Cuba-watchers split on announced leadership changes

WEB VOTE Does Raúl Castro’s decision to step down from the leadership in five years make you more optimistic about the future of Cuba?

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.”

Among other conditions that must be met under Helms Burton are: legalization of all political activity; release of all political prisoners, international inspections of Cuban prisons, and the abolition of the Ministry of Interior, its State Security branch and the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution as well as the requirement that Cuba must hold free, fair and internationally supervised elections within 18 months after the transition government assumes power.

A State Department spokesman said Monday that Raúl Castro’s promise to step down was not “a fundamental change” because the Cubans have not outlined concrete measures that would lead to democratic rule.

“We remain hopeful for the day that the Cuban people get democracy, when they can have the opportunity to freely pick their own leaders in an open democratic process and enjoy the freedoms of speech and association without fear of reprisal,” said State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell. Still, Brian Latell, a retired CIA analyst, called Castro’s announcements “the most significant political developments” since Fidel Castro withdrew from power in 2006 and the move “will enhance the regime’s prestige abroad, and most likely also on the island. With a long-term succession plan now in place, potential foreign investors will be more interested and pressure could build in the U.S. against the embargo.”

Phil Peters, a Cuba expert at the Lexington Institute in Washington, said the projected transition from Raúl Castro to Diaz-Canel means the U.S. government should stop waiting for the Cuban regime to collapse and instead “engage it critically.”

“What this change does is to provide a path to transition and the opportunity for a smooth succession to the next generation of leadership. There may be other changes in this direction too,’’ he said.

But others were skeptical of any changes during Castro’s rule over the next five years or even that he would retire as promised and Diaz-Canel would take over.

Carmelo Mesa-Largo, regarded as the dean of Cuban economists in the United States, and Oscar Espinosa Chepe, a Havana dissident and economist, said Diaz-Canel seems to have no power base other than Castro’s backing.

“This is just a formula to say that we’re giving an opportunity to young people,” Espinosa Chepe said. “The problem is not to appoint young people. The problem is to appoint people with an open mind who can fix a broken system.”

And while an orderly transition to continuing socialism might not be the scenario that many exiles dreamed of, Juan Clark, a professor emeritus at Miami Dade College and a Bay of Pigs veteran, said the future of Cuba is very fluid.

There could be an unanticipated move by the Cuban military, Cuba could discover commercially viable oil deposits, or a successor to Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez could cut off subsidized oil.

“Who knows? We may see things in Cuba we didn’t consider possible,’’ Clark said.

Miami Herald staff writer Luisa Yanez and McClatchy News Service reporter Hannah Allam contributed to this story.

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