Cuba Will Soon Be Led By Someone Who Is Not A Castro

Apr 18, 2018
Originally published on April 18, 2018 9:26 pm
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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

An historic transition is underway in Cuba. Tomorrow, for the first time in decades, Cuba's president will not have the name Castro. Though Raul Castro is stepping down as president, he will remain head of the ruling Communist Party. NPR's Carrie Kahn is in Havana to cover this succession and joins us now. Hi, Carrie.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.

SHAPIRO: It has been nearly 60 years since the Castro revolution in Cuba. A president is about to be selected who was not part of that revolutionary fight. So why is Raul Castro stepping down now?

KAHN: Well, this was a long-planned handover. Raul announced term limits back in 2013. That was going to be his last five-year term, and time's up. (Laughter) Remember, he's 86 years old. Many members of Cuba's Communist Politburo are in their 80s. They're called the historic generation, those that actually fought in the 1959 revolution. And Castro said that it's time that they hand over power to a younger group.

So the National Assembly met all day long here in Havana. And we are barred from attending. It's a closed meeting. But occasionally they break into state TV and put parts of the meeting on live. They've showed us the slate of candidates. And I say that making air quotes - you can't see me doing that - around the word candidate. But this latest set, there's one person for the presidency, one for the first vice presidency, five other VPs and 23 members of what's called the State Council. And they're all running unopposed.

SHAPIRO: So tell us about the president-in-waiting, the man who is set to succeed Raul Castro.

KAHN: Well, first off, he's much younger than Raul Castro. He is 57. He actually turns 58 on Friday. His name is Miguel Diaz-Canel. He's a longtime member of the Communist Party here, getting his start as a provincial party apparatchik. He's not really known by many Cubans other than what they see on TV, and he's been on recently a lot as speculation grew that he would be the anointed new leader. He's thought to be down-to-earth, low-key. He - while he was the head of higher education, he backed a group of bloggers at the university and, in the provinces, was a supporter of a local LGBT community center.

But, you know, make no doubt. He is a stalwart supporter of the party. A tape of him was leaked last year when he was talking to party leaders, and he took a very hard line against current bloggers, Internet access and even foreign governments. So I think it's pretty clear this handover of power, while going to a younger man, isn't going to signal any radical change in Cuba.

SHAPIRO: And Raul Castro, as we said, is going to remain head of the party - so more of the same then.

KAHN: Yeah. He retains that position until 2021. But, you know, I've talked to some people that say that Castro - you know, he's 86 - is really ready to retire. And he says he's leaving Havana and moving to his hometown on the eastern side of the island to really spend (laughter) more time with his very large family. So some thought is that maybe he won't be in the day-to-day minings anymore. But others say he will still be the ideological leader here.

SHAPIRO: Do Cubans you're talking to see this as a big moment in their nation's history? How do they feel about it?

KAHN: You know, Ari, it was really interesting. I tried to talk to people this morning, and it wasn't easy. People don't want to talk - well, they never really want to talk about politics. But during the Obama administration, when relations with U.S. and Cuba were warming and I could just talk to people on the street, they were ready to talk, and it flowed. But you can feel people are clamping down now.

They're - most are aware of the handover happening, but they're really skeptical too that much will change. This one taxi driver that I did talk to, he was pretty well-informed. And he said that he's glad that a younger generation is coming in, but he wasn't making any illusions that he thought any change would happen.

What everybody is willing to talk about, though, is the poor economy here. On average, you know, a Cuban state salary is, like, $30 a month. You just can't live off that here. It's impossible. And people are eager to enter this nascent private sector that's here. But last year, the government stopped issuing licenses for private businesses and have retrenched. So people are hurting, and they really want to see the economy grow. That, they'll talk about.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Carrie Kahn in Havana, Cuba. Thanks, Carrie.

KAHN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.