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Biden must seize Cuba opening as Raúl Castro steps down and Miguel Díaz-Canel steps up

A new leader in Havana provides an opportunity for those advocating for major change — largely the nation's youth — to push for reform more forcefully.
Cuba Celebrates May Day
Cuban President Raúl Castro talks to First Vice President Miguel Díaz-Canel in Havana on May 1, 2016.Sven Creutzmann / Getty Images file

The Castro regime is why my family left Cuba. It was 1960, one year after the triumph of Fidel Castro's revolution, and my family took the short hop of a flight to Florida, arriving in Miami as political exiles. They set up a new life, one that, for a while at least, was lived under the belief that the revolution couldn't last. When Castro was gone, they'd return home.

Everyday people are increasingly, and ever-more vocally, demanding that it is Castroism, not just Castro, that should go.

It's been 62 years, and more than 1 million Cuban immigrants have fled. My grandparents died in Florida, as have most people from their generation of refugees, and even though Fidel is long dead, too, the island remained under the control of his brother. Until Monday, when Raúl Castro stepped down.

The lack of a Castro, finally, as the head of the Cuban government might seem monumental. In reality, it's a change in name only — for now, at least. The hand-picked successor is expected to be more of the same, but that same, many hope, will include a slow opening of Cuba to the world and the benefits of a market economy. At the same time, a new leader in Havana is an opening for those advocating for major change — largely the nation's young people — to push for reform more forcefully; a new leader in Washington offers a glimmer of hope to loosen restrictions even more.

Raúl Castro, who was handed the reins of the island nation by his ailing older brother in 2008 and will turn 90 in June, had long said that 2021 would be the end of his time as first secretary, the highest position in the country's one-party system. But he immediately made it clear in his farewell announcement that he wouldn't be out of the picture. "I will continue participating as one more revolutionary combatant," Castro said.

The new first secretary, Miguel Díaz-Canel, who has been president since 2018 and had long been expected to replace Raúl Castro, promised to consult his predecessor on "strategic decisions of greatest weight for the destiny of our nation. He will always be present." On Twitter, Díaz-Canel has often used the hashtag #SomosContinuidad to underscore that he would continue the Castro vision.

"Since the announcement, the international media has been filled with headlines about a farewell to a surname that has ruled the country for 62 years, but without perceiving that Castroism is more than a man and his clan," Cuban journalist Yoani Sánchez explained in 14ymedio. It is, in fact, "a way of managing politics, controlling the press, managing the economy from the military sector, defining education plans, managing international relations and structuring ideological propaganda."

And everyday people are increasingly, and ever-more vocally, demanding that it is Castroism, not just Castro, that should go. In Cuba today, food shortages are increasing, the Covid-19 outbreak is unrelenting, and the economy is shrinking. It contracted by 11 percent last year— partly because President Donald Trump ratcheted up economic sanctions, which have yet to be undone by President Joe Biden. The revolution, many think, is running on fumes.

Older Cubans in Cuba who supported the revolution and remember the hardships of life before it are often more loyal to its message of "patria o muerte" ("homeland or death," meaning everyone must sacrifice for the revolution). But many younger Cubans, who grew up entirely under the system of socialism, want more freedoms and opportunity, to join patriotism with individualism. Or as the popular dissident song says, "Patria y Vida" ("homeland and life").

Putting Díaz-Canel in power nods to this younger generation — born in 1960, Díaz-Canel has lived his entire life during the Castros' rule — and he is likely to continue the incredibly slow evolution in the Caribbean nation.

Raúl Castro implemented reforms his brother didn't, such as allowing some Cubans to open restaurants, rent bed and breakfasts, and sell their cars and homes. He and President Barack Obama also re-established full diplomatic relations, which helped the Cuban economy greatly until Trump tightened the embargo again.

However, many in the country want more. The popular San Isidro Movement, made up predominantly of young artists and intellectuals, is one group of young people who are going toe to toe with the government in their demand for greater civil liberties. Their expectations for Díaz-Canel aren't high. But since Díaz-Canel is the first leader not of the "historic generation" that won the revolution, he is decidedly less imposing a figure than the Castro brothers.

"Díaz-Canel is a 'company man,'" notes Christopher Sabatini, senior research fellow for Latin America at Chatham House, an international affairs think tank in London. "He's risen through the ranks as an apparatchik and doesn't really have the leadership credibility of the Castros or those that were with the revolution from the beginning. Given all of the social and economic challenges confronting Cuba now, will just a manager be enough?"

Biden could try to take advantage of this weakness to press for an even greater shift in Cuba. He said on the presidential campaign trail that he would re-establish many of the diplomatic and economic relations set forth under Obama, but so far those steps haven't been taken. As recently as last week, his press secretary said a policy change with respect to Cuba wasn't among the president's top priorities, despite a letter from 75 U.S. lawmakers this year urging him to make it one.

This is a missed opportunity. Were Biden to re-establish a relationship with Cuba more similar to the one under Obama, both countries would benefit. This includes reversing the restrictions on remittances, travel, engaging with Cuba on medical cooperation and removing Cuba from the list of state sponsors of terrorism to which Trump hastily added it right before he left office.

This is a missed opportunity. Were Biden to re-establish a relationship with Cuba more similar to the one under Obama, both countries would benefit.

Far more than the Cuban government, these restrictions hurt the Cuban people. They keep everyday people on the edge of poverty, while those in government power live lives of privilege that look similar to the lives of the wealthy elsewhere in the world. The U.S. sanctions aren't enforced by any other country, and they haven't toppled the Castro regime; in a way, they have strengthened its mystique while keeping the people on the island desperate and less empowered.

My family's group text chain over the past few days has been filled with comments about the leadership transition in Cuba, a conversation likely being had by millions of Cubans on both sides of the Florida Straits. My cousin sent one simple message: "Nothing ever changes." It's a refrain people have been echoing for 62 years. Wouldn't it be wonderful if things finally did?