Slow transition, Castro-style, now under way in Cuba

Cuba began this week to transit slowly towards rule by someone whose last name is not Castro and who is too young to have fought alongside Fidel in the revolution that ushered in communism in 1959.

As Cuba tinkers with market-based economic reforms, the man to watch is the new number two guy in the regime, 52-year-old Miguel Diaz-Canel.

Diaz-Canel is a former electronic engineer who has long been active in the communist party at the provincial level and who by 2003 had worked his way up to the party Politburo under the wing of the current president Raul Castro.

He is described in state news broadcasts as a good listener, somebody who is comfortable addressing problems facing Cuban society. He is also widely seen as unpretentious and easy-going.

On Sunday, the National Assembly approved a second and final five-year term for Raul Castro, brother of the elderly but illustrious Fidel. But he joked last week that he might retire at some point, citing his age.

This at least raises the possibility that the younger Castro might not complete his term, setting the stage for Diaz-Canel to take Cuba's helm.

For now, he is best placed to take charge, but things don't always turn out as planned in Cuba.

In the 1990s other men emerged as likely political heirs -- Carlos Lage, Felipe Perez Roque and Roberto Robaina -- only to fall in disfavor after what Fidel Castro referred to opaquely as undue "ambitiousness."

Diaz-Canel has also been described as discreet, perhaps without the charisma of 86-year-old Fidel, the iconic national hero, or Raul, who took over in 2006 when his elder brother fell ill.

If not a riveting speaker, the new guy certainly has caught the attention of many Cuban women -- for his looks. Some have nicknamed him the "Cuban Richard Gere," as he is handsome with a shock of white hair.

He has burst into the powerful 31-member Council of State as its first vice president. This marks "the start of the post-Castro era," Cuba affairs analyst Arturo Lopez-Levy of the University of Denver told AFP.

Diaz-Canel, as political heir, cuts a starkly different profile from the revolutionary leadership, whose members are mostly in their 80s.

Lopez-Levy said Diaz-Canel stands out for three reasons: his relative youth, his gradual rise by working in the party and not through revolutionary war credentials, and for being a civilian with little military experience.

A careful speaker, the lanky politician has also led the Communist Youth Union, and went on an international "mission" to Nicaragua during the first leftist Sandinista government. He joined the Politburo in 2003.

"What happened yesterday was just the reproduction of the totalitarian model of government," dissident Elizardo Sanchez said of Diaz-Canel's promotion.

"The younger people are the one who are going to have to move the country forward," movie projectionist Maria Elena Rodriguez, 60, said, happy with the new number two announced a day earlier.

"This is what we need to get out of the hole we are in," she argued.

Cuban political scientist Carlos Alzugaray said Diaz-Canel would have his work cut out for him if he reached the top.

"No one can govern Cuba like Fidel and Raul Castro have," he said, arguing that the next wave of leadership lacks "the charismatic legitimacy which is the key to historic leadership."

There will be a test period in which they have to show if they have the skill and ability to press forward with the timid economic and political reforms undertaken so far in Cuba, Alzugaray argued.

In Washington, US officials said Cuba still needed to do more to ensure that the Cuban people were given the freedom to elect their own leaders.