 legislators in the rubber stamp national assembly will select 30 other members of Cuba's state council along with the replacement for Castro, who took over from his brother, Fidel, in 2008.
Castro, 86, brought sweeping change, significantly thawing relations with the United States for the first time since rebels led by his brother overthrew a U.S.-backed dictator, and making cautious market reforms to one of the world's last Soviet-style command economies.
But with the economy suffering from a crisis in allied Venezuela and relations with the United States strained anew under President Donald Trump, some Cubans are pessimistic about their lives improving and feel nervous about what is to come.
"Right now, we don't know what the future holds," said Adriana Valdivia, 45, a teacher in Havana. "Raul is finished and Fidel is history."
"I can't see a way out to help Cubans live better, salaries are the same and don't make ends meet, and now Trump is tightening the screws with the blockade, imagine that," said Valdivia, who earns about $24 a month.
The next president should "increase the speed of change in Cuba while preserving the good things," said blogger Harold Cardenas, 32, adding that resistance to economic reforms brought in by Raul Castro had held the country back.
NEW GENERATION, NEW IDEAS?
Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez, 60, is expected to get a senior role in the new government, after helping to nurture detente with the United States in 2014, and renewing Cuba's traditional defiance after Trump shifted policies.
Mercedes Lopez Acea, the 53-year-old head of the Communist Party in Havana, is also slated to take on a larger role.
While the assembly will promote younger leaders, Castro and other elders of the revolution will retain power through their grip on the Communist Party.
"Cuba is changing, but I don't expect dramatic changes as long as the revolutionary leaders continue to hold key positions in the government," said U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy, who has met Castro and Diaz-Canel.
"After that, a new generation may have other ideas."
Cubans ratified lawmakers chosen by party-controlled commissions last month in a process Cuba says is democratic, even though nearly all candidates are drawn from the Communist Party.
Diaz-Canel is not likely to challenge one-party rule and many Cubans say they feel distant from politics, preferring to focus on making ends meet within the limited economic opportunities that opened up as Castro allowed more small businesses in recent years.
"Politics is not my strong point," said Diadenis Sanabria, 34, working in a state-owned restaurant in Havana's Vedado district.
"But I don't think a change of chief is going to change my life."