MIAMI – They’ll believe it when they see it.
Shortly after Raul Castro announced Sunday that he would step down as Cuba’s president in 2018, hard-line Cuban exiles said they were skeptical that the announcement would mean any real change for the communist-ruled island.
“Raul Castro will be in power until he dies,” said Orlando Gutierrez Boronat of the Cuban Democratic Directory, an organization of Cuban exiles based in Miami. He views recent moves by the Castro government as political gamesmanship and still speculates that Fidel Castro’s niece, Mariela Castro, could eventually assume power. Others think it could be one of Raul Castro’s sons, Alejandro.
“The Castro family has no intention of letting go,” said Gutierrez Boronat. “They keep power within a very close familiar group, together with the people who’ve been helping them in the state apparatus for the last 53 years.”
On his blog, Mauricio Claver-Carone, the Executive Director of Cuba Democracy Advocates, wrote: “Here’s a novel idea — how about letting the Cuban people choose their ‘new generation’ of leaders?”
Still, other observers feel that the naming Sunday of Miguel Diaz-Canel, 52, as Castro’s vice president and top lieutenant represents the first sign of political succession on the island.
Diaz-Canel is an electrical engineer who’s a rising star on Cuba’s political scene. He was a university professor who became Minister of Education before being elected to Cuba’s Communist Party’s Political Bureau.
Perhaps most significantly, he is now the first top government official that is not from the generation that fought with Fidel during the revolution.
“This is the first time they’re actually thinking about some sort of succession plan that would not end with a Castro,” said Felice Gorordo, the co-founder of Raices de Esperanza, or Roots of Hope, a group of young Cuban-Americans in Miami. “But a lot of this is to be determined.”
Professor Jaime Suchlicki, a Cuba expert at the University of Miami, points out that there’s been talk of younger government officials being groomed for leadership before, only to fizzle quickly.
“I don’t think Diaz-Canel has any base of power,” said Suchlicki. “He’s not military. He doesn’t have any tanks or a regimen. Right now, he’s the man of the hour. Two years from now, he may not be.”
After light-heartedly hinting several days before that he would be retiring, Raul Castro spoke to Cuba’s parliament Sunday. He began his second five-year term since officially succeeding his ailing brother Fidel in 2008. He said it would be his last.
Castro also said his recent proposal to limit top officials to two five-year terms will soon be adopted. Cuba is at a moment of “historic transcendence,” he told lawmakers, suggesting that the island needed to transition to a new generation.
“This looks like an attempt by Raul Castro to institutionalize a set of reforms that might make the regime more predictable,” explained Professor Sebastian Arcos with Florida International University. “He’s definitely moving away from the old Soviet system.”
Since taking over from his brother, Castro has expanded private enterprise and eased travel restrictions. But critics argue those changes have not been significant enough – and have been aimed at preserving political power rather than improving human rights.
“Fidel and Raul Castro are still in charge,” Gutierrez Boronat said. “U.S. law commands that the United States not resume full financial, economic and political relations with Castro regime while the Castros are still in power and while there are still political prisoners. None of that has changed.”
Gabe Gutierrez, is an NBC News correspondent based in Atlanta, GA. Currently, he is in Miami covering the Cuban-American reaction to Cuba’s transition.