Raúl Castro Ruz: Fidel Castro’s younger brother and designated political heir was sworn in as president in February 2008, after serving in the post on an acting basis for 18 months. Over the last five years, Raúl has implemented an ambitious economic reform agenda characterized by the president as an effort to “save socialism.” In February 2013, Castro announced that he will step down in early 2018. Given the opaqueness of the Cuban political system, there is no guarantee that he will stick to that time frame, and it is also possible (although unlikely) that circumstances might persuade him to consider an earlier departure. However, both the recent “retirement” of some senior Communist Party officials and the building momentum behind the economic reform program suggest that the president intends to make the necessary preparations for a transfer of political leadership at the conclusion of his current five-year term.
Miguel Díaz-Canel Bermúdez: Early speculation as to who might be handed the reins has focused on 53-year-old Díaz-Canel, who was elevated to the position of the first vice president of the Council of State in February, and is the highest-ranking member of the PCC Politburo who is younger than 60 years old. Díaz-Canel’s star has been on the rise for the better part of a decade; after becoming the youngest ever member of the PCC Politburo in 2003, he served as minister of higher education from 2009 to 2012, and was promoted to vice president of the Council of Ministers in 2012. Díaz-Canel does have some political handicaps, chief among them his limited military background, which raises a question as to whether the country’s most powerful generals would accept the ascension of someone they do not see as one of their own.
Fidel Castro Ruz: The iconic leader of the Cuban revolution no longer plays any official political role and his health is precarious, but Fidel will not be completely devoid of influence as long as he continues to draw breath. He is admired and respected by much of the population and he retains the unwavering loyalty of key figures in the ruling party. Fears that his death might trigger political instability have diminished with the passage of time since he surrendered formal political control, but the possibility that his passing might trigger stronger public demands for political reforms cannot be dismissed out of hand.
José Ramon Machado Ventura: According to the Cuban constitution, the PCC is the “leading force” in the country’s political structure. Díaz-Canel replaced Ventura in the Council of State, which, under the Cuban system, wields much of the government’s legislative power, but 84-year-old Ventura is still second-in-command to Castro in the PCC hierarchy. It is probable that whoever is ultimately chosen to succeed the president will replace Ventura in that role before 2018, and until that personnel change is made, Castro’s options remain open.
Marino Murillo: A former military officer who has spearheaded the economic reform effort since his appointment as minister of economy and planning in 2009, Murillo is currently the most likely candidate to succeed Castro if Díaz-Canel does not get the nod. He has the informal title of “reform czar” to go along with his official one of chairman of the Economic Policy Commission, is relatively young, and, unlike Díaz-Canel, he has strong ties to the military establishment, which makes him worth watching as a possible rival.
United States: US President Barack Obama’s surprise announcement in December 2014 of plans to pursue the normalization of relations with Cuba has significant positive implications for the island country’s risk profile. Although the policy changes do not include a near-term lifting of the trade embargo that has been in place for more than five decades, which will require the approval of the US Congress, Obama has used his executive powers to ease restrictions on travel, financial flows, and some forms of trade with Cuba. The moves will have immediate (if limited) benefits for an economy threatened by the deepening political and economic troubles in Venezuela, which has been a crucial source of financial support for the government in Havana for years. Obama is hoping to establish “facts on the ground” that will discourage moves by opponents of the rapprochement with Cuba from reversing the steps toward normalization, but the risk of a U-turn will be present if the candidate of the opposition Republican Party wins the presidential election in November 2016. In any case, there is little chance that the embargo might be lifted as long as a Castro remains at the helm in Cuba, and both Republicans and Democrats in the US Congress have indicated that they will not be inclined to move on that front in the absence of a push for political reform by the regime in Havana.