AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
We turn now to Cuba and its political future. In February, the country's aging leaders named 52-year-old Miguel Diaz-Canel as the new vice president. That makes him the designated successor to Fidel and Raul Castro. Since then, Diaz-Canel has embarked on the Cuban equivalent of a media blitz. It's the first step in what appears to be a carefully orchestrated campaign to prepare for a post-Castro future.
Nick Miroff has that story from Havana.
NICK MIROFF, BYLINE: Within 10 days of Miguel Diaz-Canel's big promotion, he was already being tapped as a stand-in for the reticent, 81-year-old Raul Castro. It was Diaz-Canel, not Raul or Fidel Castro, who gave Cuba's first public condolences when the Communist government lost its best friend and benefactor, Hugo Chavez.
VICE PRESIDENT MIGUEL DIAZ-CANEL: (Spanish spoken)
MIROFF: We're saddened, but more determined than ever, Diaz-Canel said in a speech broadcast on state television. Our tears will be worthless if they don't come with a commitment to carry on the beloved leader's vision, he said.
Cubans are now wondering what sort of vision Diaz-Canel will have for their country. The island has been under the stern hand of Fidel and Raul Castro since 1959. And the vast majority of Cubans, like Diaz-Canel himself, have never lived under another leader.
Raul Castro says his current five-year term will be his last, ending in 2018. But given his age, Diaz-Canel could take over sooner. Many Cubans are only beginning to form impressions of him, but he's especially well-liked in his home province of Villa Clara where he first rose to be the top local Communist Party official, according to Rafael Hernandez, the editor of the Cuban journal Temas.
RAFAEL HERNANDEZ: This is the only political leader in Cuba that has conducted a radio show, so he has a communication capacity. He was known in Villa Clara because he used to sit down and drink beer and talk in the streets. The majority of Cuban politicians are not like that. I mean, the majority of the old bureaucrats are not like that.
MIROFF: The adjective most often used here to describe the tall, burly Diaz-Canel is "young," even though he's 52. Archival photos show him wearing his silvery hair a bit long in the back, in the style of a mullet. His reputation is that of a low-key, technocratic manager who listens and doesn't lecture. But his only experience at the national level came when he was named Cuba's Minister of Higher Education in 2009. To most Cubans, he's still something of a question mark.
(SOUNDBITE OF TRAFFIC)
MIROFF: The busy intersection at the foot of the steps to the University of Havana is the place where a young Fidel Castro once delivered fiery stem-winders, as a gun-toting law student. But the place has long ceased to be a democratic forum in a country where public protests are banned.
Ask young people here today about Diaz-Canel's tenure at the head of Cuba's struggling university system, and he evokes praise but no discernable passion. After 53 years of Castro family rule, students like Carla Sanchez are more inclined to recite fuzzy platitudes about his duty to carry on the revolution.
CARLA SANCHEZ: (Spanish spoken)
MIROFF: What young people want is someone with a fresh way of thinking who will move our country forward, Sanchez says.
Cuba's elderly leaders seem to be betting that Diaz-Canel can earn loyalty by delivering economic growth and competent governance, along the reform path charted by Raul Castro. Students like Jesus Manzo can expect to earn about $25 a month if they graduate to government jobs, pushing many to leave the country or work as tour guides and hotel clerks.
(SOUNDBITE OF VEHICLES)
JESUS MANZO: (Spanish spoken)
MIROFF: The big problem we have is our salaries, Manzo said. We graduate and then take jobs that are far below our education level.
It's just one of the accumulated structural problems with the Cuban model that Diaz-Canel will face if he inherits the unenviable task of second act to the Castros. Dissident Cuban blogger Yoani Sanchez said during a visit to New York last month that she hopes Diaz-Canel would turn out to be another Mikhail Gorbachev, a figure who could engineer the soft undoing of the island's socialist system.
Internal and external pressures will surely build for Diaz-Canel to do so. And when that happens, there won't be a Castro around to push back. For NPR News, I'm Nick Miroff in Havana.