Raúl Castro may leave office a bit earlier than originally planned

Cuba's President Raúl Castro, left, gestures as he stand with First Vice President Miguel Díaz-Canel during the 7th Cuban Communist Party Congress in Havana on April 16, 2016. Díaz-Canel is expected to succeed Castro as president.
Cuba's President Raúl Castro, left, gestures as he stand with First Vice President Miguel Díaz-Canel during the 7th Cuban Communist Party Congress in Havana on April 16, 2016. Díaz-Canel is expected to succeed Castro as president. AP

Cuba has moved up by a day the beginning of the historic legislative session in which Raúl Castro is supposed to leave the presidency and usher in a new generation of Cuban officials.

The Council of State said it was rescheduling the session to Wednesday from Thursday in order to “facilitate the development of the steps that such a transcendent session requires.” The session of the National Assembly of People's Power, Cuba's parliament, will begin at 9 a.m Wednesday in Havana’s Convention Palace, according to official Cuban news media.

It was unclear whether the session would last two days, or if the plan was to have Castro leave office a day early. Cuban media did not elaborate beyond the brief statement.

Commentators on Cubadebate, an official online news service, were clearly confused. In one exchange, a reader said he didn’t understand. Another responded: "Why must you understand?" A third offered: "Certainly you must understand; you are a voter and you have rights."

What is clear is that with Castro's term as president coming to an end — assuming Castro keeps his promise to step down — U.S.-Cuba relations in some ways seem to have returned to the past and the deep freeze of the Cold War era.

The Trump administration has tightened up on a trade and travel opening forged during former President Barack Obama’s rapprochement with Cuba, and the embassy in Havana is operating with only a skeletal staff after the U.S. withdrew most of its personnel and expelled 17 Cuban diplomats from Washington in the wake of mysterious incidents that harmed American diplomats’ health. Anti-Cuba rhetoric from President Donald Trump also has ratcheted up.

Yet the two sides have continued to meet regularly, generally in Washington, on topics of mutual concern; the U.S. Coast Guard and the Cuban Border Guard cooperated on an interdiction this month when 127 Haitians were found aboard an overloaded sailboat 20 miles off the Cuban coast, and the Cubans also sent three firetrucks and a helicopter to the U.S. Navy base at Guantánamo Bay at the request of the Americans when wildfires threatened base housing in February.

The Cuban government also seems intent on keeping the fledgling relationship with the United States going, especially if it means bringing in more free-spending U.S. visitors to the island.

When a bronze replica of a statue of Cuban independence hero José Martí that sits in Central Park was inaugurated in Havana in January, some 300 guests from the United States were invited and Castro himself attended the event. It was clear that Cuban officials liked the optics of the replica as a symbol of the friendship between the Cuban and American people.

Despite greatly reduced numbers at the Cuban Embassy in Washington, Cuban diplomats still make an effort to accept invitations from around the United States and seek out potential friends. After a recent visit to the University of Southern Mississippi, Miguel Fraga, an embassy first secretary, tweeted: “Cuba desires normal relations with the U.S. based on respect and goodwill.”

Carlos Alzugaray, a retired Cuban diplomat, says that Castro’s successor likely will pursue the same course as Castro: “resistance to pressure and ready to follow up on the existing agreements if the Trump administration is ready to go forward.”

Since Trump took office, U.S. and Cuban delegations have held nearly two dozen meetings on topics such as migration, public health, combating illicit drugs, environmental protection, law enforcement, agriculture, people smuggling and migration fraud, fugitives from justice, cyber security, anti-money laundering, human trafficking, maritime safety, civil aviation and human rights. Such dialogues and technical exchanges began under the Obama opening.

“These meetings provided an opportunity to address topics that advance the interests of the United States and the Cuban people,” said a State Department spokesperson.

During the Obama administration, the meetings usually rotated between Washington and Havana. but since Sept. 29 when former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson ordered the departure of all non-essential personnel from the U.S. Embassy in Cuba, nearly all the meetings and exchanges between the two countries have occurred in the United States.

Some of the meetings have even taken place in South Florida where Trump announced his new tougher Cuba policy last June. The two sides met in Key West for a tabletop exercise on search and rescue operations and in Fort Lauderdale to work on a response plan for oil spills and other potentially hazardous substances in the Florida Straits and Gulf of Mexico.

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President Donald Trump, surrounded by Cuban Americans and Vice President Mike Pence, signs a document outlining his new Cuba policy after a speech at the Manuel Artime Theater in Little Havana on June 16, 2017. Roberto Koltun

Elliott Abrams, who served in both the Reagan and George W. Bush administrations, would like to see Trump roll back more of Obama’s overtures. The “Trump administration has left most of Obama’s major changes intact, despite the new president’s tough rhetoric,” Abrams said.

Now with Castro’s successor — most likely First Vice President Miguel Díaz-Canel — coming to power, he suggests this transition is not the time to lighten up on Cuba. “The United States should press hard for change once Raúl is out because it’s unclear if the regime will be able to keep its monopoly on power and deny political and human rights progress,” Abrams wrote in a policy brief for the Council on Foreign Relations where he is now a senior fellow.

But others say the leadership change, which will be the first time in more than 40 years a non-Castro will occupy the presidency, is the time for even more engagement.

In a commentary, the Washington Office on Latin America said: “With shared waters, shared challenges, and shared threats, the United States should maintain and deepen its cooperation with Cuba as First Vice President Miguel Díaz-Canel assumes his new role as the island’s head of state. Failing to do so will only imperil U.S. national interests and threaten progress made on important areas of mutual concern.”

It’s unclear how much engagement Díaz-Canel himself might want. Though some Cuban watchers speculate that he embraces moderate views, he remains in step with the Community Party of Cuba, which Castro will continue to head after the transition.

In a video tape of a meeting of Communist Party members that was leaked and posted on YouTube last year, Díaz-Canel said: “The U.S. government... invaded Cuba, put the blockade [embargo] in place, imposed restrictive measures. Cuba did not do any of that, so in return for nothing they have to solve those asymmetries if they want relations and if they want normalization of the relations.”

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A child looks out a window from inside the newly opened U.S. Embassy during a flag-raising ceremony on Aug. 14, 2015. Although cooperation and meetings of topics of mutual interest continue between the U.S. and Cuba, the relationship has gone cold since President Donald Trump took office. Ramon Espinosa AP

During the Obama thaw, the Cubans acted like they had all the time in the world to work on better relations with the United States and seemed lukewarm to some of the Obama-era overtures to increase business ties. They assumed Hillary Clinton would win the 2016 presidential election and they would have eight years to work on normalization.

Instead, they got Trump who felt he had a political debt to hardline Cubans who wanted to roll back the opening.

During 2015 talks to reestablish diplomatic relations after more than a half century of hostilities, the Cubans were tough negotiators on the terms for reopening the respective embassies, fearing the United States might use an embassy to rile up dissidents and step up espionage activities.

But now Cuba seems a lot more interested in having a fully-staffed U.S. embassy in Havana. After the United States decided to scale back its diplomatic mission, Granma — the newspaper of the Communist Party of Cuba — published a list of 10 reasons why both embassies should function normally. The first reason offered: the lack of consular services is affecting “tens of thousands of Cuba who want to travel to the United State for various motives.”

Some Cuba watchers say Havana’s foot-dragging during the Obama administration made it easier for Trump to roll back Obama’s Cuba policies.

“Perhaps they didn’t realize how significant the Obama opening could have been,” said Jay Brickman, vice president of government service and Cuba service at Crowley Maritime, which operates ocean liner service from Port Everglades to Cuba.

“In my view, there are things the Cubans could have done differently that would have made it more difficult for Trump to do what he did such as movement on settling U.S. claims against Cuba that would have created broader constituencies in the Republican Party for continuing progress in the relationship,” said Richard Feinberg, a professor of international political economy at the University of California, San Diego.

Things may not get any easier for Cuba under Trump’s pick for secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, and John Bolton, Trump’s new national security adviser.

In 2002, Bolton, then undersecretary of state for arms control, accused Cuba of sharing bioweapons technology with other “rogue states” — a claim that was never substantiated. Bolton has a history of favoring sanctions and has said he doesn’t “do carrots” when negotiating with rogue nations.

Pompeo has been highly critical of Obama’s rapprochement with Cuba, calling it “misguided,” and offering too many concessions with little in return. But on Thursday, during his Senate confirmation hearing, Pompeo indicated he favored once again building up the staff at the downsized U.S. Embassy in Havana.

“The real game changer can be if Pompeo really means what he is reported to have said in his confirmation hearing,” said Alzugaray, “not what will happen in Cuba after April 19.”

With the U.S.-Cuba relationship on pause and Cuba’s economically strapped ally Venezuela in no position to be as generous as it has been in the past, Cuba has been courting a steady stream of potential economic partners. Among recent visitors to the island have been Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Aljubeir and Nguyen Phu Trong, secretary general of the Communist Party of Vietnam.

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European Union High Representative Federica Mogherini, right, shakes hands with Cuba's Foreign Trade Minister Rodrigo Malmierca during a photo opportunity on the sidelines of their meeting in Havana on Jan. 3, 2018. Alejandro Ernesto AP

European Union High Representative Federica Mogherini.visited Cuba in January and a joint council scheduled for mid-May with the EU could result in more cooperation in areas such as renewable energy, sustainable agricultural and culture. Japan also recently opened an international cooperation office in Havana.

“I think they have to make new friends. They’re without a patron saint right now,” said Crowley’s Brickman. “It reinforces the notion that you can’t put too many eggs in one basket because you don’t know what will happen.”

Follow Mimi Whitefield on Twitter: @HeraldMimi


2008-present: Raúl Castro (acting president 2006-2008)

1976-2008: Fidel Castro

1959-1976: Osvaldo Dorticós

1959-1959: Manuel Urrutia

1955-1959: Fulgencio Batista