In this March 17, 2015 file photo, Cuba's President Raul Castro listens to the Cuban and Venezuelan national anthems during his welcome ceremony at the Miraflores presidential palace in Caracas, Venz.
Tanzina Vega: You're listening to The Takeaway. I'm Tanzina Vega.
Raul Castro: [Spanish language]
Tanzina: Earlier this week in Cuba, Raul Castro, the younger brother of Fidel Castro, stepped down as the first Secretary of the Communist Party. Cuba has been led by a Castro for more than 60 years. The Castro's have been controversial figures across the globe, particularly for their human rights violations against the Cubans who oppose them. Here is Fidel Castro in a rare interview speaking to Barbara Walters.
Fidel Castro: Barbara, have you ever seen a demonstration in Cuba that has been suppressed with tear gas?
Barbara: Do you allow demonstrations at all?
Fidel: Do you allow them?
Barbara: Do you allow them?
Fidel: Here we don't have them?
Barbara: Do you allow them if someone wanted to?
Fidel: Why do we need to prevent anything that doesn't happen at all.
Tanzina: Change in leadership also comes at a time when the island is dealing with a severe economic crisis, sanctions from the United States, and a decline in aid from Venezuela has led to an 11% economic decline in 2020. In addition, the country is also struggling with the pandemic and its citizens have been experiencing shortages of food and medicine. We turn to Carmen Sesin, a reporter with nbcnews.com and NBC Latino to talk about what the retirement of Raul Castro signals for changes in Cuba.
Carmen, welcome back to The Takeaway.
Carmen Sesin: Thank you, Tanzina. It's nice to be here.
Tanzina: What will Raul Castro be remembered for specifically? He took over after his brother brother, Fidel, passed away.
Carmen: I think both figures, Raul and Fidel Castro, are polarizing figures, so people either love them or hate them.
Tanzina: You're talking about people in Cuba or Cubans across the world.
Carmen: I would say people in Cuba either love them or hate them, whereas those who are in other parts of the of the world, left Cuba because they weren't happy so I would say they hate them. The ones in Cuba, even though some people don't express it openly, people fall on both sides as well. There are people who do love them, adore them. They feel that they really turned Cuba around, they helped educating the public, helped with the health care system and they did have achievements in that.
Others will view the Castros as dictators who ruled with an iron fist and abused human rights by executing opponents or sending them to jail. They always had a strong grip on all aspects of society in the past few decades. Some people will remember that, the stagnant economy, while others will feel that if it wasn't for the Castros, Cuba will be a colony of the United States.
Tanzina: Was there something that Raul Castro in particular was known for? Did he pretty much continue his brother, Fidel's, legacy?
Carmen: He was more of a reformist, so when he took power, he promised back in 2011 economic reforms that Cuba badly needed. Cuba had had a stagnant economy for a long time and people were looking for a bigger economic opening. He did promise that back in 2011, those promises haven't been fulfilled and a lot of people are frustrated because of that. He also introduced internet to Cuba, which was a big deal a few years ago.
Even though it's still expensive, that's given people access to information they didn't have before and ways to organize when there have been protests.
Tanzina: A couple of years ago, Cuba was accepting Americans and others for vacations and accepting tourism from the United States, that has since slowed down. Tell me about what the economic situation is on the ground in Cuba right now. Has that had a direct impact? Are Cubans on the ground expecting with this change, that there will be more openness to a relationship with the United States, whether it's tourism or otherwise?
Carmen: The economic situation in Cuba is dire right now. There are long lines just to buy basic foods, whatever happens to show up in the stores that day. Sometimes you get to the front of the line and they run out of whatever they went there to buy. That's the main focus of the average Cuban. There are families eating one meal a day, they have maybe juice or yogurt for breakfast, whatever they can find, they have a meal in the late afternoon and then a snack before they go to sleep.
The shortages began after the decline in aid from Venezuela and US sanctions.
The last time I was in Cuba back in the summer of 2019, when we spoke to entrepreneurs, they expressed their disillusionment with the decline in the US tourism, especially the cruise ships, because it was less money for them. What really did it to them and a lot of economies throughout the world was the pandemic. Pandemic brought tourism to a complete halt and that has had a devastating effect on their economy and that's how you see that it shrank 11%.
Now, with Biden as President, I don't expect there to be a huge change in US policy toward Cuba. Biden did campaign at the very beginning on Cuba, saying that he would go back to where Obama left off, but right around this time last year, that narrative shifted. He started saying that he would focus on human rights, and that he would reverse some of Trump's measures against Cuba, like limits on remittances and travel.
At this point, we haven't seen Biden really move on that. They say that they're reviewing Cuba policy right now. Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, said a couple of weeks ago, that right now, Cuba is not a priority for the administration. I think that message has gotten to the average Cuban and I don't think they're expecting a huge change under Biden.
Tanzina: When we talk about Cubans here in the United States, have you been hearing from folks and what are they saying? Are they excited about the change? As you said, I mean, it's pretty much going to be the status quo in Cuba so does that resonate with Cuban Americans?
Carmen: Right, so that was not a big deal in Miami where I'm based. I'm sure it was covered on the news, but that's not something that people were talking about. People here are excited to hear if there is some change to their political system in Cuba, that there's going to be greater economic freedom or freedom of speech, but not that there's a change of guard and they're going to continue with the same system, so no.
While maybe 30 years ago, that would have been huge news and talk of town here in Miami, it wasn't.
Tanzina: Carmen Sesin is a reporter with nbcnews.com and NBC Latino. Carmen, thanks for joining me.
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