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With End Of Castro Era In Sight, Cuba Prepares To Pass Power To New Generation

Cuban President Raul Castro waves to the room as First Vice President Miguel Diaz-Canel, Castro's handpicked successor, claps at the National Assembly session Wednesday in Havana.
AFP/Getty Images
Cuban President Raul Castro waves to the room as First Vice President Miguel Diaz-Canel, Castro's handpicked successor, claps at the National Assembly session Wednesday in Havana.

Cuba stands hours from a watershed: On Thursday, for the first time since the Cuban revolution nearly six decades ago, the island nation will hail a leader outside the Castro family.

President Raul Castro, 86-year-old brother of the late Fidel, expects to hand power over the Communist government to his handpicked successor — and with one day to go before that historic exchange, the identity of the man likely to receive that baton has come into focus: Miguel Mario Díaz-Canel Bermúdez.

The 57-year-old first vice president is widely expected to assume leadership Thursday, and many media outletsreported Wednesday that the National Assembly's secret ballot has already put him forward as the sole candidate for president. Under Cuba's single-party system, the nomination all but guarantees Díaz-Canel will assume the mantle when the decision is made official Thursday.

The exchange, when it comes, will draw the curtain on a long era for Cuba.

Since 1959, when 32-year-old Fidel Castro ousted Cuba's military dictator Fulgencio Batista, men of the same generation — the same family, even — have maintained a monopoly on the country's highest rung of power. And for roughly half a century that rung was occupied by one man alone, despite the best efforts of Cuba's capitalist neighbor, the U.S.

"I could qualify as an Olympic champion in conspiracies to eliminate me from this world. What fault is it of mine that they always failed — I'm not responsible for that, right?" Fidel Castro quipped at the 2001 opening of a Havana museum specifically commemorating all the assassination attempts against him. "When I get to heaven, I'm quite sure they'll take that into consideration."

He would live for another 15 years after that museum's launch, but he was in ailing health and did relinquish power well before his death, passing the presidency to Raul Castro in 2008.

Still, that exchange marked less a departure than an evolution.

Raul carried on the bulk of Fidel's policies, though change did come in measured steps. He steadily loosened some of the state's tightest restrictions on Cuba's centralized economy, and in 2015, together with the Obama administration, he re-established diplomatic relations with the U.S., even eventually playing host to President Barack Obama in the first visit from a sitting American president in more than 85 years.

Those relations have chilled quite a bit since the start of the Trump administration.

Now, on the eve of another transition, it remains unclear how much change is to come.

Raul Castro, though he is stepping down as president, will retain control of the ruling Communist Party. And the man assuming the presidency may be younger — 57, born just months after the revolution's end — but as NPR's Carrie Kahn explains, he is not exactly known as a radical reformer.

"He's a longtime member of the Communist Party here, getting his start as a provincial party apparatchik," Kahn tells All Things Considered.

"While he was the head of higher education, he backed a group of bloggers at the university and in the provinces was a supporter of a local LGBTQ community center," she adds, "but make no doubt, he is a stalwart supporter of the party. A tape was leaked of him last year when he was talking to party leaders, and he took a very hard line against current bloggers, Internet access and even foreign governments."

She notes that Cubans themselves have little expectation that things will change significantly under his leadership — though, as one taxi driver told Carrie, hopes remain that Díaz-Canel will carry the country forward.

That complex mixture of caution and hope found an unlikely echo across the straits of Florida, in the voice of hard-line Republican Rep. Carlos Curbelo.

"If they express a willingness to make some of the changes that the Western world is looking for in Cuba then of course I'm for conditional engagement," he told Morning Edition.

"I think a lot of diplomatic work and research needs to be done to really try to get a sense for what the attitude of this new leadership is going to be," he added. "I'm realistic. My eyes are wide open. I don't expect any radical changes in Cuba, regrettably, but I hope I'm wrong."

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Colin Dwyer covers breaking news for NPR. He reports on a wide array of subjects — from politics in Latin America and the Middle East, to the latest developments in sports and scientific research.
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