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Raul Castro Has Stepped Down. What's Next For Cuba?

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Ever since the 1959 revolution, there has been one name at the helm of power in Cuba. That name is Castro - first Fidel and then his brother Raul. On Friday, Raul Castro, at 89, confirmed his formal resignation as the head of the Communist Party, saying he had, quote, "fulfilled his mission, and he was confident in the future of the fatherland." Joining us now to talk about what that means is Lillian Guerra. She's a professor of Cuban and Caribbean history at the University of Florida. Welcome to the program.

LILLIAN GUERRA: Thank you for having me on. It's a big honor.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Is this simply symbolic, or is it really the end of an era?

GUERRA: Well, it's a little bit of both. Certainly, Raul has made a number of apparent changes since he came to power. Probably the most significant is the fact that, when he took power, for the first time since 1959, you had many different people occupying the three top posts that once Fidel Castro occupied. So today we have Prime Minister Manuel Marrero. We have President of the Republic Miguel Diaz-Canel. And we, until yesterday, had Raul Castro as the first secretary of the party. And, you know, prior to Raul, you only had Fidel doing all three jobs. So that in itself is significant. And the question of what exactly he will do now - I mean, he is certainly supposed to remain, as he said yesterday, as a member of the Politburo. He's not stepping down from that. He really isn't stepping down from his position at the Army. But who will replace him is the biggest question, and that remains open.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Do we know yet who might be taking over the Communist Party leadership? It has been mentioned that the president, Diaz-Canel, could be a contender.

GUERRA: My theory is that they're going to pick one of these two men who are currently part of the triumvirate. One assumes it'll be Diaz-Canel. There's some hope that it might be the prime minister instead because he's the one who's the most pro-private sector. And, in fact, he's a little bit of a dark horse because before he was prime minister, he had never even been a member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party. That in itself makes him a more appealing candidate for those who are interested in the expansion of the private sector. And that really will make a very big difference in the lives of citizens in the future if that does happen.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, the economy is so central right now to the situation in Cuba. Will new leadership change things? It seems to be that you're saying it depends on who gets that post that Raul Castro is vacating.

GUERRA: The degree to which we see dramatic change is tempered by the fact that what Raul has been doing since he took power in 2009 is really to institutionalize the communist system, the Communist Party. And it's really at a high point now.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I wonder what this means for the relationship with the United States. Former President Obama, of course, opened up relations with Cuba. Former President Trump shut them down. Do we know what a Biden administration will do?

GUERRA: Well, Biden, when he was a candidate, said repeatedly that he was going to go back to the administration of Obama's approach, and that was openness and figuring out a path to normalization. Probably the most important catalyst for change in Cuba would be that the United States eliminated the embargo. The embargo, in many respects, was somewhat frayed under the Obama administration and especially in 2016. And those of us who were on the island repeatedly that year really observed the difference. Tens of thousands of Americans who would never have gone to Cuba went. There was money coming in to create businesses that were basically transnational, and they were entrepreneurial. It was a completely different scenario, and all of that got shut down long before COVID.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: There is a great deal of debate as to whether there can ever really be change in Cuba as long as there is a Castro alive. Will Raul Castro, as long as he is alive, still hold inordinate sway over the country?

GUERRA: I think that he will have a very significant role. There are also many Castros around that we're not looking at. I mean, Colonel Alejandro Castro Espin, who's his son, has been at the forefront of negotiating foreign policy. He negotiated the normalization of relations with Obama. He's a good friend of Putin. Nobody believes that Alejandro Castro is going to replace his dad. But, in fact, he doesn't need to. I mean, he is, in some ways, a representation, embodiment of that intransigence towards the United States and the reshuffling of the deck when it comes to trying to say that it's the United States that's the greatest enemy. The embargo - it remains their justification for the policies that they have in place.

I do want to say that I have hope because we've had protests in Cuba led by artists and intellectuals that have never been seen before. The fact that a lot of the artists are poor - they're Black. They come from working class background. They live in areas that are very poor in Havana - has changed the dynamic of who can lead and who are the voices of opposition in Cuba. There are things happening in Cuba that we are not seeing and that I hope will expand and really change the place.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Lillian Guerra of the University of Florida, where she is a professor of Cuban and Caribbean history. Thank you very much.

GUERRA: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.