The Miami Herald | EDITORIAL

Cuba’s Raúl Castro’s proclaimed changes are no more than lipstick on a zombie

In Juan of the Dead, an enterprising but admittedly lazy Cuban and his small band of friends face a Havana full of zombies (the regime claims they are dissidents but Juan knows better) by starting a zombie-disposal service. At one point in the comedic, award-winning Spanish film made in Cuba, Juan answers the phone and a plea to get rid of “the old man” with a subtle line: “ Compañero, you’ll have to handle that family matter yourself.”

After 54 years of the Castro brothers’ communist dictatorship, a new generation of Cubans want to take charge of their destiny, to rid themselves of the zombies who blindly follow the Castros.

On Sunday, Raúl Castro seemed to toss them a lifeline — the 81-year-old successor to his ailing brother Fidel says he’s leaving Cuba’s presidency in five years and that the communist island’s constitution will soon include term limits for future leaders.

Castro tapped Miguel Diaz-Canel, a 52-year-old engineer, now seen as his potential successor, for first vice president. He also shook up the rubber-stamp National Assembly by promoting 69-year-old Esteban Lazo Hernandez, Cuba’s highest ranking black official, to replace Ricardo Alarcon, 75, who served for two decades as assembly president.

No doubt, Raúl Castro expects the international community to see these changes as the Great Awakening for Cuba’s leadership gerontocracy, a “historic transcendence” for a new generation to take the mantle and for Afro Cubans to finally bust the iron ceiling that has kept black Cubans from key positions.

If only that were so. This is nothing more than lipstick on a zombie.

The dictatorship may get a new face but no one elevated by Fidel or Raúl Castro can be considered a Cuban leader in the image of, say, the former Soviet Union’s reformer, Mikhail Gorbachev.

Indeed, Diaz-Canel is not the first “young” leader to be seen as a potential heir to lead the one-party state. Remember former Foreign Ministers Roberto Robaina and Felipe Perez Roque? Or former Vice President Carlos Lage? All have disappeared from public view, ousted by the Castro brothers when they became too big for their political britches.

As for U.S. policy toward Cuba, there’s nothing in Sunday’s proclamations from Havana that would warrant a thawing of relations. The Obama administration already has made it easier for Cuban Americans to visit their loved ones in Cuba and send remittances. As the State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell noted on Monday, the United States remains “hopeful for the day that the Cuban people get democracy, when they can have the opportunity to freely pick their own leaders. We’re clearly not there yet.”

Certainly the Helms-Burton law that maintains the U.S. embargo requires more than a promise of some elusive change five years from now when the dictatorship will be 59 years old.

Diaz-Canel, a former higher education minister and ex-head of the Communist Party in Villa Clara and Holguin provinces, has been traveling with Raúl Castro on key missions abroad and leading delegations on other trips. He is reported to have been in charge of many of Raúl Castro’s economic changes, such as allowing the sale of homes and lifting travel restrictions for some Cubans. All these are seen as efforts to bolster Cuba’s ever-depressed top-down economy, which Raúl Castro maintains are ways to “perfect socialism, not destroy it.”

Like we said, lipstick on a zombie.

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