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Cuba's New President

Apr 19, 2018
Originally published on April 19, 2018 10:33 am
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

For the first time in nearly six decades, Cuba is going to be led by someone who is not a Castro. Raul Castro is expected to step aside as president today, though he will still lead the Communist Party. So how significant is this moment, and what could it mean for U.S.-Cuban relations? NPR's Carrie Kahn is in Havana, and she joins us. Hi, Carrie.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Hi.

GREENE: So why is Raul Castro stepping down now, and who's replacing him?

KAHN: This was a planned handover of power. Raul - he's 86 now, and he instituted these term limits so to speak in 2013 and announced last year he was stepping down. He's signaled that he wants to hand over leadership to a younger generation. Many in the Communist Party here, like Raul, are in their 80s. And they're members of what they call that historic generation, those who fought in the 1959 revolution.

So the selection of a successor was done by secret ballot yesterday and is expected to be the first vice president, 57-year-old Miguel Diaz-Canel. He's a longtime party official. He was a provincial party leader for many years. Reportedly in his youth, though, he did sport long hair, loved rock music and even backed a local LGBT-friendly cultural center. But clearly, he's been a stalwart Communist Party supporter through the years and a right-hand man to the Castros, especially Raul.

GREENE: So, I mean, just hearing about him, do Cubans expect there to be some significant changes or not?

KAHN: Well, of course, that depends on who you ask. But in general, I would just say no, not really. Cubans are very skeptical. Many don't know much about Diaz-Canel other than he's younger. But talking to Cubans, you get a lot of opinions. Many don't want to talk about politics out in public, but they will talk about the economy because just like everywhere, that's the big issue, you know. And when you talk to people who have made gains in the nascent private sector here, they want more change. They want more opening. Here, listen to our Araseli Rodriguez (ph). She rents two rooms in her apartment and opened another apartment across the way to tourists during the opening in the warmer relations with President Obama in 2014, but business now is not doing well.

ARASELI RODRIGUEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: She says tourism is way down, and she blames President Trump's harder line with Cuba as the main culprit. She goes on to say that of course there are internal problems too, but the harsher U.S. tone with Cuba scared many people away. And also listen to this taxi driver I talked to, Yasmeni Armentero (ph).

YASMENI ARMENTERO: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: He's looking forward to having a new younger president. He says, "we need someone who thinks different, someone from another generation, that time period." He's referring to that so-called historic generation. He says, "hopefully someone new will move the country ahead better." But, you know, I just have to add that it's unclear whether that will happen under Diaz-Canel and highly unlikely he's going to push for political change but - even economic change. Recent comments by him showing off a harder line against everything from Internet access, bloggers and even some for governments really lend to that conventional wisdom that while he may be a younger guy, the pace of change here is not going to take off anytime soon.

GREENE: Well, Carrie, stay with me. I want to come back to you in a few minutes. But, you know, you bring up the idea of uncertainty. I think there's a lot of uncertainty here in Washington about what this moment actually means or doesn't mean, what it can mean for U.S.-Cuban relations going forward. I mean, they've been so icy for decades. You think about the U.S. trying to stop the late Fidel Castro's revolution. You had the Cold War, the Cuban missile crisis. You had the embargo. And then President Obama was insisting on political change in Cuba and calling on the Castro regime to be less repressive, but he thought that there was some hope for a closer relationship with the United States. And I was speaking the other day to a lawmaker in Congress who was no fan of Obama's approach. It's Florida Republican Congressman Carlos Curbelo.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

CARLOS CURBELO: The problem with President Obama's policy was that it was a policy of unilateral concessions. In other words, whatever the Castro dictatorship requested or wanted, they got. And never did we ask for anything in return.

GREENE: But even Curbelo, this hardliner, said this week's transition of power in Cuba could - could - be an opportunity for new engagement.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

CURBELO: The onus is on the Cubans. If they express a willingness to make some of the changes that the Western world is looking for in Cuba, then of course I'm for conditional engagement.

GREENE: The idea of conditional engagement, you could argue, has meant that these countries have been apart and not really engaged at all for decades. Is there an argument that it's worth President Trump just saying, come to the White House, you're the new leader of Cuba, let's sit down and let's talk on no conditions and see what we can do here?

CURBELO: I think a lot of diplomatic work and research needs to be done to really try to get a sense for what the attitude of this new leadership is going to be. I'm realistic. My eyes are wide open. I don't expect any radical changes in Cuba, regrettably, but I hope I'm wrong.

GREENE: That was Florida Republican Congressman Carlos Curbelo. Now what's next, of course, is in many ways up to President Trump. And Dan Restrepo says that is the problem. Restrepo was a White House adviser who helped craft President Obama's Cuba policy.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

DAN RESTREPO: Quite frankly, I think - I don't see the attention span from President Trump and his team. I think they've got other things to focus on in the Americas.

GREENE: And that made me want to ask Restrepo this - is Cuba that important to the United States, given everything else happening in the world?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

RESTREPO: It's mostly just a political transition in a Latin American country that happens to be a neighbor, one that can have the potential to destabilize the United States. I think one of the things that we can never lose sight of from a U.S. national security interest perspective is that meaningful political turmoil on the island could create large flows of migrants. It has in the past. But short of a mass migration, it's just another country in Latin America.

GREENE: Former Obama adviser Dan Restrepo there. I want to go back to Havana and NPR's Carrie Kahn. She's been listening. And, Carrie, what about Cubans? I mean, how do they see the U.S.-Cuban relationship right now, and do they expect it to be different with this transition?

KAHN: I think that's something they're really hoping for but don't see coming anytime soon. Really, most people I talked to say improving relations will more depend on Trump than on the regime here. And just as Cubans historically have done when the U.S. plays hardball with them, the government here retrenches and takes a harder line. So it feels like a stalemate now.

GREENE: NPR's Carrie Kahn reporting in Havana this morning. Carrie, thanks.

KAHN: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF OCOTE SOUL SOUNDS AND ADRIAN QUESADA'S "TRES RATAS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.