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For more than 60 years, the name Castro has been synonymous with Cuba’s communist regime. First it was Fidel Castro, who ruled the country for nearly five decades after the communist revolution before ceding power to his brother Raúl in 2008. Raúl Castro, 89, stepped down as head of Cuba’s Communist Party earlier this month, ending the Castro’s era of formal leadership in the country.
The party’s new leader, Miguel Díaz-Canel, is a devoted acolyte of the Castro model of socialism and has served as Cuba’s president since 2018, a role he also took over from Raúl Castro. Díaz-Canel assumes power during a challenging time for the island nation. Cuba’s economy, already kneecapped by the ongoing U.S. embargo, shrank by 11 percent last year after the pandemic dealt a major blow to its tourism industry.
The United States imposed an embargo prohibiting all trade with Cuba in 1962, three years after revolutionaries led by Fidel Castro unseated the country’s U.S.-backed president and less than a year after the failed Bay of Pigs invasion. The hostile relationship between the two nations remained largely unchanged until 2014, when the Obama administration moved to restore diplomatic ties with Cuba while easing economic sanctions, reducing travel restrictions and removing Cuba from the list of state sponsors of terrorism. Those policies were mostly reversed by President Donald Trump during his first year in office.
Why there’s debate
Some expertsbelieve the recent change in leadership in both the U.S. and Cuba is an opportunity to cool tensions between the two countries they say have endured for decades longer than was necessary. In March, before Raúl Castro announced he would step down as party leader, a group of 80 Democrats in Congress called on President Biden to “assist struggling Cuban families and promote a more constructive approach” by ending Trump’s restrictions and resuming efforts to foster a more cooperative relationship.
There are also hopes that Cuba may be more open to diplomacy now that the Castros are no longer in charge. Díaz-Canel, though far from a reformer, has made small changes since taking over as president — like increasing internet access and allowing more private businesses to operate — that could suggest he might be willing to further open up Cuba’s economy in exchange for relief from the embargo. Experts also say younger Cubans are growing increasingly discontent with socialism and are more willing to embrace change than older generations.
Skeptics say Díaz-Canel represents an extension of Castroism rather than a departure from it.
“This is a phony, pathetic transfer of power to the very same murderous and corrupt monsters who have destroyed the island for the past 62 years,” said U.S. Rep. Maria Elvira Salazar, a Cuban American who represents parts of Miami in Congress. Politics also make it tricky for Biden to take a softer approach to Cuba. Cuban Americans in Florida, a critical constituency in the swing state, remain firmly opposed to normalizing relations with Cuba, polls suggest.
During the campaign, Biden said he would reverse the “failed Trump policies” that undid the diplomatic gains made during the Obama administration. It doesn’t appear, however, that any new approach to Cuba is imminent. “A Cuba policy shift or additional steps is currently not among the president's top foreign policy priorities,” press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters earlier this month.
New leadership in both nations is an opportunity to mend a broken relationship
“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.” — Elena Sheppard, NBC News
Opening up the relationship would give the U.S. leverage to promote change in Cuba
“I think that if the United States were to go back to the policies that we saw started under president Obama, where you engage in trade, the power asymmetry is so great that the Cuban economy starts getting more influenced and more dependence … on all of the things that the dominant American economy would provide, the pressure on the Cuban Communist government to collapse would be very high.” — Ian Bremmer, GZERO
Change is happening in Cuba even without a change to U.S. policies
“[Political] sentiments make it more difficult for Biden to initiate his own Obama-style ‘thaw.’ But they cannot stop the changes at work in Cuban society.” — Joseph J. Gonzalez, Conversation
Now is the perfect time for the U.S. to lift the embargo
“The United States, meanwhile, has clung to the embargo largely out of habit. … Two generations post revolution, it is a propitious time to end the madness. Open the gates, flood Cuba with U.S. goods and goodwill, and trust that freedom will speak for herself.” — Kathleen Parker, Washington Post
Younger Cubans are eager for a new approach
“Many older Cubans remember the poverty and inequality they faced before the Castros, and remain loyal to the revolution despite decades of hardship. But younger generations, who grew up with the achievements of socialism, including access to education and health care, chafe at its limits. They are demanding less government control and more economic freedom.” — Maria Abi-Habib and Ed Augustin, New York Times
The communist system is too entrenched for any substantive change to happen
“Theoretically, yes, change is possible. But as any good historian or insurance actuary will tell you, theoretical possibilities fall into the realm of faith rather than reason, and it is safest not to expect miracles. Given all that has been set into place in Cuba, change is not likely any time soon, so the safest bet is to be highly skeptical.” — Carlos Eire, Washington Post
Maintaining hardline restrictions is the best way to bring an end to Cuba’s communist regime
“No matter how weak the dictatorship has become, it won’t just give way spontaneously to a democratic transition. It must be pushed. … The United States should be careful not to weaken pressure on the Cuban regime just at the point when it could have consequences.” — Rosa Maria Payá, Miami Herald
Obama’s gentler approach didn’t accomplish much
“While many hoped that former President Barack Obama’s détente would lead to greater freedoms for civil society, in reality little in U.S. policy at the time demanded it, and so President Joe Biden is right to take note and chart it more cautiously.” — Cristina Lopez-Gottardi Chao, Richmond Times-Dispatch
The Castros will still continue to run the country informally
“Even if no members of their family hold top leadership positions, there is little doubt the Castros will continue to wield great influence as long as the communist-run government and powerful military they built remains intact.” — Patrick Oppmann, CNN
U.S. politics make it tricky for Biden to chart a new course with Cuba
“Politically speaking, the direction of U.S. policy toward the island … would not be so important were it not for the pivotal importance of Cuban American voters in the key swing state of Florida.” — Niall Stanage, The Hill
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