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Cuba's Communists Change Leadership, But Likely Not Much Else

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

For 62 years, someone with the last name of Castro has held power in Cuba - first Fidel, then his younger brother, Raul. Well, Raul has just relinquished the reins of Cuba's Communist Party, which brings to a close the Castro era - or does it quite? Patrick Oppmann covers Cuba for CNN and joins us now from Havana.

Patrick, welcome.

PATRICK OPPMANN: Thank you so much.

KELLY: So six decades of Castros - I know this was widely anticipated that Raul was going to step down. There wasn't a huge surprise here. But does it still feel seismic?

OPPMANN: It really does. So this is something that people have lived with their entire lives, two brothers that have shaped the destiny of a country and far beyond that. And then to transition now to someone who is a mere mortal, really, is a change.

KELLY: Well, before we get to this mere mortal, as you call them, does the end of the Castro era change anything for ordinary Cubans?

OPPMANN: No. And I think, you know, you have to look at this as, really, one of the longest job interviews in history. The Castros have always worried about that transition of power. You know, you go in every communist society, whether it's the then-USSR or China or Vietnam - there's a point where the revolutionaries have to turn power over to bureaucrats. We've arrived at that moment.

KELLY: Right.

OPPMANN: And you have somebody that isn't a revolutionary. They're a paper-pusher.

KELLY: Well, let's talk about him. This is Miguel Diaz-Canel. He's the current president. He's 61, so this is a generational shift. This is a changing of the guard. What else do we need to know about him?

OPPMANN: While he is a much younger person, he carries a tablet to meetings. He used to have sort of long hair, almost kind of a mullet. He likes rock 'n' roll, we're told. He's somebody that has more modern ideas. And we know from his past running the provincial governments that, you know, there was a gay club, and there were complaints about this gay club. And this is 30 years ago. And he went and talked to them and also talked to people and said, no, this is OK. And so he's seen somewhat more accepting up until a point. He will work behind the scenes sometimes to find consensus.

KELLY: What about his position toward the U.S.? What will his line on U.S.-Cuba relations be?

OPPMANN: You know, when he accepted the highest position of the Communist Party here, he sounded like Fidel and Raul Castro. I mean, he said that we are not going to let people invade us. We will stand here shaking our fist like David at Goliath. But as well, he said, as the Castros have said before, if they want to sit down and negotiate with us, well, we have to do that. And the embargo - the blockade, as they call it here - has a major impact on the economy. And, in fact, he said on every major issue, I will consult with Raul Castro ahead of time, so Raul Castro will be there. And if he has to pick up a phone and say, no, I disagree with that, well, we know who really is still the most powerful figure.

KELLY: I gather his former son-in-law has also just been elevated to a senior position in the policy inner ranks, which is also raising some questions about just how hands-off Raul Castro plans to be.

OPPMANN: Right. And this is General Luis Alberto Rodriguez Lopez-Calleja. And he's someone who's very powerful and yet has almost no public role until now. And he will be there as the eyes and the ears for the family.

KELLY: That is Patrick Oppmann of CNN talking about a changing of the guard there in Cuba. He was on the line from Havana.

Patrick Oppmann, thank you.

OPPMANN: Lovely speaking with you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.