For the first time since the 1959 Cuban Revolution, the President of the island nation is someone other than Fidel or Raúl Castro. Cuban President, Miguel Diaz-Canel, wasn’t even born by the time Fidel Castro assumed power. On April 19, Diaz-Canel won the Presidency in a landslide as the only candidate on the ballot.
Diaz-Canel is many things that either Castro was not – a young (57), imposing figure known for athletic prowess but a quiet, behind the scenes demeanor. Ideologically, however, he seems to be from the same school of revolutionary thought as the Castro brothers. If Diaz-Canel’s acceptance speech was any indication, outsiders won’t see any immediate liberalization policies. Instead, the new president sounds like he is deferring policy direction to Raúl Castro.
“I assume this responsibility with the conviction that all of us revolutionaries, from whichever trench, will be faithful to Fidel and to Raúl, the current leader of the revolutionary process,” Diaz-Canel proclaimed. He also professed allegiance to the revolution, “To those who through ignorance or bad faith doubt our commitment, we must tell them that the Revolution continues and will continue. The world has received the wrong message that the Revolution ends with its guerrillas.”
This is the first time that the position of Cuban presidency has been separated from the head of the Communist Party, a position that Raúl will continue to occupy until at least 2021. This is also the first time that a new Cuban president may serve only two five-year terms; that policy decision was announced by Raúl last year and is expected to become law. Castro has indicated that Diaz-Canel will be his successor as head of the ruling Communist Political Party, but it appears Castro wants to exert leadership from the post for a couple more years. This idea was reinforced by Diaz-Canel who said, “I state before this Assembly that Raúl will head present and future decisions of the nation.”
Reaction to the new Cuban president from across the globe was mixed. Expectedly, the response from left-leaning, Ecuadorian President, Evo Morales and Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro was warm. Both said they respected the decisions of the Cuban people and looked forward to working with the new president.
Florida Senator, Marco Rubio called the election of a new Cuban president a “sham” a “charade” and said, “…the regime will remain an enemy of democracy, human rights and the impartial rule of law.” Rubio is known as a bellwether for how Trump has positioned the U.S. stance toward Cuba.
EU Fills Void Left by U.S.
For Canadian and European business people and tourists alike, not much has changed with the shift in island leadership. Visa numbers remain strong from these regions and a recent loosening in economic opportunities has created business partnerships that are still in place. In January, when a new presidency was imminent, Europeans took advantage of tightening European relations with Cuba since the United States curtailed business and tourism activity under Trump.
In particular, the EU is taking advantage of liberalized policy under a 2030 Cuban visioning plan that allows an expansion of foreign investment, an increase in tourism, partnerships in agriculture, and the allowance of more entrepreneurship, especially in the small-scale service industry.
In April, the European Union’s top diplomat traveled to the island nation to sign a new working agreement to expand relations between the regions. In Spanish, EU High Representative/Vice-President Federica Mogherini said, “The European Union is already the primary commercial partner, most important investor, and the most important business partner for the development of Cuba.” She ensured her Cuban partners that the relationship with the EU would be stable well into the future. The partnership with Cuba includes increased renewable energy investments, agricultural assistance, and cultural exchange.
Meanwhile, the Cuban – U.S. relationship continued to deteriorate. At the Summit of the Americas conference in Peru, Pence criticized policies in both Cuba and Venezuela, signaling a distancing between the U.S. and those countries. From Pence’s Twitter account, “@SummitAmericas, my message was clear: Now is the time for Western Hemisphere nations to truly become a “Hemisphere of Freedom.” That’s why the U.S stands w/ the people of Cuba & Venezuela & stands up to their oppressors.” Pence also wrote an Op-Ed in the Miami Herald outlining the U.S. stance.
A mere two weeks after that European-Cuban expansion of relations, Raúl Castro continued to spar with the United States, jabbing Vice President Mike Pence for walking out of a Cuban presentation at the South American conference.
Pence responded via Twitter, “Hey Raul - looks like you’re the one leaving... and we’re here standing with the Cuban people. And we’re not going anywhere until Cuba has free & fair elections, political prisoners are released & the people of Cuba are finally free! #CubaLibre” Regardless of who occupies the presidency, it looks as if U.S.-Cuba relations will remain chilly under the Trump administration.
Project Cure PhilanthroTravel to Cuba
Cuba is one of the most popular destinations for volunteer tourism or ‘PhilanthroTravel’ through Centennial-based Project Cure, a 501c3 nonprofit designed to collect surplus medical supplies and equipment and donate the goods to “resource-limited communities across the globe.” The PhilanthroTravel program is billed as a “work hard, play hard” trip where participants donate to help fund a cargo container of supplies which is delivered to hospitals or clinics in need to coincide with the travel itinerary of benefactors.
This month, another group will depart for Havana and a few other cities for the next Project Cure PhilanthroTravel destination. From their web site, “Join Project C.U.R.E. for a life-changing journey to Cuba. Experience your donation in action while exploring one of the many incredible countries Project C.U.R.E. serves.” Prominent Cuban-Americans living in Colorado have traveled to Cuba through the program including former Denver Mayor, Bill Vidal, top Colorado political consultant, Maria Garcia Berry, Mile High United Way Executive Director, Christine Benero, and former State School Board member, Elaine Gantz Berman. Through various programs and donations, the organization has made an impact in 130 countries around the world.