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It is the end of an era in Havana. On Wednesday, the Cuban National Assembly convened a meeting during which President Raúl Castro resigned from his post in favor of his first Vice-President, Miguel Diaz-Canel. This move sets the stage for a startling reality: Diaz-Canel will be the first non-Castro to head the Caribbean nation since Marxist revolutionaries came to power nearly six decades ago.
Castro, 86, remains the country's Communist Party even though he is at dawn of his career. His brother Fidel Castro, architect of the regime, which had survived the American blockade for decades, resigned in his favor in 2008 and died two years ago. And while the rise of Diaz-Canel – a handpicked successor from the ranks of the Communist leadership – was telegraphed for months, it still represents a dramatic turning point.
"For me, not having Fidel or Raul, it's almost impossible to understand, "said Giraldo Baez, a 78-year-old former factory worker, to my colleague Anthony Faiola in Havana. "It's almost beyond my comprehension, but as they go, we still have to follow their ideas."
There is little reason to rejoice among the hard-won Cuban diaspora in the United States. "Today is a day when the Castro dynasty appoints a new monarch to commit more crimes," said Miguel Saavedra, president of a group of Cuban exiles in Miami. "The future for the Cuban people is tragic and pathetic as long as Castro is still in power."
Miguel Diaz-Canel stands in the election of candidates for National and Provincial Assemblies in Santa Clara, Cuba, on March 11 (Alecandro Ernesto / Reuters)
This is an argument that many Republicans in Washington and Hawks in the Trump Administration . Within a year, President Trump reversed the groundbreaking steps toward normalization with Cuba initiated by President Barack Obama . Obama visited Cuba in 2016 and delivered a speech that was followed by millions. It was followed by countless US politicians, fashion icons, CEOs and Wall Street executives, as well as thousands of tourists whose arrival boosted Cuba's emerging private sector.
But after a mysterious series of "health attacks" on US diplomats Trump moved to expel Cuban diplomats and strip most of the US staff in Havana. His government has also stopped the influx of American tourists to Cuba, limited American investment there, and exacerbated the rhetoric against the regime. What hopeful talk of a new chapter in US-Cuba relations was eradicated when Trump – who was only a few years ago interested in expanding his business to Cuba – became a vocal but small constituency within The Cuba skeptics argue that Obama's openness did little to change the behavior of the repressive Cuban regime, but its critics argue that progress would be slow and volatile, and that the US hawks are anachronistic Capture the attitude of the Cold War. Finally, the United States has few reservations about building economic and political relations with Vietnam, another communist-run, one-party state that is putting civil society and prisoners under pressure.
"These moves loudly signaled the return of Florida's pro-embargo faction led by Senator Marco Rubio at the head of US Cuba politics," wrote Ted Piccone of the Brookings Institution. "Now, with the appointment of Harder John Bolton and Mike Pompeo as top national security positions, we should expect the White House to double its initial approval for the penal system change."
This uncompromising position had a deterrent effect in Cuba. It also probably offered relief to the hardliners within the Communist Party, who were afraid of the forces of liberalization that could be unleashed by the opening of Obama. "Cuba and the United States can work together and live side by side, respecting their differences," Castro said last year. "But nobody should expect you to make concessions that are inherent in his sovereignty and independence."
Since then, the Cuban government has ceased its efforts to expand the private sector. "Cuban officials made a temporary stop last year in awarding new licenses to private companies, arguing that time is needed to ensure that the island's new business community pays taxes and works within the law," said Faiola. "The freeze was motivated by influential party officials, who were still very skeptical about the change."
Diaz-Canel, 57, comes from a generation of Cuban politicians who had never occupied the front of the guerrillas on the side of Fidel, Che Guevara or other figures the happy days of the revolution. Instead, in the 1990s, he cut his political teeth when Cuba expected the economic disaster after the collapse of the Soviet Union. He is considered a pragmatist and advocate of new technologies. But his presidency is also an expression of his proximity to the prevailing order.
Diaz-Canel is under pressure to shore up Cuba's flagging economy, which can no longer rely on Venezuela's petro-wealth support. Perhaps he must lead the currency reform and drive further foreign investment by calibrating the pressure to ease the fears of the communist establishment.
Raúl Castro and Diaz-Canel chat during a National Assembly meeting in 2016. (AFP via www.cubadebate.cu)
Obama and his lieutenants believed that the United States could help bring about these changes. But analysts argue that Trump's unflinching hostility to Havana limits the scope of Diaz-Canel's possible actions. "The United States and other outside actors will not determine the nature or timing of these changes." Marguerite Jimenez wrote in Foreign Affairs last month. "However, they can create a climate where reform is easier, and US engagement strategies that recognize Cuban sovereignty and oppose the demand for regime change will reduce the risks for Díaz-Canel to make major changes."
Other foreign powers – especially China and Russia – have entered, have reshaped tens or forgiven billions of dollars in Cuban debt while investing in various sectors of the Cuban economy. According to Jimenez, China is Cuba's largest trading partner, generating $ 1.8 billion in exports to the island in 2017. In the same year, Russian exports to Cuba, including oil supplies, increased by 81 percent.
"Trump's bullying," concluded New Yorker Jon Lee Anderson, "just makes it more likely that the Cubans, with or without Castro, will do what they've done in the last 59 years: show stubborn pride and, if necessary Forge a tactical alliance with any of America's geostrategic opponents who are prepared to pay attention to their backs. "
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