Miami reaction to Cuba's new president mixed: Reject him or maybe try to engage

Cuba's new president, Miguel Díaz-Canel, arrives at the National Assembly.
Cuba's new president, Miguel Díaz-Canel, arrives at the National Assembly. AP

While Cuba's National Assembly was applauding a historic transition that brought Miguel Díaz-Canel to power Thursday, Miami exiles were underwhelmed by the changing of the guard, calling it everything from "undemocratic" to a "sham transition" to more of the same.

"Nothing more than a predetermined charade by the Castro regime," said Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio. "With Raúl Castro stepping down today, and his appointed crony Miguel Díaz-Canel taking his place, Cuba will continue to be an island imprisoned under the rule of an oppressive single-party political system. "

The correct response for those who want change on the island, he said, would be to "allow the Cuban people to determine their fate through free, fair, and multi-party elections.”

The Inspire America Foundation, whose board members include former Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado and other influential Cuban Americans, said it "rejects the undemocratic and unconstitutional appointment, by Dictator Raúl Castro, of a new 'President' to serve as an extension of the Castro regime" and urged regional heads of state not to recognize Díaz-Canel.

Miguel Mario Díaz-Canel, 57, was chosen by Cuba's National Assembly as the country's new president on Thursday, Abril 19, 2018. Díaz-Canel was the only candidate.

Meanwhile, the Miami-based Foundation for Human Rights in Cuba left the door open a crack for Díaz-Canel.

In a detailed report on the changes in Cuba, it said: "Cuba can't put up with any more. Miguel Díaz-Canel will be a puppet of the dictator unless in his intimate conscience he harbors other perspectives of reality and some circumstance would allow him to pursue his own ideas and objectives. Something not impossible, but very unlikely."

José “Pepe” Hernández, president of the Cuban American National Foundation, an exile organization that wants to see a democratic society in Cuba, said most people he talked to on Thursday thought the transition was more of the same: "Hardly anything in Cuba will change until the responsibility for selecting those who govern isn't left to a small group of individuals led by the Castro family. Nothing will change unless the Cuban people can choose their own government."

Still, Hernández said he was encouraged that a number of historicos (the revolutionary old guard) had been retired or removed from Cuba's Council of State in favor of younger and more diverse people. The first vice president of the Council of State, Salvador Valdés Mesa, is black and three of the new vice presidents are women. Valdés, a former labor leader, is known for his pragmatism.

"That should give us some hope. The new young blood coming to the Council of State will have tremendous responsibilities because the Cuban nation is facing such tremendous challenges right now," Hernández said. "Supposedly, these people have a better understanding of the problems affecting the population. I'm hoping they will try to push the envelope."

And unlike some in the exile community who reject the new government as illegitimate, he believes the United States should try to engage with the new Cuban government.

"I know there are a number of people, including some who are influential with the Trump administration, who don't believe this is the case, but I think the administration is in a very good position to obtain a better deal from the Cuban government than Obama did," said Hernández, a Brigade 2506 veteran who said he's become more moderate as he ages. "Let's hope that we're all prepared to give a little so that we can reach some common ground and help the Cuban people."

The CubaOne Foundation, which connects young Cuban Americans with their heritage and Cubans on the island, also supports engagement with Cuba's new leadership. "Cuba is responsible for deciding its fate, but we believe the United States can play a positive role through engagement. In the 10 months since President Trump announced his Cuba policy in Miami, we have yet to see any progress on the island," the Miami-based organization said in a statement.

Pedro Freyre, a Miami lawyer, said he's been discouraged by the tougher stance on Cuba coming from Washington under President Donald Trump.

"We in Miami tend to think nothing has changed in Cuba. It has changed — just not the way we wanted it to. But change is there at the grassroots level," said Freyre, who has represented companies doing business on the island.

He said the restoration of relations with Cuba under former President Barack Obama gave those on the island hope.

"Now that energy has been sapped," he said. "I long for the days of Obama. I might light a candle and say a prayer to La Cachita (the nickname for Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre, Cuba's patron saint) tonight."

Follow Mimi Whitefield on Twitter: @HeraldMimi