He was young, thin, with long hair, and rode a bicycle, waving to his neighbors. His personal style of managing his province garnered him popularity. In Villa Clara this is how they remember Miguel Díaz-Canel, Cuba's First Vice-president and the man that analysts and the press point to as Raul Castro's most likely successor at President, although the Government has not confirmed this.
It has been more than a decade since his beginnings in Santa Clara, and now Díaz-Canel looks like another person: grey, serious, of few words, and keeping a low profile.
The official's biography is short on personal and professional details. As no one knows for sure how he would behave at the helm of the Government, many are scrutinizing his behavior and looking back in search of clues, reports the AP.
In a country where the figure of First Lady does not exist, and whose leaders - usually surrounded by major security details - jealously guard their privacy, Díaz-Canel showed up last March at a voting center in Santa Clara, where several foreign journalists were waiting for him.
The official walked down the block, hand in hand with his wife, while greeting those who approached him.
"Here we are building a relationship between the Government and people," he said in that unusual public appearance before the cameras to vote in the regime's "elections." After doing so, he returned to Havana.
Díaz-Canel, 57, would be the first person without the surname "Castro" to run the country since the Revolution triumphed in 1959. He will have to deal with a stagnant economy, declining infrastructure, and criticisms of a model of State control marked by low salaries and the stymying of private initiative.
Many Cubans across the Island barely know him. The last years of his political rise have gone by slowly, but surely, step by step. Sometimes he has kept such a low profile that months have gone by without any news of his whereabouts or activities.
Attention to him increased last year, when he appeared in a leaked video in which he revealed his most "Taliban" side: he advocated closing independent media and accused European embassies of spearheading subversion against the Revolution.
That hardline image contrasts with perceptions of a tolerant and affable but demanding man held by many of his neighbors in Villa Clara, the province in which he spent his childhood and youth, and where he was First Secretary of the Communist Party of Cuba (PCC) for nine years.
"In the park he would walk with his girlfriend. They were in school. He must have been around 15," recalled Hilda Alegre, a hairdresser who remembers him as “the skinny little boy" with whom they went out for walks as couples in the 70s.
Graduating in Electronic Engineering from the University of Villa Clara in 1982, he did his compulsory military service until 1985. In 1987 he joined the Union of Young Communists and began working as a teacher, and traveled to Nicaragua as part of a delegation to support the sandinistas.
In those days he liked the Beatles - stigmatized by the Government as representatives of capitalist decadence - and theater.
Leader in Santa Clara
In 1994 he was appointed First Secretary of the PCC in Villa Clara, where he earned a reputation as a hardworking civil servant with a modest style. Residents remember him as the first of his rank not to move to a larger home.
"The house where his mother lives is even quite run-down. The cement was even falling off. His brother also lived there. He didn't fix up the house to live more comfortably," said Fermín Roberto Tagle Suárez, 78, who used to work the CDR guard shifts with Díaz Canel.
"He always found out about the real problems the people had. And he was demanding too. If he were soft, he wouldn't have gotten where he is," said Tagle Suárez.
By 1996, in the middle of the so-called "Special Period," Díaz-Canel was the father of two children from his marriage to the stomatologist Marta Villanueva, who had been his girlfriend for years.
He was popular and strikingly young for his position, and he received anyone who knocked on his door at the PCC or in his own home, say his former neighbors.
"He would toss his briefcase when he came from work and would run out to do his guard shift. Some colleagues didn't want him to do it, because he was stressed out by his job, but he said: 'I'm a citizen of this country, and I'll do my guard duty just like anyone else," said Liliana Pérez, whose house stands across from that in which Díaz-Canel resided with his wife and children.
The house - now painted yellow and red - belonged to his ex-wife’s family. After the couple divorced, she moved with the children to Havana.
Then a kind of legend arose around Díaz-Canel: the politician began to make surprise visits to check on the service that people were receiving, and it was said - although nobody can confirm it - that he appeared disguised in places where the public was receiving attention.
"He worked intensely to reach out and communicate with the people," said a journalist at the regime's CMHW radio station, Xiomara Rodríguez. "For example, in 1996, after recently being named First Secretary of the PCC, he went on that show (RadialAlta Tensión, on the local radio station), a talk show on the hottest issues. Two hours, live, taking calls from the people."
Showing up live and talking spontaneously with people was not something Cuban officials often did. Even today they do not have agendas of public activities.
Rodríguez recalls one of those surprise visits that Díaz-Canel made, starting at a morgue, continuing to a funeral home, and on to a cemetery, to see how state services handled something as sensitive to families as a death.
In Santa Clara the First Vice-president also earned a reputation for being respectful of culture and diversity.
Under his watch El Menjunje flourished, the first cultural center to run shows featuring transsexuals. It also worked openly with the gay community and alternative types, such as rockers. He even took his children to the children's activities there. Today two of them are in a band called Polaroid.
Fiasco in Holguín
From Villa Clara, Díaz-Canel was transferred by the PCC to Holguín in 2003. He served there until 2009, but responses were not as effusive.
A tour by the AP of the city showed that, although the residents appreciated works such as a pedestrian promenade downtown, and cafeterias and places for entertainment, they criticized him and thought he did not live up to his fame.
"In my opinion, you cannot spend that much on boulevards and parks when there are people in poor neighborhoods who are really struggling," said Anahí Tamayo. "It's not only about fixing up the center, what people (foreigners) see when they come, but what surrounds it too."
Some Cubans from the place indicated that Díaz-Canel's years in Holguín were also characterized by a strong drought that affected agricultural and domestic supplies, the budget was tight, and regionalism and prejudices caused him to be viewed as an outsider, such that he was not viewed as charismatic.
As for his personal life, during his time in Holguín he was married again, this time to Liz Cuesta Peraza, the woman who accompanied him last March to vote.
In May of 2009 Díaz-Canel occupied a national-level position for the first time when Raúl Castro named him Minister of Higher Education.
Under his leadership study plans were adjusted, the curriculum was modernized, postgraduate regulations were modified, and the use of technology was promoted in facilities for advanced studies, with computer laboratories and digitalized contents. He was also one of the first officials to appear with a laptop at meetings in a country where Internet in homes is restricted and prices are high.
In 2012 he became a vice-president and, months later, First Vice-president. At this time he became reluctant to talk to the press, his agenda was formalized, and he was no longer seen on the streets or in the media.
According to diplomats and analysts, the transformation of his style is a result of the recent history of the country's leadership, in which the revolutionary generation has pushed young people out, accusing them of not complying with the process.
In 2012 Harold Cárdenas was a professor of Marxism at the University of Matanzas and, along with two other friends, started a blog called La Joven Cuba (Young Cuba), which was leftist but criticized some problems on the island. Because of this, conservative sectors of the PCC and the local government accused them of abetting Cuba's enemies, and shut them down. Without being asked, Díaz-Canel stepped in.
"Diaz-Canel sat down with the three of us at a table and said 'what do you need to keep doing La Joven Cuba?’" recalled Cardenas in a recent interview with the AP. Shortly after this their page was back up and running, and to date is a forum for debate, with some doses of criticism, although toeing the official line.
For Cárdenas, Diaz-Canel's intervention demonstrates that the new generation - after the Revolution and before his own - will sustain process, but it will change according to their life experiences: the disappearance of socialist regimes and their subsidies, the failures of the dogmas of Communism, and the need to respect greater religious and social diversity.
"Díaz-Canel has been in a very uncomfortable position for years, as no one from his generation has survived and reached the level where he is," said Cardenas. "I speak with Díaz-Canel man to man. He is much more communicative than he seems ... There is a 'gray' image of him, which is a Government construction to deprive the leadership of any color, to give it an unnecessary solemnity," he said.