As Cuba Gains a New President, Raúl Castro Steps Back, Not Down, From Power

For the first time since the Cuban revolution toppled dictator Fulgencio Batista, a president who does not have the last name Castro has taken power. Miguel Díaz-Canel was sworn in as president last Thursday. He succeeds Raúl Castro, who served two consecutive 5-year terms in office. Castro is now 86 years old and will remain head of the Communist Party. Fidel Castro handed over power to his brother Raúl in 2008 while his health deteriorated, and died in 2016. Thursday’s session was held on the 57th anniversary of Cuba’s 1961 defeat of a CIA-backed Cuban exile invasion known as the Bay of Pigs. Díaz-Canel began his term with a promise to defend the socialist revolution led by the Castro brothers. We speak to Peter Kornbluh, who directs the Cuba Documentation Project at the National Security Archive at George Washington University.

TRANSCRIPT

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We turn now to Cuba, where, for the first time since its socialist revolution toppled dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959, a president who does not have the last name Castro has taken power. Miguel Díaz-Canel was sworn in as president last Thursday. He succeeds Raúl Castro, who served two consecutive 5-year terms in office. Castro is now 86 years old, and he will remain the head of the Cuban Communist Party. Fidel Castro handed over power to his brother Raúl in 2008 while his health deteriorated, and Fidel Castro died in 2016. Thursday’s session was held on the 57th anniversary of Cuba’s 1961 defeat of a CIA-backed Cuban exile invasion known as the Bay of Pigs. Díaz-Canel began his term with a promise to defend the socialist revolution of Cuba.

PRESIDENT MIGUEL DÍAZ-CANEL: [translated] I accept the responsibility for which I have been elected, with the conviction that all Cuban revolutionaries, from the position we occupy, from the work we do, from every job and trench of the socialist motherland, will be faithful to the exemplary legacy, will be faithful to the exemplary legacy of the Commander-in-Chief Fidel Castro Ruz, historic leader of our revolution, and also faithful to the example, the courage and the teachings of Army General Raúl Castro Ruz, current leader of the revolutionary process.

AMY GOODMAN: On Saturday, the newly sworn-in Cuban president received his first official visit by a foreign leader, the Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro.

PRESIDENT NICOLÁS MADURO: [translated] Cuba and Venezuela are on the best condition to unite forces. We’ve done it before, with great results. Every time we took a step forward, the enemies of our motherlands said, “You can’t.” And we always showed that, yes, we can.

AMY GOODMAN: For more, we go to Washington, D.C., where we’re joined by Peter Kornbluh, who directs the Cuba Documentation Project at the National Security Archive at George Washington University. He has a new cover story for Politico on reporter Lisa Howard’s extensive back-channel diplomacy with Cuba. It’s headlined “‘My Dearest Fidel’: An ABC Journalist’s Secret Liaison with Fidel Castro.” Kornbluh is also co-author of the book Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations Between Washington and Havana.

Peter, welcome back to Democracy Now! First of all, talk about the significance of what has just taken place, the stepping down of Raúl Castro as president and who has replaced him.

PETER KORNBLUH: Well, in many ways, it’s a historic moment, because there aren’t going to be either Fidel or Raúl Castro prominently being the face of the Cuban revolution any longer. And this is, in a sense, the first step towards the post-Castro era. But the truth of the matter is that even though the conventional wisdom in the mainstream media is that the Castro era has ended, Raúl Castro is stepping back, but he’s really not stepping down from power. As Juan pointed out, he remains head of the Cuban Communist Party. He also remains the highest official in the Cuban military, both very, very powerful positions. Plus, his son, Alejandro Castro, is one of the highest intelligence officials in Cuba and is certainly an important figure to be reckoned with there.

And it’s important that Raúl Castro is still head of the — is still secretary general of the Cuban Communist Party, because he really was not able to complete his agenda. And his disciple, Miguel Díaz-Canel, who readily admits to being his disciple, has to continue to push Cuba forward. And he can only do that — since he has no legitimacy of his own as a histórico, as a historic figure in the Cuban revolution, he can only do that with the support of Raúl Castro. So it is important that Raúl is kind of staying in the game, if you will.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Peter, could you set for us: Who is Miguel Díaz-Canel? Because the reality is that over the decades there have been many supposed successors that emerged in the Cuban government to the Castro brothers, but they all sort of like fell by the wayside in different periods of time. And could you talk about, give a thumbnail sketch of who Miguel Díaz is?

PETER KORNBLUH: Well, I should say that those other potential successors were purged along the way, for various issues and problems that arose, when it was clear that neither Fidel nor Raúl were ready to kind of anoint a next generation of leadership.

And Miguel Díaz-Canel is the next generation of leadership. He has risen steadily, methodically, through the Cuban Communist Party. He was a electrical engineer by training, but he went into party politics. He became the provincial leader of Santa Clara during the special period after the collapse of the Soviet Union and kind of gained a reputation of being accessible and kind of an everyman. He rode his bike to meetings. People were able to talk to him. He encouraged debate. So, he was an accessible person. He was kind of picked, for the success of that, to be minister of education in 2009, and then anointed first vice president in 2013, which meant that he was Raúl’s kind of designate, designated successor. And that’s where we have arrived today.

Cuba faces a lot of significant challenges. The fact that Nicolás Maduro was there is obviously fraternal support from one of the key countries that Cuba still is very allied to in Latin America. But the truth is that Venezuela is in the midst of its own economic crisis and unable to truly support the Cuban economy now. And the Cuban economy is in a significant crisis. And this is what Miguel Díaz-Canel and the next generation of Cuban leadership is going to have to address.

AMY GOODMAN: On Wednesday, President Trump told reporters, “We love Cuba. We’re going to take care of Cuba.” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert was later asked to clarify Trump’s comment.

REPORTER: Today Donald Trump said, “We love Cuba. We’re going to take care of Cuba. We’re going to take care of it.” Does that mean that the US believes that it can actually work with the new president in trying to —

HEATHER NAUERT: Well, as you know, we maintain diplomatic relations with the Cuban government, so that — that continues. But we can certainly be disappointed with an election that we don’t see to be free, as fair. We also recognize that there are strong people-to-people ties between Cuban Americans and some Cuban families who still live back home, and also there are some businesses that take part in the Cuban economy, as well.

REPORTER: So this doesn’t mean that the Trump administration is going to roll back any kind of decisions or even looking at it?

HEATHER NAUERT: I’m not — I’m not aware of any changes on our policy. I think the president was just recognizing some of the work and people-to-people ties that we have.

AMY GOODMAN: So that’s State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert. Peter Kornbluh, if you can talk about the status of US-Cuban relations? You know, anything with Obama’s name on it, President Trump wants to push back. He said he was closing the — he was ending the thaw of relations with Cuba. What actually has happened?

PETER KORNBLUH: Well, let me just say you two things. One is that the State Department’s statement, which you just broadcast, really should be considered somewhat moderate, given Trump’s rather hostile rhetoric over the last few months. And Trump saying, you know, “We’re taking care of Cuba. We’re going to take care of Cuba,” is kind of ironic, because he’s saying it on the anniversary of the Bay of Pigs invasion, which the Cubans chose deliberately and symbolically for this transfer of power, the day that one of the small countries of Latin America defeated the Colossus of the north, in April of 1961. And Cuba —

AMY GOODMAN: Under President Kennedy.

PETER KORNBLUH: Under President Kennedy. And, of course, Cuba has proven, since that time, that it can take care of itself and that it doesn’t need the United States to take care of it. And this transition of leadership in Cuba doesn’t change that in any way. Cuba will continue to take care of itself.

I mean, it should be clear, you know, Donald Trump has completely changed, 100 percent, the civil tone of relations that Barack Obama set. But he hasn’t actually fully changed, or even significantly, in my opinion, changed, the actual policy. We still have diplomatic relations. There are a number of issues with the embassy being kind of reduced in staff, that are very significant for our kind of daily interaction and for Cubans to be able to come to the United States. They can no longer get visas in Havana itself. And Trump has scared US travelers away from going to Cuba, with travel alerts about the so-called sonic attacks in Cuba and kind of tweaking and restricting the kind of way we go, the licenses that we need, the categories that we travel under. And this has actually had an amazing impact on travel. I mean, American citizens are traveling less to Cuba. And this is having a significant impact on the private sector in Cuba, which had gotten all geared up for the tourist sector. And it is an important issue. So, even though the policy hasn’t really changed, even just the hostile rhetoric and the tweaking has had an impact on US-Cuban relations.