As Raúl Castro steps aside, Cuban-Americans push Biden to act
Republicans and Democrats want to know the plans of the US president for the island and take advantage of the new scenario to promote changes.

Cuban-Americans from both sides of the political spectrum are calling on President Joe Biden to step up efforts to push for changes in Cuba in the wake of Raúl Castro's resignation as leader of the island's Communist Party.

In mid-April, Castro, 89, told a party congress that he will step aside and hand over leadership to a younger generation "full of passion and anti-imperialist spirit." The move ended the formal leadership of the Castro family over Cuba, which began with the 1959 revolution that unseated Fulgencio Batista.

In the wake of Castro's departure, leadership of Cuba's Communist Party passed to Miguel Díaz-Canel, who has been the island's president since 2018.

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In the US - which is home to more than 2.3 million Cuban-Americans, the third largest Latino group in the country - many members of the diaspora do not believe that Díaz-Canel is likely to reform the island's government or increase freedoms for its citizens.

Among those who do not expect change is Otto Reich, a conservative Cuban-born former senior US diplomat who served in the administrations of Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush.

In an interview with LPO, Reich compared the change in leadership to the one that took place in the Soviet Union in the early 1980s from Leonid Brezhnev to Yuri Andropov and then to Konstantin Chernenko. It wasn't until Mikhail Gorbachev came into power as head of state in 1988 that substantive took place in the USSR, which dissolved soon after. 

In the US - which is home to more than 2.3 million Cuban-Americans, the third largest Latino group in the country - many members of the diaspora do not believe that Díaz-Canel is likely to reform the island's government or increase freedoms for its citizens.

"[Díaz-Canel] will be more of the same," Reich said. "He's certainly not any Gorbachev, and he's not a reformer. He's a party the last three years he's proven to be a figurehead of the octogenarians and the hardliners who still run the government, military and the party."

Castro's departure has been planned for at least several years. In 2019, the Communist Party drafted a new constitution that ensured that Cuba's communist system cannot be changed, and that "the socialist system that this constitution supports is irrevocable."

The recent announcement, however, comes at a challenging time for the Cuban regime. The island's economy shrank an estimated 11% last year, largely due to the impact of Covid-19 and tougher US sanctions put in place by President Donald Trump - which have yet to be undone by the Biden administration.

Looking to the future, Reich said he hopes that the Biden administration doesn't return to the Cuba policies of Barack Obama, which saw the US government restore diplomatic relations with Cuba, ease some US travel restrictions, and lifted certain restrictions on remittances to the island.

"The Obama administration threw an economic lifeline at a sinking regime," he said. "There were not only no positive changes in Cuba, but there were a lot of negative changes. Repression increased and purchases from the US decreased considerably, all contrary to what Obama had said when he announced the change in policy and why it was necessary." 

The Obama administration threw an economic lifeline at a sinking regime

When he announced changes to US policy towards Cuba in late 2014, Obama said he believed that US policy hadn't worked for decades, and that "we should not allow US sanctions to add to the burden of Cuban citizens that we seek to help."

Reich said that he believes the Obama administration ‘fell into a trap' and said that the sanctions managed to prevent Cuban from ‘exporting' revolution elsewhere in Latin America.

"I would tell the Biden administration to not fall into the same trap. They gave the Cuban government all sorts of concessions," he added. "They haven't taken a different approach so far, but it's only been 100 days...interestingly, they appear to have learned from the Obama mistakes of unilateral concessions."

In February, however, Biden did announce that he planned to life some restrictions on travel between the US and Cuba.

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"They feel that Americans are the best ambassadors," he said. "But I'm a Cuban-American, and I question that position. No country has ever been liberated by tourists, and Cuba is not going to be the first."

Historically, Cuban-Americans - particularly in South Florida - have favored the Republican Party and backed hardline policies towards Cuba. A Pew Research survey ahead of the 2020 election, for example, found that 58% of Cuban-Americans favored the Republicans, compared with 38% who leaned towards the Democrats.

Among the Democratic-leaning Cuban-Americans who favor loosening restrictions on the island is Elena Sheppard, a New York-based writer whose family left Cuba in 1960, one year after the revolution.

While she doesn't expect any immediate reforms from Díaz-Canel - whom she described as ‘Castro adjacent - she said she believes the embargo "needs to end".

"We've been doing the same thing for 50 years, and all it's doing is ruining people's lives on both sides of the Florida Straits," she said. "I think now is a moment where there is an opportunity for change. There are new leaders here and there, so let's stop making the same mistake over and over again."

"If you've been to Cuba, you see it. You can't not see the lack," she added. "In 2019, things were relatively good, but now just we hear about food and medication shortages, all the kinds of things we have in abundance here in the United States. It's almost a cruel joke. Cuba is tantalizingly close, and they have nothing."

Additionally, Sheppard said that while she sees some positive movement on the island - such as the San Isidro Movement started in 2018 - she believes that any US president will have trouble contending with Cuban-American voters in Florida, a key electoral state.

"I do think that the power of Cubans in South Florida is big, strong and powerful and probably stressful for a politician," she added. "I'm always hopeful, but I'm not optimistic."

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