The death of longtime Cuban ruler Fidel Castro has spawned many questions about future leaders and the direction of the communist country.
His brother, Raúl Castro, who officially took over as president in 2008, has overseen modest economic reforms and the warming of relations between the United States and Cuba. He has said he’ll step down in 2018.
So what comes next? A cluster of Cuban officials, from aging revolutionaries to career bureaucrats, are jostling to fill the void. They include:
Miguel Díaz-Canel, 56. Raúl Castro’s designated successor is first vice president of the Councils of State and Ministers — Cuba's highest executive body. The former minister of higher education is seen as a career bureaucrat adept at navigating Cuba’s dense and treacherous political minefields. He’s the first person born after the 1959 revolution to hold such a senior position.
José Ramón Machado Ventura, 86. One of five vice presidents of the Councils of State and Ministers and second secretary of the Cuban Communist Party. Machado fought alongside Fidel and Raúl in the guerrilla war in the Sierra Maestra and is seen as one of Raúl Castro’s closest confidants. He's a hard-line communist ideologue and old-guard revolutionary.
Ramiro Valdés, 84. Another veteran revolutionary, Valdés is a member of the powerful Politburo and vice president of the Councils of State and Ministers. He fought alongside Fidel Castro at the failed attack on the Moncada Barracks in 1953, which sparked the revolution, and was a founding member of the 26th of July Movement started by Fidel. As Interior minister, Valdés oversaw secret police organizations and gained a reputation for the ruthless suppression of dissidents.
Bruno Rodríguez, 58. Foreign minister and member of the Politburo with a long career in politics. Under his watch, Cuba re-established relations with the U.S., as well as had a rapprochement with the European Union. He presided over the 2015 re-inauguration of the Cuban Embassy in Washington last year, making him the nation's first foreign minister to visit the U.S. capital since the Cuban revolution.
At an April gathering of Cuba’s communist elites, leaders decided to maintain the party’s hard line, with Machado and Raúl Castro holding on to the top levers of power. But with Fidel gone, Raúl Castro may be more embolden to push through further reforms, including age and term limits on party members, allowing an opening for younger leaders, said Ted Piccone, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who closely follows Cuba.
“That’s a recognition they need to bring up younger generations or lose them,” he said.
More clues to Cuba's future may be found in the coming week during funeral services for Fidel, Piccone said. Those standing closest to Raúl Castro and his immediate family may be the ones steering the country into the future, he said. Machado, Díaz-Canel and others may be elbowing for position with Luis Alberto Rodriguez, Raúl Castro’s powerful son-in-law and military general, Piccone said.
After Raúl Castro retires, the military and Castro family members, including Rodriguez and Raúl's son, Alejandro Castro Espín, may also play an increasingly influential role in the country, said Frank Mora, a former Defense Department official and director of the Latin American and Caribbean Center at Florida International University.
Whoever's left at the helm will need to offer Cubans more economic freedoms and less ideological rhetoric to keep the masses content, he said. The days of three-hour speeches about fighting in the Sierra Maestra to justify the country's hardships are over, he said.
"I don’t think Castroism is sustainable without a Castro," Mora said. "It will need to change."