Enrique Yglesias left Cuba two years ago for a better life. From Uruguay, he trekked to Guyana, across the Amazonian jungle and Central America to Mexico and the U.S. border, where he asked for asylum.
He just arrived in Cutler Bay in South Miami-Dade after his release from detention, so he hadn’t heard: Raúl Castro is retiring from official power in Cuba at 89.
The 36-year-old Yglesias’ reaction? Not much. For Cubans on the island and in Miami, he predicted, the fallout from the news that Castro is retiring from leadership of the Cuban Communist Party will be just “more of the same.”
“I left Cuba because of people like Raúl Castro and Díaz-Canel,” he said, referring to Cuban president and presumed Castro successor Miguel Díaz-Canel. “Every day there is more misery, and they carry on with the same old political nonsense.”
Yglesias’ muted response was a common one across Cuban and Cuban American Miami. From Little Havana to Westchester and Miami, the community issued one giant collective shrug at the announcement in Havana.
Once, the exit from the stage of the last standing Castro brother -- for 62 years the object of so much bitter censure by the thousands exiled from their homeland -- might have prompted heartfelt relief and excited hopes of regime change.
But when it finally came, it was very much an anti-climax. The long-expected and seemingly smooth transition to a younger Castro protege, five years after the death of Fidel Castro, instead inspired mostly resignation and cynicism, if not indifference.
Homepages for Telemundo Miami 51, Univision and Diario las Americas, leading sources of Spanish-language news, buried the news, if they featured it at all. Far more attention was lavished on the 60th anniversary of the failed, U.S.-sponsored Bay of Pigs invasion, which fell on Saturday -- a fact remarked upon on both sides of the Florida Straits.
In Havana, during the Eighth Cuban Communist Party at which Castro announced his retirement, the invasion was called “a terrorist attack” and the armed forces that repelled it were hailed, while in Miami surviving Bay of Pigs veterans were feted as heroes -- a sign of enduring and seemingly unbridgeable divisions between the two Cubas.
Even the news of Castro’s relinquishing of formal power was cast in starkly different terms on each side.
The hardline exile Babalú Blog called the expected succession “kabuki theater” and derided mainstream media reports around the world for “lapping up the theatrical performance.” The blog post by Alberto de la Cruz claimed in a Saturday post that real power will continue to rest with Castro and his son, Alejandro Castro, an influential colonel in Cuban intelligence.
“Nothing of importance is changing in Cuba and the Castro family will remain firmly in control, but the truth doesn’t generate clicks or traffic,” the blog said.
The transfer of the title of Cuban Communist Party chief won’t make any practical difference for Armando Soto, 46, who settled in Miami from Matanzas, Cuba, a decade ago. He said he will still have to send monthly remittances to his loved ones on the island.
“Be it Díaz-Canel, be it Raúl Castro, I will have to keep sending money to my family so they can survive until the end of the month,” he said.
In managing to wield uncontested power until the cusp of turning 90, Raúl Castro simply outlasted many of his most determined foes in the exile community and their dream of someday returning to a free Cuba. The muted response in Miami to his retirement reflects broad recognition that Castro may be trundling off to retirement in Oriente province, but the authoritarian state he and his late brother Fidel Castro created may well outlast him, too.
In fact, Castro and Díaz-Canel themselves were at great pains Friday, the opening day of the Cuban Communist Party’s four-day congress, to underline that economic reforms the government is enacting don’t imply any easing of authoritarian controls. If anything, they signaled the opposite, stressing that all but the smallest enterprises will be run by the government, while approving measures to clamp down on Cubans’ access to social media and the internet ahead of the event.
Under reforms enacted by Castro while he held the presidency, Cubans for the first time enjoyed nearly unfettered online access, giving them a taste of freedom and uncensored information that regime figures blame for increased social unrest and street protests. Díaz-Canel became president in 2018, while Raúl Castro retained the more-powerful role as the party’s first secretary.
To be sure, some in Miami expressed relief that the end of the Castro dynasty seemed at hand, even if they saw Raúl’s retirement as largely symbolic.
Arriving for his daily cafecito at Versailles on Saturday afternoon, Juan Peña, 86, said Díaz-Canel is clearly a puppet who will toe the party line inch by inch, but that “at least he doesn’t have people killed.”
For Peña, who left Cuba in 1965, the veteran revolutionary leaders who remain in power and Castro’s allies in the military will prevent any meaningful change in the medium term. But what may change is people’s perception of the regime’s strength without a Castro at the helm, he said.
That brings some slender hope for those who have been waiting so long for real change in Cuba, he said.
“Cubans don’t fear or respect Díaz-Canel as much as they fear Raúl Castro and Fidel before him; that may bring about some change. That may embolden people on the island,” said Peña, known as “El Presidente” for leading a group of senior Cuban Americans who meet regularly at Versailles for coffee and pastries.
Younger Cuban Americans also see civil society as the leading force of change, while social media is the fuel that will help people on the island demand better living conditions. To Avi Vizoso, who is studying English at Miami-Dade College, the real revolutionaries are the younger generations for whom the socialist revolution never worked.
“Castro can leave if he wants to, it’s not really a surprise and at the end of the day it doesn’t change anything. Their story is the story of an old regime that never worked,” Vizoso said. “It’s time for a new story.”
The reaction to Raúl Castro’s retirement was a sharp contrast to the spontaneous celebrations that erupted after his older brother Fidel Castro’s death in 2016. Crowds gathered on the streets after midnight to bang pots and pans, uncork champagne and chant into the morning.
By then, however, Cubans and Cuban Americans alike knew not to expect significant change. Hopes may have briefly lifted when Fidel Castro fell ill and turned over power to his younger brother, his able and loyal second-in-command since the Cuban revolution. But more fatalistic expectations set in after Raúl emphatically set in motion a plan for succession to a younger generation, starting with his own replacement as president by Díaz-Canel in 2018, and the replacement of other key regime figures with hardline loyalists.
For some exile leaders, Raúl Castro’s announcement that he would relinquish all remaining formal powers during opening remarks at the party congress in Havana didn’t stoke apathy. It sparked anger.
U.S. Rep. Maria Elvira Salazar, R-Miami, called Castro’s announcement “phony” and a “scheme to fool the international community.” The sharp uptick in desperate people leaving the island by different means, including rafts, underscores that little has or can change while the communist regime is in place, she said in a statement.
“Today, the brutal Castro regime pretends to fool the international community with the appearance of change on the island of Cuba — but it’s nothing more than a complete and total farce.” Salazar, who is Cuban American, said. “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.”
The transfer of power comes as Cuba’s economy is mired in deep crisis after the COVID-19 pandemic extinguished tourism and drastically reduced revenue to the island, already reeling from mismanagement and tighter sanctions that restricted remittances during the Trump administration.
The elimination of a dual-currency system that was approved a decade ago but only implemented this year led to a spike in inflation while salaries didn’t rise at the same rate. Empty shelves at state-run supermarkets and more aggressive repression of dissent are fueling frustration, and Cuba’s incipient civil society is using social media to voice opposition to the one-party regime.
For many Cuba watchers, Raúl Castro is likely to retain a sizable influence in state affairs, despite his own promise to become merely “one more revolutionary combatant” in retirement. The nation’s first civilian president since the revolution is regarded as a loyal bureaucrat who, until now, has hewed close to party ideology. But the island’s dismal economy also means leaders are under pressure to come up with quick solutions.
“Even if Diaz-Canel has an inclination to chart a different course, his ability to do so is presumably circumscribed, so long as Raúl Castro remains alive,” said Eric Farnsworth, vice president at the Council of the Americas in Washington. “So it remains to be seen how much flexibility Diaz-Canel will have, or, frankly, how much he’ll want to have.”
From his spot at Versailles, Peña has watched his generation of exiles steadily dwindle as the years press on. He doesn’t like to think much about the revolution, not wanting to dwell on a subject that brings sadness. He believes that change will only happen when Cubans decide to topple the regime.
“The truth is that these so-called leaders won’t do anything for the people,” he said. “There is a lot of frustration, and it’s different from what happened before. It’s much worse.”