Raul Castro Gives Up Cuban Presidency

Cuba’s President Raul Castro and First Vice-President Miguel Diaz-Canel arrive for a session of the National Assembly in Havana, Cuba, April 18, 2018. (Irene Perez/Courtesy of Cubadebate/Handout via Reuters)

For the first time in almost 60 years, Cuba has a head of state from outside the Castro family.

Raul Castro, 86, stepped down Thursday morning as president, handing the reins to his hand-picked successor, the much younger Miguel Diaz-Canel, who has been vice president since 2013.

Castro, 86, inherited the presidency from his brother, who had ruled the country with an iron fist for nearly 50 years, in 2008. Despite relinquishing the presidency, he is set to remain head of the Cuban Communist party and the country’s armed forces, which has led some observers to wonder how much freedom Diaz-Canel, 57, will have to exercise the powers of the office. At the same time, the move has touched off speculation about Cuba’s future as one of the last remaining Communist states, given its widespread poverty and need for structural reforms.

Diaz-Canel was born after the Fidel Castro’s Communist revolution, and has been curiously reluctant to share his opinion about it for someone who’s spent his life rising in the political system Castro created.

“I was born in 1960, after the revolution,” the future president told U.S. lawmakers in 2015. “I’m not the best person to answer your questions on the subject.”

He has a reputation for promoting more access between Cuba and the outside world, but he does not hesitate to censor and quash influences that run counter to the one-party state’s interests. In November, he said that “we continue to be open to relations” with the U.S. But last month, he complained that the Trump administration had “offended Cuba” and “attacked and threatened” the revolution.

U.S. relations with the communist regime have ebbed and flowed over the last few years.

In 2014, then-president Barack Obama oversaw a “thaw” between the two countries, lifting the ban on Cuban cigars, facilitating American exports, and allowing American banks to do more business in the country. But some of those moves were subsequently reversed by President Trump, who as a candidate expressed ambivalence about the normalization of American-Cuban relations.

“The concept of opening with Cuba — 50 years is enough,” Trump said in 2015. But “we should have made a stronger deal.”

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