Miami’s Cuban community is once again a privileged observer of a historic change: the end of Raúl Castro’s mandate as president of Cuba. On Thursday, Castro will hand power over to a new leader, which pundits believe will be his current vice-president, Miguel Díaz-Canel.
Faith in a sudden collapse of the regime died out decades ago in the capital of the Cuban diaspora, and was replaced with more limited expectations. But the imminent disappearance of the highly symbolic Castro surname from the front lines of power has renewed the exiled community’s hopes for transformation on the island.
Let’s see if Díaz-Canel, if he is the chosen one, lets another opportunity slip by, or if he is capable of seizing it
Carlos Saladrigas, Cuban Study Group
“This is a moment of opportunity,” says Carlos Saladrigas, who at 69 years of age is one of Miami’s most relevant veteran voices to speak about Cuban reality. Exiled in 1961, this businessman is also president of the Cuba Study Group, and he believes that trying to choose a path for the Cuban government from Florida is unrealistic.
“Political change is very difficult. The main thing is for changes to start taking place somewhere, rather than focusing on where they begin, because things can pick up speed after that,” he says.
This prudent, cautious sort of optimism can also be found among the new generations of Cuban émigrés. Mario Pentón, a 31-year-old journalist who arrived in the US in 2015 after undertaking the dangerous journey from Guatemala, says that he has “hopes that the situation will change for the better, though not tomorrow or the day after.”
Other recent arrivals are more pessimistic. “It will continue to be a dictatorship, with a new name in the presidency. I don’t think there’s going to be any change,” says a 30-year-old Cuban woman who declined to give her name for fear of reprisals against her family back home.
“I left because I don’t believe in that system and I don’t want to go back,” she added. “In three years here I have managed to do what I couldn’t do in 27 years in my own country.”
Pentón, the journalist, notes that Cuba has improved and that “it is not what it was 20 years ago.” He dreams of returning one day, but not until “there is a minimum respect for an independent press, for human rights and for plural politics. In short, when there is a possibility of dialogue between Cubans.”
There are 1.7 million Cubans or descendants of Cubans living in the United States. Of these, 1.2 million are in Florida, and one million live in the Miami metropolitan area. To most of them, Cuban politics are an issue that no longer affects them directly.
Amnesty International (AI) has presented a road map of human rights improvements for Cuba ahead of Raúl Castro’s scheduled departure on Thursday. The global organization notes that it has not been allowed on the island for nearly 30 years, but that it has been documenting “the ongoing detention, harassment and intimidation of activists and independent journalists.”
The road map proposes 15 specific steps to take by the new government, from guaranteeing a free press to reinforcing the independence of the judiciary.
“We view the change in leadership as an opportunity to establish a new dynamic that includes all voices in a constructive way,” says Louise Tillotson, an AI researcher for the Caribbean. “Our main call is for the government to accept monitoring of the human rights situation. Cuba is still the only country in the Americas where organizations like ourselves are not allowed in.”
“Cuba is changing presidents?” asks Talía Hernández, a 30-year-old waitress who has been living in the US for 13 years. She works at a Cuban restaurant where a daiquiri costs three quarters of the average salary of $25 that a state employee makes in Cuba. Hernández and another Cuban waitress who works there laugh as they remember the slogan they had to repeat every morning at school: “Pioneers for communism, we will be like the Che!”
While the earlier Cuban community followed island politics and ideology closely, today’s exiles view them as secondary issues. Surveys show that over half support lifting the US economic embargo, and that their concerns are over practical matters such as ease of travel, family reunification, remittances and sending packages to relatives. Many of them also hope to return to Cuba one day to start a business within a safe legal framework.
“Cuba has a large and prosperous diaspora with the right to return and participate in the renewal of its country. It is an extremely important process,” says Hugo Cancio, a 54-year-old businessman who arrived in the US in 1980.
Saladrigas also underscores that the “overabundance of capital” in Miami will sooner or later become a unique resource to revive the Cuban economy. “But the history of Cuba is a history of lost opportunities,” he adds. “Let’s see if Díaz-Canel, if he is the chosen one, lets another opportunity slip by, or if he is capable of seizing it.”
On both sides of the Florida Straits, millions of Cubans are hoping that the generational change in Cuba’s presidency will be one more step toward the end of an era marked by impoverishment and division. And while the average person would be happy with economic growth, the desire for political freedom is still there as well.
“Democracy is like the stars,” notes Pentón. “They are unreachable, but they show you the way.”
English version by Susana Urra.