WASHINGTON, D.C. - Today, on the second of a two-day legislative session, Cuba formally transferred presidential power to Miguel Diaz-Canel. Formerly the First Vice President of the Council of State, Diaz-Canel is the first non-Castro to lead Cuba in over 40 years. James Williams, President of Engage Cuba, released the following statement on the transition:
"The ascension of President Diaz-Canel marks a historic generational change in Cuba. While many will speculate on what this change will mean, much is unknown. What we do know is that the future of Cuba is for the Cuban people to decide, and we should play a constructive role in the process.
What we in the United States can do is design U.S. policy to best encourage the change we'd like to see. For almost 60 years we have pursued an embargo policy that has failed. With new generational leadership in Cuba, we now have an opportunity to reimagine our policy for the 21st century. We know that continuing the embargo will not work, so let us not double down on 60 years of failure. President Trump and Congress should seize this moment, support the Cuban private sector, let American businesses compete, and look to the future with a modern policy of constructive engagement. After all, the American and Cuban people overwhelmingly support engagement and improved relations. Washington politicians should listen to them for a change."
A generation younger than the Cuban revolutionaries, Diaz-Canel inherits the challenges of Castro's Cuba, particularly on the economic front. In the interest of institutional continuity, reforms under Diaz-Canel are expected to be gradual. But market distortions caused by the country's multiple exchange rates, slow GDP growth, and declining exports will test the new president's ability to balance badly needed reform with preserving Cuba's brand of socialism.
The transition comes at a time of historically low diplomatic engagement between the U.S. and Cuba. The health incidents affecting U.S. diplomats remain an unsolved mystery, which the State Department has used as a rationale for slashing U.S. embassy staff in Havana. Diplomatic personnel have been reduced to 40 percent capacity (12 officers), with no consular services for Cubans seeking U.S. travel or immigrant visas.
In this transitional period, the fragile U.S.-Cuba relationship poses national security risks for the U.S. Both Russia and China have ramped up exports and investment in Cuba and expressed interest in increasing military and intelligence presence in the region. Further U.S. withdrawal from Cuba could jeopardize the dozens of agreements and joint security initiatives between the new nations.