For some, Cuban President Raúl Castro’s Sunday announcement that he would retire in 2018, making way for a much younger replacement, was a sea change for an island that the Castro brothers have presided over for more than five decades. But others both inside Cuba and out viewed the transition as meaningless window dressing.
And for those who have spent a lifetime battling against the Castros, the peaceful transition to more socialism that Raúl Castro envisions when he steps down and passes leadership to a new generation was a bit baffling and somewhat anticlimactic.
“If this is really the end of a battle with Castro, who won and who lost?” asked José Basulto, who took part in the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion and in the early 1990s founded the Brothers to the Rescue, a group of pilots that helped track rafters fleeing Cuba. “I would say the Cuban exile community won; we escaped and thrived here, but Fidel got to stay in power for all those years, so he can say he won. But the real, real losers? It was the Cuban people.”
Miguel Diaz-Canel, 52, was tapped as Cuba’s new first vice president of the ruling Council of State, making him heir apparent when 81-year-old Raúl Castro steps down. It was the first time that position has been held by someone who didn’t fight alongside Fidel and Raúl Castro in the Cuban Revolution.
And Cuban analysts viewed that generational shift as significant.
“It doesn’t mean he’s being chosen to succeed Raúl, but it does mean they’re leaving the gerontocracy and opening up the aperture to younger leaders,” said Alex Crowther, a former U.S. Army colonel and Cuba specialist whose published commentaries on bilateral relations include a 2009 essay calling for an end to the embargo.
“It is true that other would-be successors appeared from time to time, but none was anointed, and none had a formal designation as the successor,” said Jorge Dominguez, a Latin American specialist at Harvard University. “Sure, there will be political fights in the future. Theirs is a political party, after all, and politicians will jockey for power and position. But Diaz-Canel is now the front-runner.”
“We’ll see in five years, but I don’t like anyone that Castro appoints,” said Bertha Soler, leader of the dissident Ladies in White, referring to Diaz-Canel.
Castro’s announcement during the installation of new delegates to Cuba’s parliament, the National Assembly of People’s Power, was viewed by some as the beginning of the post-Castro era.
But most analysts agree it will take far more than Fidel and Raúl Castro moving out of the Cuban power structure to improve Cuba-U.S. relations, which have been in a deep freeze since shortly after the revolution.
For starters, U.S. law, specifically the Helms-Burton Act, requires both Fidel and Raúl Castro to be out of power before the U.S. government can certify that a transition regime is in place in Cuba and the U.S. embargo can be lifted. But Helms-Burton, which was approved by the U.S. Congress in 1996, goes far beyond that.
“The most important conditions in Helms-Burton are the legalization of opposition parties, independent media, the dismantling of the State Security apparatus and free and fair elections,” said Mauricio Claver-Carone, director of the pro-sanctions U.S. Cuba Democracy lobby. “And hopefully they can happen well before 2018.”