Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Personal Encounters with Miguel Diaz-Canel

The success of Miguel Diaz-Canel as President of Cuba will depend on how soon rationality returns to US policy at least as much as on the amount of real power his generation has in the Party, military and economy.

The two things are related as Cold War bluster from Washington reinforces the power of the old guard (and not incidentally strengthens the Russian hand).

I met Diaz-Canel when he was Minister of Higher Education.  We had rented a booth at Universidad 2012, a very large international congress that takes place every two years in Cuba.   We were the first, and until 2016, the only US organization to do so. 

Our booth had attracted a lot of attention from representatives of specialized and regional universities.  On the second day, a large group appeared in front of the booth.  It was Diez-Canel walking the exhibition hall, accompanied by staff, a couple of TV cameras, and his wife, Lis Cuesta Peraza, an assistant professor at the University of Havana and director of Academic Services at Paradiso, the tourism agency of the Ministry of Culture.

I felt some foreboding as the Minister had been quoted by the press about a year before in a public speech warning of the subversive intent of US universities that wanted to have programs in Cuba.

He was very warm in his greeting, expressed appreciation of my presence and invited me to come to a reception he was hosting that evening.
He was quite amenable to have pictures taken in front of our booth and banner. 

When I went to his reception, I told the Minister that his key note speech the night before about the character and value of international educational exchange would have been received well by counterparts in the US and Europe.  In fact if you took out his specific references to Cuba, it would be hard to know where he was Minister.  He laughed in acknowledgement.

Two years later after he had become Vice President he came only to the outdoor reception that followed the adjournment of the congress.   He and his wife walked through the crowd enjoying the music of Los Van Van, working it like a US politician.  He responded readily to the many people who came up to them and asked to have pictures taken together.

When I approached them, both Diaz-Canel and Lis Cuesta indicated that they remembered our meeting two years before.  (I had met her in the interim at Paradiso while there to see a colleague.)

His comfortable informality and accessibility suggests a different personal style than the retiring generation of Cuban leaders.  Accounts by western journalists of his tenure in Santa Clara and Holguin lead to a similar impression about his persona as well as about the innovative ways he addressed problems as a Provincial leader.

--John McAuliff
Fund for Reconciliation and Development

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