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After the Castros, what do Cubans want from this new era?

Thursday marked the end of the Castro era, but not its legacy. The late Fidel Castro and his younger brother Raul controlled Cuba for nearly 60 years. How do Cubans feel as 57-year-old Miguel Diaz-Canel takes control as the new head of state? William Brangham talks with Azam Ahmed of The New York Times.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    And now to Cuba.

    Today marked the end of an era, the rule of the Castro brothers. The late Fidel Castro and then his younger brother, Raul, controlled Cuba for nearly 60 years.

    Now, as William Brangham reports, a younger generation takes the helm amid e-ignited tensions with the United States.

  • William Brangham:

    Applause echoed throughout Cuba's National Assembly, as 86-year-old Raul Castro turned over the presidency to his hand-picked successor.

    After nearly six decades of rule over the island nation, today marked the end of Cuba's Castro era, but not its legacy.

    In his first speech as Cuba's new head of state, Miguel Diaz-Canel pledged to carry on the socialist revolution led by his predecessors.

  • Miguel Diaz-Canel (through translator):

    We will be faithful to the exemplary legacy of the commander in chief, Fidel Castro, historic leader of our revolution, and also to the example of the value and teachings of armed force General Raul Castro.

  • William Brangham:

    Though Raul Castro will remain head of the Communist Party, the island's most powerful post, 57-year-old Diaz-Canel represents a new generation of Cuban leaders.

    It's a generation that wasn't even alive during the 1959 Cuban revolution, led by Fidel Castro, which ousted the U.S.-backed government of Fulgencio Batista and instituted a socialist state of his own.

    Fidel's alliance with the Soviet Union quickly made the island an epicenter of Cold War tensions. For the next five decades, Fidel expanded state control over Cuban life and cracked down on political dissent. As shortages grew on the island, Fidel blamed the U.S. trade embargo.

    Then, in 2008, an ailing Fidel officially handed the presidency to brother Raul. Raul oversaw a dramatic turn in U.S.-Cuban relations. The two nations announced the reestablishment of diplomatic ties. In March 2016, then President Obama became the first president in nearly 90 years to visit the island.

    Months after Fidel's death in November 2016, President Trump rolled back some Obama era efforts to ease restrictions on U.S. businesses and travel to Cuba. Then Vice President Diaz-Canel shot back, saying — quote — "Cuba will not make concessions to its sovereignty and independence, nor negotiate its principles or accept the imposition of conditions."

    The Trump administration also expelled 15 Cuban diplomats and cut staff at the U.S. Embassy in Havana by more than half, this after 24 Americans, including many diplomats, were stricken with mystery illnesses.

    Today, Raul blamed the Trump administration for deteriorating U.S.-Cuban relations.

    Meanwhile, in Washington, officials in the administration and on Capitol Hill said they don't expect Cuban citizens will have any greater freedoms under their new leader.

    The New York Times' Azam Ahmed has been watching these developments from Cuba, and he joins me now from Havana.

    Azam, this is obviously an enormous day, the end of the Castro era. I think for so many Americans, Castro and Cuba have been synonymous. So, what is the mood like there? What is the feeling like in Cuba today?

  • Azam Ahmed:

    Actually, it's sort of a strange dynamic, because, as you said, Cuba's been synonymous with the Castros for the last 60 years.

    Yet, on the streets, there's not people gathered around television, they're not talking about it in the streets. It's almost layers of apathy that have kind of taken over. And it seems almost as though it's been this very managed process.

    It happened in the National Assembly. It wasn't really open to the public. It was televised on public television. But, by and large, it's almost as if, hey, this is just stability, continuation, passing on to the new leader.

  • William Brangham:

    And what can you tell us about the new president? Who is he?

  • Azam Ahmed:

    So, Miguel Diaz-Canel is — he's sort of not a very well-known person.

    People at the U.S. Embassy here have not met with him. A lot of Obama administration people, administration officials had not met with him.

    He is known in provinces where he worked. He worked in a province called Villa Clara, which is about 3.5 hours outside of Havana. And the people there largely responded well to him. He was a relatively modern thinker. He was, for instance, a major advocate of one of the first sort of gay clubs to open up in the community, even at a time when people were protesting it.

    He rode his bike to work, which is an anecdote that gets shared a lot, when he could have ridden in an air-conditioned car around his province. He was also a provincial official in the province of Holguin. And these jobs — they are sort of governors in some ways, and they administrate an entire area, which gives them a lot of autonomy and a lot of sort of how to — like a governor in the United States, autonomy, a sense of how to govern.

    And he was a minister of higher education, after which he sort of became Raul Castro's hand-picked successor.

  • William Brangham:

    What is your sense of what Cubans want out of the new president? What is it they're hopeful for? What is it they're frustrated about?

  • Azam Ahmed:

    So, I think they want is more private sector, more investment, more opportunity on the street.

    If you think about it, the last 10 years have been this incredible amount of historic change. Fidel Castro stepped down. Raul came into place. You saw Raul put through changes that were unprecedented, creation of a private sector, opportunity for foreign direct investment, the opportunity for Cubans to leave and come to the island.

    And yet on the streets, it doesn't feel like that for a lot of people. They're bearing witness to history, but it's not — doesn't feel so historic to them. It's people kind of talking about this in big ways, but they don't feel it in their pockets, they don't feel it in the day in and day out.

  • William Brangham:

    Do you have any sense of what this new president and his emergence in power might mean for U.S.-Cuban relations?

  • Azam Ahmed:

    President Trump has obviously taken a very different stance from his predecessor in how he would, if not act, talk about Cuba.

    It's important to note this is a president who never fought in the revolution, was literally born a year after the revolution ended. So he's someone who has fought for the theories of the revolution, the ideals of the revolution, without the actual heritage or kind of that historical legitimacy of having been a guerrilla.

    And he's going to have less — I think he is going to have less space to kind of do the things that his predecessor did, for instance, who bore the name of Castro, and was harder to push back against.

    And, remember, even Raul Castro had some pushback to some of these reforms that he wanted to make. Not everybody was happy about opening relations with the United States.

    And so someone who is his hand-picked successor, who doesn't have his own historic legitimacy, but rather has legitimacy because Raul Castro says he has legitimacy, I think is going to be — have a little bit less flexibility to really enact the sort of changes that I think a lot of Cubans want.

  • William Brangham:

    All right, Azam Ahmed of The New York Times, thank you very much.

  • Azam Ahmed:

    Thank you.

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