Outgoing First Secretary of the Cuban Communist Party (CCP), Raul Castro, addresses the 8th Congress of the CCP at the Convention Palace in Havana, on Monday. Agence France-Presse
Adriana Brasileiro, Mario J. Pentón, and Andres Viglucci, Tribune News Service
Enrique Yglesias left Cuba two years ago for a better life. From Uruguay, he trekked to Guyana, across the Amazonian jungle and Central America to Mexico and the US border, where he asked for asylum.
He just arrived in Cutler Bay in South Miami-Dade after his release from detention, so he hadn’t heard: Raul Castro is retiring from official power in Cuba at 89.
The 36-year-old Yglesias’ reaction? Not much. For Cubans on the island and in Miami, he predicted, the fallout from the news that Castro is retiring from leadership of the Cuban Communist Party will be just “more of the same.”
“I left Cuba because of people like Raul Castro and Díaz-Canel,” he said, referring to Cuban president and presumed Castro successor Miguel Díaz-Canel. “Every day there is more misery, and they carry on with the same old political nonsense.”
Yglesias’ muted response was a common one across Cuban and Cuban American Miami. From Little Havana to Westchester and Miami, the community issued one giant collective shrug at the announcement in Havana.
Once, the exit from the stage of the last standing Castro brother — for 62 years the object of so much bitter censure by the thousands exiled from their homeland — might have prompted heartfelt relief and excited hopes of regime change.
But when it finally came, it was very much an anti-climax. The long-expected and seemingly smooth transition to a younger Castro protege, five years after the death of Fidel Castro, instead inspired mostly resignation and cynicism, if not indifference.
Homepages for Telemundo Miami 51, Univision and Diario las Americas, leading sources of Spanish-language news, buried the news, if they featured it at all. Far more attention was lavished on the 60th anniversary of the failed, US-sponsored Bay of Pigs invasion, which fell on Saturday — a fact remarked upon on both sides of the Florida Straits.
In Havana, during the Eighth Cuban Communist Party at which Castro announced his retirement, the invasion was called “a terrorist attack” and the armed forces that repelled it were hailed, while in Miami surviving Bay of Pigs veterans were feted as heroes — a sign of enduring and seemingly unbridgeable divisions between the two Cubas.
Even the news of Castro’s relinquishing of formal power was cast in starkly different terms on each side.
The hardline exile Babalu Blog called the expected succession “kabuki theater” and derided mainstream media reports around the world for “lapping up the theatrical performance.” The blog post by Alberto de la Cruz claimed in a Saturday post that real power will continue to rest with Castro and his son, Alejandro Castro, an influential colonel in Cuban intelligence.
“Nothing of importance is changing in Cuba and the Castro family will remain firmly in control, but the truth doesn’t generate clicks or traffic,” the blog said.
The transfer of the title of Cuban Communist Party chief won’t make any practical difference for Armando Soto, 46, who settled in Miami from Matanzas, Cuba, a decade ago. He said he will still have to send monthly remittances to his loved ones on the island.
“Be it Díaz-Canel, be it Raul Castro, I will have to keep sending money to my family so they can survive until the end of the month,” he said.
In managing to wield uncontested power until the cusp of turning 90, Raul Castro simply outlasted many of his most determined foes in the exile community and their dream of someday returning to a free Cuba. The muted response in Miami to his retirement reflects broad recognition that Castro may be trundling off to retirement in Oriente province, but the authoritarian state he and his late brother Fidel Castro created may well outlast him, too.
In fact, Castro and Díaz-Canel themselves were at great pains Friday, the opening day of the Cuban Communist Party’s four-day congress, to underline that economic reforms the government is enacting don’t imply any easing of authoritarian controls. If anything, they signaled the opposite, stressing that all but the smallest enterprises will be run by the government, while approving measures to clamp down on Cubans’ access to social media and the internet ahead of the event.
Under reforms enacted by Castro while he held the presidency, Cubans for the first time enjoyed nearly unfettered online access, giving them a taste of freedom and uncensored information that regime figures blame for increased social unrest and street protests. Díaz-Canel became president in 2018, while Raul Castro retained the more-powerful role as the party’s first secretary.
To be sure, some in Miami expressed relief that the end of the Castro dynasty seemed at hand, even if they saw Raul’s retirement as largely symbolic.
Arriving for his daily cafecito at Versailles on Saturday afternoon, Juan Pena, 86, said Diaz-Canel is clearly a puppet who will toe the party line inch by inch, but that “at least he doesn’t have people killed.”
For Pena, who left Cuba in 1965, the veteran revolutionary leaders who remain in power and Castro’s allies in the military will prevent any meaningful change in the medium term. But what may change is people’s perception of the regime’s strength without a Castro at the helm, he said.
That brings some slender hope for those who have been waiting so long for real change in Cuba, he said.
“Cubans don’t fear or respect Díaz-Canel as much as they fear Raul Castro and Fidel before him; that may bring about some change. That may embolden people on the island,” said Pena, known as “El Presidente” for leading a group of senior Cuban Americans who meet regularly at Versailles for coffee and pastries.
Younger Cuban Americans also see civil society as the leading force of change, while social media is the fuel that will help people on the island demand better living conditions. To AviVizoso, who is studying English at Miami-Dade College, the real revolutionaries are the younger generations for whom the socialist revolution never worked.
“Castro can leave if he wants to, it’s not really a surprise and at the end of the day it doesn’t change anything. Their story is the story of an old regime that never worked,” Vizoso said. “It’s time for a new story.”
For many Cuba watchers, Raul Castro is likely to retain a sizable influence in state affairs, despite his own promise to become merely “one more revolutionary combatant” in retirement. The nation’s first civilian president since the revolution is regarded as a loyal bureaucrat who, until now, has hewed close to party ideology. But the island’s dismal economy also means leaders are under pressure to come up with quick solutions.
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