Prominent Cuban-Americans and human rights experts denounced the rigged election of Miguel Diaz-Canel, Raul Castro's handpicked successor, as the new president of Cuba, and are calling on President Donald Trump not to recognize the newly installed leader unless he agrees to basic democratic reforms.
For the first time in six decades, a member of the Castro family will not be leading the communist island nation. However, ardent critics of the Cuban government argue nothing substantive has changed in the transfer of power, saying Raul Castro will continue to exert his control as the head of the Communist Party for years to come.
Recent Stories in Issues
Diaz-Canel's long-predicted appointment became official Thursday when Cuba's National Assembly exclusively comprised of Communist Party delegates certified his election. That certification was the culmination of a tightly controlled process in which Castro opponents and dissidents were barred from participating.
Cuban authorities arrested or put on trial more than 100 dissidents who tried to place themselves on the ballot, human rights activists said. Regular citizens are prevented from running for office unless they can prove their loyalty to the Communist Party and win the endorsement of political police.
"The sham ‘elections' in Cuba were nothing more than a pre-determined charade by the Castro regime," said Sen. Marco Rubio (R., Fla.), a vocal critic of the Castro regime. "The Cuban dictatorship portrays this election as a step toward change, yet we all know that Diaz-Canel and the regime will remain an enemy of democracy, human rights, and the impartial rule of law."
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R., Fla.) went further, arguing that the so-called election is no "watershed moment," but instead amounts to "more smoke and mirrors from the dictatorship."
"Rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic does not mean that the Cuban people are any closer to freedom than they were yesterday," she said. "The balance of power will remain in the hand of the communist dictatorship."
Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R., Fla.) pointed out that even though Diaz-Canel is the new president of the Council of Ministers and State, Raul Castro remains head of the sole legal part of the armed forces, Castro's son-in-law remains head of the economy, and his son remains a top official in the "feared" Ministry of the Interior.
The so-called election of Diaz-Canel is a "nothing-burger," Diaz-Balart said.
"The important matter is that the Cuban people will be free, and I will continue to stand with them," he said.
The warnings directly contradict this week's messages from supporters of the Obama-era efforts to normalize relations with Cuba. The Washington Post editorial board, for instance, argued that "the Castro-era in Cuba is over" and urged Trump to "seize the opportunity" to build on Obama's "success stories."
Even though they acknowledged that the "change in Cuba may be cosmetic" and the "Castro family will probably play a big role behind the scenes," the Post editorialized that "the packaging matters, because it provides the cover for Trump to change course."
Engage Cuba, an organization that lobbied the Obama administration to begin its diplomatic rapprochement with the Castros, also used the election as an opportunity to press the Trump administration to reset its policy.
"For almost 60 years we have pursued an embargo policy that has failed," the group Tweeted Thursday. "With new generational leadership in Cuba, we now have an opportunity to reimagine our policy for the 21st Century."
Human Rights Foundation President Thor Halvorssen countered that narrative and called on the world to keep the pressure on the Cuban government.
"There's nothing new under the sun in Cuba. Although the Communist Party will likely attempt to announce the election of Diaz-Canel as the ‘beginning of a new chapter,' they aren't fooling anyone. The Castro regime remains a brutal dictatorship that denies all Cubans their most fundamental human rights," Halvorssen said in a statement.
Rubio, Ros-Lehtinen, and Diaz-Balart, along with several other lawmakers, also have called on President Trump to denounce Castro's successor as illegitimate in the absence of "free, fair and, multi-party elections."
In a letter to Trump last month, the lawmakers thanked Trump for recasting U.S. Cuba policy after the Obama-era effort to normalize relations with the island nation and for calling out the Castro regime for seeking to spread its "repressive and failed ideology throughout the hemisphere."
Denouncing Castro's successor, along with the Trump administration's ongoing efforts to restrict financial transactions with the Cuban military, "will assist the Cuban people in their goal of self-government," the lawmakers argued.
Three other Florida lawmakers signed the letter, including Reps. Ron DeSantis and Ted Yoho, Republicans, as well as Democrat Carlos Curbelo.
The White House has signaled no changes to its harsher approach to the Cuban government but has stopped short of denouncing Diaz-Canel or refusing to recognize his government.
A National Security Council spokesperson told the Washington Free Beacon that the administration is not expecting any changes from the Cuban government with Diaz-Canel serving as president.
"The United States has no expectation that the Cuban people will see any greater freedoms under Castro's handpicked successor," the spokesperson said. "We will continue to stand in solidarity with the Cuban people as they call for freedom and prosperity."
"In support of this, our stated policy to channel funds toward the Cuban people and away from Cuba's military, security, and intelligence services is not expected to change."
After a diplomatic thaw during the Obama administration and a historic visit from President Obama to Cuba in 2016, the relationship between Washington and Havana quickly turned icy in the first year-and-a-half of Trump's presidency.
Trump early last summer announced new Cuba travel and financial restrictions and the relationship deteriorated further after the Cuban government couldn't explain mysterious so-called "sonic attacks" on U.S. diplomats in Havana. The State Department pulled most diplomats out off the island, with only a skeletal staff remaining.
Vice President Mike Pence has not shied away from sharply criticizing the Cuban government on the world stage.
Pence, filling in for Trump at the Summit of the Americas in Peru, delivered a harsh rebuke late last week to the Cuban government for trying to export its "failed ideology across a wider region."
"As we speak, they are aiding and abetting the corrupt dictatorship in Venezuela," Pence said in a speech in which he called for greater regional sanctions against Venezuela.
"The United States believes now is the time to do more, much more," Pence said. "Every free nation gathered here must take action to isolate the Maduro regime. We must all stand with our brothers and sisters suffering in Venezuela."