It is not every day the leadership changes in Cuba. It has happened once since the 1959 revolution that brought in communism — and that was when President Raúl Castro replaced his brother Fidel as leader. That handover had also made it clear that another successor would eventually be needed. The succession process that is beginning today will soon see the replacement of the "historic generation" of revolutionary leaders in favor of their heirs.

If there are no surprises, the First Vice-President Miguel Díaz-Canel — with a loyal, hardworking and discreet profile — will become president, though Raúl Castro, 86, will still lead the Communist Party until 2021, which allows him to rule quietly beside his handpicked successor.

The new leader will face unresolved and formidable problems.

When he took power in 2008, the younger Castro brother began a renovation process for the socialist polity he had helped build, with the intention of assuring the survival of socialism and the regime. His most important initiatives include the (incomplete) reform of the dual monetary system, encouraging some private enterprise (including buying and selling homes), liberalizing personal communications, eliminating exit permits, loosening rules on remittances, fixing time limits on public positions and more recently, a restoration of diplomatic ties with the United States.

In spite of these, the new leader will face unresolved and formidable problems, beginning with an anaemic economy. While the number of Cubans working in the private sector has tripled, 75% of all workers remain state employees. The dual exchange system has widened income gaps in both state and private sectors — with average monthly earnings remaining at about $31 — which may have prompted the state to put the breaks on private enterprise in tourism.

Havana, Cuba Photo: Pedro Szekely

The government has suspended new licenses for business or cooperative activities in this sector (like restaurants or holiday rentals), at a time of stagnating public-sector employment. The crisis in Venezuela has dramatically curbed both the country's petrol supplies and the number of Cuban doctors and teachers (and other professionals) who could work there. These conditions are starting to remind some here of the "special period" and "energy austerity" that followed the fall in the 1990s of Cuba's patron and supplier, the Soviet Union.

On the other hand there are now some five million mobile phones in Cuba (among a population of 11.5 million), and Internet use is booming, which means more connections with the world and a wider scope for criticizing the regime. Ultimately, renewed tensions with the United States and its hardened stance toward Cuba, are darkening the economic horizon for their effects on tourism and trade (which exist in spite of the embargo).

While observers expect continuity with the policies of the Castros as the government consolidates its authority in the Party, it may no longer be able to use the credibility of the Castro name and the old guard's mystique to shore up its popular legitimacy. Cubans seem mostly concerned with economic issues, but more time is needed to show whether or not true political reforms will find a place on the country's agenda.

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