Raúl Castro Prepares to Resign as Cuba’s President, Closing a Dynasty

As Raúl Castro of Cuba steps down, Miguel Díaz-Canel Bermúdez steps up. Here’s a look at Mr. Castro’s handpicked successor and what’s ahead for the communist country.

HAVANA — Raúl Castro, who took over from his brother Fidel 12 years ago and led Cuba through some of its biggest changes in decades, is expected to step down on Thursday and hand power to someone outside the Castro dynasty for the first time since the Cuban revolution more than half a century ago.

During his two terms as president, Mr. Castro, 86, opened up his Communist country to a small but vital private sector and, perhaps most significantly, diplomatic relations with the United States. It was a notable departure from his brother’s agenda, yet it was possible only because he, too, was a Castro.

His handpicked successor, Miguel Díaz-Canel Bermúdez, 57, is a Communist Party loyalist who was born a year after Fidel Castro claimed power in Cuba. His rise ushers in a new generation of Cubans whose only firsthand experience with the revolution has been its aftermath — the early era of plenty, the periods of economic privation after the demise of the Soviet Union, and the fleeting détente in recent years with the United States, its Cold War foe.

Officials started gathering here in Havana on Wednesday morning and put forward Mr. Díaz-Canel as the sole candidate to replace Mr. Castro, all but assuring his selection by the Communist Party.

Though Mr. Díaz-Canel’s path to the top office has been forecast for years, many an heir apparent before him has fallen by the wayside in the search for a successor to lead the country, whether because of party disloyalty, snide remarks or projecting too much power for the Castros’ liking.

Credit...Alexandre Meneghini/Reuters

In that delicate balancing act, Mr. Díaz-Canel, a former provincial leader who became the most important of Cuba’s vice presidents, has shown the sort of restraint prized by the Castros. But that same caution has left him an enigma both inside and outside the country.

Few American officials — even those in the United States Embassy in Havana — have spent time with him or can claim to have shared more than a few passing words. Even the most seasoned Cuba experts have only faint clues as to what he will do, how he will lead and how much latitude he will have to chart his own course.

Cuba’s next president could be hemmed in from multiple sides. For one, Raúl Castro is expected to remain the head of the Communist Party and wield great influence. Even Fidel, who ruled Cuba since the revolution, did not officially become president until years later, allowing others to occupy the post while he ran the country.

Beyond that, the diplomatic opening with the United States has closed abruptly under President Trump, limiting Mr. Díaz-Canel’s ability to maneuver economically.

“There is nothing in his résumé to suggest he is going to take risks,” Theodore Piccone, a Cuba scholar at the Brookings Institution, said of Mr. Díaz-Canel. “But that is the way the system works — anyone willing to take the risk before now would not be in line to be the president.”

[Cuba’s New President, Miguel Díaz-Canel Bermúdez: Loyal Servant of a Revolution He Didn’t Fight]

Mr. Castro is leaving office at a time of tremendous change on the island, both real and promised.

In just the last decade, Cuba has lost its defining leader, Fidel, which made way for Raúl to take unprecedented steps to loosen the state’s grip on the economy and begin to nurture a private sector.

Then, two years ago, the nation brokered a détente with the United States, paving the way for the reopening of the American Embassy and the first visit of a sitting United States president in 88 years.

But change is often a managed affair in Cuba, orchestrated to maintain order while leaving little to chance or, especially, political uncertainty. While historic, the economic changes in Cuba have been halting, to the frustration of many Cubans hoping for better pay and more opportunity. So, too, has foreign investment, with leaders leery that it could grow to the point that they can no longer control it.

Now, the country’s next president will face a new set of challenges. Since coming to office, Mr. Trump has lashed out at Cuba and reversed, in spirit if not entirely in deed, the new relationship that President Barack Obama established with the Cuban government.



How an Alleged Sonic Attack Shaped U.S. Policy on Cuba

In 2016, diplomats at the United States Embassy in Havana were mysteriously stricken. Was it an attack? There is no official explanation, but the episode has played a big role in America’s current political disengagement with Cuba.

“Imagine a CSI investigation — this famous TV program — where the investigators don’t have the murder weapon, don’t have the place, don’t have access to the victims. How the hell do you investigate that? It’s impossible!” Late 2016, Havana. “Dr. Rosenfarb, are you aware of any type of technology that would cause this?” “No, I’m not, sir.” American diplomats were complaining of crushing headaches, extreme fatigue. “Who would do this?” And, an intense sound. “Secretary Tillerson ordered the departure of non-emergency personnel.” The Cubans? They said they knew nothing about it. “Sporadic attacks continued until late April. But that sound is why this building is nearly empty at this important moment for Cuba. For the first time in 60 years, its leader will not be a Castro. “Two things we know for sure.” Here’s what the U.S. government has said about the sound: “People were hurt, and the Cuban government knows who did it. Whatever happened to these people happen as a result of some sophisticated technology that, quite frankly, is so sophisticated we don’t understand it. It leads you then …” In Washington, Senator Marco Rubio convened a hearing. “It was the early opinion of the security professionals who looked at it that it was likely a form of harassment.” “O.K. In late 2016, staff at the United States Embassy in Havana began complaining of strange noises, and among the descriptions that they complained of, high-pitched beam of sound or just intense pressure in one ear. There are 24 Americans, who during their time in Havana, have experienced symptoms that are consistent with what you would see in mild traumatic brain injury and/or concussion.” Doctors said that diplomats’ brain matter had actually changed. What started out as a mysterious nuisance — “We know it happened to 24 people” — — became a suspected instrument of attack. “Tillerson reacted as he would have reacted when he was an oil executive. He heard something happen in an oil rig. Get everybody out of there.” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson ordered his staff: “We are convinced these were targeted attacks. We don’t like our diplomats being targeted.” Depart your post, he said. Leave Cuba. And they did. Everyone from the people who discussed trade down to those who processed visas. The incident had become political. “This is entirely about the health, and the safety, and the well-being of Americans. We still have an investigation that’s underway. So I hope Cuba would focus instead on helping us with the investigation and be less concerned about claiming this is political.” [music] “So here the contrast, the contrast which is —” Carlos Alzugaray was a Cuban diplomat for decades. He’s a bit of an unofficial government spokesperson. “Why throw down the Embassy? The bad thing about it is that probably the guys who have been affected more are the regular Cubans, not the government.” By the time the diplomats left, the warming started by President Obama had undeniably chilled. The U.S. issued a travel advisory, and tourism dropped. On the streets of Havana, the idea that Cuba was involved in a sonic attack was met with skepticism. It wasn’t long after the incident became public that sound experts began downplaying the idea of a sonic attack. Sound can’t easily change brain matter, among other reasons. “You’ve got a long, long way to go before you even attribute this to sound. It’s not going to cause physical effects. If the sound goes through air before reaching you, it’s not going to cause that.” “It may have been a situation where people were drawn more closely together.” It wasn’t only the sound experts who struggled to explain what happened. “Infectious cause is what I would say.” Engineers also tried. “It could have just been a malfunctioning ultrasonic device, perhaps used for some other nefarious purpose.” And psychologists. “Well, these people were on an island. Fears can spread in a tight group. Things can get more intensified. Anything is possible.” A microwave expert. “If you direct a beam of microwave, the microwave would produce an acoustic wave.” This doctor said it could have just been a virus. ”An infection, of some type.” “So an ultrasonic weapon is not science fiction. I could build one. I could put it in the house of somebody I didn’t like, and I could annoy them. What its — really seems science-fiction is the idea that you could build an ultrasonic rifle that will shoot 100 meters and target somebody, and shoot through a wall and get just that one person.” Dr. Leighton is referring to this hotel, where some diplomats reported hearing the sound. Look up. It’s unlikely you could direct a weaponized sound wave across this street, 11 stories up through walls and windows, and hit individuals repeatedly without anyone noticing. The U.S. wouldn’t share any evidence of an attack with the Cubans. So they did their own investigation. For reference, 140 decibels is about the sound of a plane’s jet engine at takeoff. “You ask, what we think is that some people were ill, and that there was a psychogenic contagion. And other people started reporting that they were feeling ill. These are English-speaking communities that are relatively isolated from the Cuban population. They live among themselves. They exchange. And any kind of anxiety or stress —” Doctor Sosa is referring to mass hysteria, a psychological condition. There was no, quote unquote, attack. This theory is actually the current official Cuban standpoint. Today, the lights are on at the Embassy, but the doors remain locked. ”The administration’s reaction to all of this is so drastic, to make permanent the drawdown of the U.S. Embassy to ridiculously low, unnecessary levels, which has an element of spite to it.” Fulton Armstrong is a former C.I.A. analyst who covered Cuba. He made a career in searching for motives. “They were so desperate to make their case that it was sonic attacks. This is serious stuff. You’re accusing them of doing line-of-sight attacks with a weapon that no one knows exists. So, once the political people got stuck in their own internal contradictions, it was almost impossible, then, to get a real serious discussion of what was going on. The administration had already decided it was going to use it, the legitimate symptoms of U.S. government officials, for a political maneuver that looks like a lot of other political things that this administration has done. And that is, at any cost, undo what the predecessor did.” “There are a number of people in the administration, and some in Congress, who didn’t want to see normalization of relations. So, for those who didn’t like the policy changes by President Obama’s administration, it’s worked out pretty well.” “You have the State Department work, practically all the major executive jobs have not been covered. It’s the perfect situation for someone like Marco Rubio to hijack a policy and push.” “And so it leads you to conclude that the Cuban government either did this, or they know who did it. And they can’t say, because …” “Marco Rubio got his way. Sometimes, in U.S. politics, the strongest voice is the voice that predominates even when the bureaucracy isn’t with you.” “Whoever did this — did this …” “The bureaucracy has allowed the political voice to come in and dictate a lot, including analysis of the so-called sonic attacks issue.” “And then it leads you down the road of motivation. It makes you start to think, who would do this? Who would do this? Someone who doesn’t like our presence there, and someone who wants there to be this sort of friction between the U.S. So who would be motivated to create friction? Or who would not be in favor of an increased U.S. presence in Cuba? We don’t want to be in this position. We have no choice. We cannot send Americans into Foreign Service and their relatives to a country where their safety cannot be guaranteed.” Senator Rubio, a son of Cuban exiles, has been a longtime critic of the Castro government. He’s always been an opponent of reestablishing ties with Cuba. Now, I’m not under any fantasy that Cuba is going to transition from one day to the next and turn into Canada, but there has to be progress in that direction. And there’s never been a step in that direction to the extent that they’ve taken these steps, they’ve been largely cosmetic. And they’ve retreated from some of those positions. So who would be motivated to create friction? Or who would not be in favor of an increased U.S. presence? Maybe it was a third country. Which third country would want to disrupt the U.S. presence there? And the logical conclusion is Russia and Vladimir Putin.” “Has the State Department raised attacks against U.S. personnel in Cuba with the Russian government?” “That’s a very good question. I think it would be better to address that issue in a classified setting.” “Why would the fact or lack of existence of a communication to the Russian government be something that we can’t discuss in public?” “To give you the full reply would be required, and I believe that would be more appropriate in the classified setting.” “Has Raul Castro ever said to any U.S. diplomat, ‘I didn’t do it, but it’s possible that some of my guys did it without me knowing about it?’” “I do not believe that communication has ever occurred.” “You don’t want to discuss something that is not in a proper setting, or is that just you’re — you’ve just never heard?” “That is my recollection that I’ve never heard that.” “O.K. “The meeting is adjourned.” The U.S. has still not given an official explanation of the sound or its intent, if any. But its effect has been to play a big part in the current disengagement with Cuba. This is happening at a pivotal moment. Raul Castro is stepping down, and Miguel Díaz-Canel will likely be president. “The notion that we have just a skeletal staff at the Embassy — fewer people than we had during the time of isolation, is just unconscionable.” “Well, the transition is not — I mean, it’s a one-party transition. I mean the outcome’s not in doubt. You know, you would love to see a new generation of leadership that begins to move in the right direction, and I think those moves would be reciprocated by American policy makers. But it’s not going to happen because of a unilateral American opening. That was the flawed thinking behind an opening towards China, and China today is no more democratic and no more free than it was. And that was not the experience in the aftermath of the Obama opening. It did not lead to any changes in governance or on the economic condition of Cubans in the big picture.” “After more than five very difficult decades, the relationship between our governments will not be transformed overnight.” “What are we doing? We’re pulling out of the game. They would prefer to buy American rice and American chicken. They would prefer to have Americans come down and do travel in Cuba. They like us. But if we’re going to treat them in the way that we’re treating them, they will make their own future without us. They say they’ve been making their future for the last 60 years without us, and they’re prepared to do it, perhaps with some hyperbole, for another 60 years.” [music]

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In 2016, diplomats at the United States Embassy in Havana were mysteriously stricken. Was it an attack? There is no official explanation, but the episode has played a big role in America’s current political disengagement with Cuba.

As Cuba seeks to modernize its moribund economy with a new generation of leaders less tethered to the past, the United States appears to be moving back toward a policy of isolation. Fewer American tourists are visiting Cuba and bringing dollars with them, in no small part because of Mr. Trump’s decision to undo some of Mr. Obama’s easing of restrictions on travel to the island.

And then there are the mysterious ailments that affected a group of American diplomats stationed in Havana. American officials say they were attacked by unidentified devices that damaged their hearing. In response, the United States issued a travel warning to its citizens and reduced the size of its embassy staff by two-thirds. For now, there is no office in Cuba that can issue visas for Cubans seeking to visit family members in the United States.

How the sudden slide in relations with the United States will affect Mr. Díaz-Canel’s ability to sustain the economy and stave off domestic pressure remains unclear.

Mr. Díaz-Canel, though a prominent advocate of bringing internet service to the island and considered a relatively modern thinker within the context of Cuba, is not expected to deviate from the party line or the prescribed, deliberate path toward economic reform outlined by his predecessor.

In all likelihood, he will govern with less flexibility than Mr. Castro, who enjoyed a special status on the island because of his family name and revolutionary credentials. And Mr. Castro is not vanishing from the scene. As president of the Communist Party, he will preside over an important bastion of power.

“Díaz-Canel is one of those people who has risen through the ranks because he represents the prevailing view within the party, not because he himself has taken any particular initiative,” said Benjamin Rhodes, who was a top aide to Mr. Obama and one of the main brokers of renewed relations with Cuba. “I think he is going to be significantly more constrained than either Fidel or Raúl.”

Still, as the public face of this long-awaited transition, Mr. Díaz-Canel has been thrust between the crosscurrents of change and tradition. It will certainly not be an easy task: preserving the achievements of the revolution — socialized medicine and education, among them — amid economic turbulence that threatens the nation’s future.

Mr. Díaz-Canel’s leadership will be defined in some respects by how he manages the competing forces within the country and his own government. Today, the streets of Cuba brim with young people anxious for a new dynamic, one in which the future is valued more than the past and individual prosperity is not considered a threat to historic ideals.

But the ranks of government remain filled by an older, powerful generation of leaders clinging to the past, a group venerated for its connection to the revolution. Their resistance made reform difficult for even Raúl Castro to push through.

Without the same legacy to rely on, Mr. Díaz-Canel will be forced into a minefield of tasks that even his predecessor failed to complete. Chief among them are economic reforms central to the nation’s survival.

He will have to foster the growing private sector, the future engine of the economy and the fulcrum on which employment will hinge, while guarding against the income inequality it often brings.

After years of visible growth, with restaurants and bars popping up across Havana and elsewhere, the government decided last year to stop issuing licenses for private businesses, fearful that the pace was getting out of control.

Some establishments were practically minting money, with hourslong waits for meals that cost as much as a night out in New York. In a nation where government salaries hover around $30 a month, this raised concerns not only about inequality, but also the potential for a class of businesspeople with the resources to be politically powerful.

Foreign investment to update Cuba’s crumbling infrastructure is another priority. Business zones launched with much fanfare by the government carry few prospects. The government’s conditions for foreign investment remain unattractive, experts say.

Even the very basics — food and energy — need attention. Cuba imports the majority of its agricultural products, as well as its oil. Inefficiencies and failing infrastructure have left a poor farming legacy that keeps food off the tables of many regular Cubans.

The slow collapse of Venezuela, a longtime benefactor of Cuba, has expedited the crisis and robbed the country of much-needed resources. Venezuela has already cut its oil shipments to Cuba drastically, worsening the island’s finances.

Perhaps most immediately, Mr. Díaz-Canel will have to unify two separate currencies in widespread use on the island, a gambit that will produce big winners and losers in a country that prides itself on equality.

“It’s a high-wire act,” said Julia Sweig, a Cuba expert at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. “The expectation dynamic among the Cubans is that they still want a functioning state that delivers services. And yet they also want the state to get out of the way.”

To say that Cuba has remained in stasis would be unfair. Beginning with a slate of economic reforms pushed forward by Raúl Castro, all the way through to the decision to restore diplomatic relations with the United States, the nation has been opening.

Many have criticized the pace at which economic reforms are rolled out, but the delay is due in part to the magnitude of the experiment the nation is conducting: an effort to define its own brand of socialism in a modern world.

The Cubans have sought counsel from the Chinese and, most recently, the Vietnamese, whose leadership was in Havana last month for high-level talks. But the Cuban government is also deeply worried about liberalizing too quickly and converting its fragile gains into a sideshow for tourists plowing into the next big Caribbean destination.

Move too slowly and it risks economic collapse and widespread discontent, especially from a young population that has known only hard times. Move too fast, and it risks unstitching the unique tapestry of Cuba’s social project.

To drive home this point, Raúl Castro for years has shown young officials a documentary about the oligarch class in Russia after the demise of the Soviet Union. In Cuba, the screenings offer a cautionary tale of how a nation and its values can unravel if economic transition is not managed carefully.

“Raúl Castro is a conservative if the regime’s future and the future of the achievements of the revolution are in danger,” said Hal Klepak, a military analyst and biographer of Raúl Castro. “He’s a reformist in every other occasion.”

That is the sort of continuity that many are expecting from Mr. Díaz-Canel — especially with Raúl Castro still in the picture as party president.

“I think he is very smart, very cautious, as I think he better be for a while, until he delivers some goods,” Mr. Klepak added about Mr. Díaz-Canel. “I view him as a reformist with Raúlista credentials: He’s reformist while reform reinforces the achievements of the revolution.”

“The moment that reformism threatens the achievements of the revolution, he flips,” he added.

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