LAWRENCE — For the first time since the Cuban revolution, someone outside the Castro family will lead Cuba, though noticeable changes in the short term are unlikely for the island nation, according to a University of Kansas lecturer who has initiated a study-abroad program to Cuba.
Miguel Díaz-Canel became Cuba's president Thursday after Raúl Castro stepped down. Castro – who succeeded his brother Fidel — still remains head of the Communist Party and controls the military, said Bob Augelli, a KU School of Business lecturer.
"The symbolism of not having a Castro in charge of Cuba for the first time in practically 60 years, can't be overstated," Augelli said. "What it means in the short term is not a heck of a lot with Raul maintaining his control, but he is 86, and he's not going to live forever. There is a strong desire among Cuban population for an expansion of the private sector. They want more freedoms and access to unfettered internet, for example."
Augelli led students on the business school's first study-abroad trip to Cuba in the spring of 2016 and another in 2017. He also served as project director of Rosa Blanca, a cultural exchange program with Cuba that involved Lawrence artist Stan Herd, creating an image of a white rose as crop art in honor of the 19th century Cuban poet José Martí.
The symbolism of Castro no longer serving as president is still important, especially to Cuban-Americans, Augelli said.
And Díaz-Canel serving as president comes at an incredibly interesting time where Cuba soon could find itself at a crossroads because of many factors that transpired in recent years.
First, as the Obama administration sought to soften economic and political relations with Cuba, it opened up the ability for some American companies, like airlines and telecommunications firms to enter into Cuba. However, Donald Trump's administration has rolled back many of those reforms, which has stunted any further American business development.
Cuba's economy has also been incredibly dependent on receiving oil from Venezuela through an exchange of Cuban medical personnel to the South American nation. However, with Venezuela experiencing massive economic crisis and the United States currently offering little economic help to Cuba in the near future, future dominoes could fall in an interesting direction, Augelli said.
"There are so many moving parts," Augelli said. "Russia and China are already there doing business. They could be motivated to fill in the vacuum that could be created by an economic collapse in Venezuela and what would have been massive U.S. investments in Cuba. Cuba has always been an enigma."
Díaz-Canel was born a year after the Cuban revolution, and it's unclear if he would have the charismatic leadership exhibited by Fidel Castro that could unite Cuban in wake of an economic crisis, especially to keep Cuba from falling into massive social unrest, Augelli said.
"The fear is if Venezuela collapses and the United States is not there to fill in the vacuum, Cubans are unlikely to respond well to the re-emergence of drastic cuts in wages, access to food, electricity and consumer goods. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba experienced a dramatic economic contraction of approximately 50 percent, but the society rallied behind the charismatic leadership of Fidel Castro," he said. "In the event of another economic crisis, lacking Fidel's charisma it is very unlikely Diaz-Canel will be successful in uniting the population, which could lead to widespread social unrest."