Fabiola Santiago

For ‘last exiles,’ Raúl Castro exiting presidency is both farce — and cause for hope

As a journalist and the daughter of Cuban exiles, I have spent a lifetime waiting for the landmark day when six decades of Castro rule ends — and democracy flourishes on the beloved island, bringing prosperity, political plurality and reconciliation to the Cuban people.

This long-awaited transfer of power in Cuba, sadly, isn’t that moment but yet another chapter of never-ending disappointment. It is confirmation that the hardliners won the power struggle with reformers, unleashed during the Obama years of hopeful rapprochement with the United States, a time when it seemed that Cuba might finally be poised to modernize.

This changing of the presidency from the hands of the aged Raúl Castro to the heir apparent, first vice president Miguel Díaz-Canel, isn’t, as some believe, a momentous occasion. It’s a symbolic one and a clever move, as it gives the perception of change when in reality the Castro family remains firmly in power.

This maneuver only promises more of the same.

Raúl’s son, Alejandro, remains a key figure in the Ministry of the Interior, which runs the repressive apparatus that accounts for the longevity of the regime. His former son-in-law, Gen. Luis Alberto Rodríguez, operates GAESA, one of the military enterprises that manages state wealth and tourism. And his daughter Mariela, a member of the National Assembly who rose to prominence as a champion of gay rights, travels the world as one of the government’s chief propagandists. As they did with her uncle, some Americans dote on her charismatic presence.

And then, there’s 86-year-old Raúl Castro. He's stepping down from the presidency on Wednesday — but he’s not out. He remains at the helm of Cuba’s armed forces and the all-powerful Communist Party, a post that perpetuates the Castro signature on policy drafting and execution for who knows how long.

So allow us — as my friend and civic activist Rafael Peñalver calls our generation, “the last exiles” in Miami — our desperation and disgust with the political theater in Havana.

“All of the suffering for this? This is a very bleak end [of the Castro era] for the people of Cuba — and for us, too,” says Peñalver, president of the historic San Carlos Institute in Key West devoted to Cuban history and culture.

The installation of a more youthful president who has been videotaped ranting about foreign embassies in Havana plotting subversion and railing against dissidents feels as if “the dream of a free Cuba has died,” he adds.

Cuba’s carefully chosen National Assembly — and not the Cuban people will officially select Castro’s successor. The fact that the last name won’t be a Castro isn’t as unprecedented as it is being billed.

In fact, handing the presidency to someone else is an old ruse that dates to the early days of the Cuban Revolution.

When Fidel Castro rose to power, he didn’t take the presidency for himself right away, but assigned it to civil resistance leader Manuel Urrutia, who only lasted seven months before disputes with Fidel’s bloody course sent him into exile in Miami. Another president was then named from the civil ranks of Castro’s 26th of July Movement, Osvaldo Dorticós, and he served until 1976. (He killed himself in 1983).

All the while, as has been well-documented, it was dictator Fidel Castro calling the shots as prime minister from 1959 to 1976, then as president until 2008, when ill with cancer, he handed the reins to brother Raúl, who portrayed himself as a reformer. Raúl presided over the Obama détente, then backpedaled after the American president’s brilliant speech in Havana ignited hopes of real change all over the island and angered old, dying Fidel, who came out of retirement to quash the enthusiasm.

Once again, change at the top is only cosmetic, but hope has been the currency we cling to in Miami when all else fails.

Peñalver speculates that perhaps Díaz-Canel could turn out to be an agent of change in the way Franco ushered the franquistas to a peaceful transition in Spain. Or the way an anti-Communist Richard Nixon opened up to China.

“The day will come,” he says, “when the Castro years will be just an asterisk in the history of Eternal Cuba.”

But this change at the top feels far, far from that day.