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Cuba's presidential transition bringing no joy to its exiles

A man wearing a shirt with the stars and stripes sits on the Malecon in Havana, Cuba, on April 18, 2018. (AP Photo/Desmond Boylan)

MIAMI (AP) -- The political transition in Cuba is bringing no joy to exiles in Florida, who say they expect nothing to change after Raul Castro steps down as president.

Cuban-Americans who left the island in waves of migration since Fidel Castro's 1959 revolution are skeptical that Cuba's next nominal leader will actually be in charge.

The National Assembly began a meeting Wednesday where Raul Castro plans to hand the presidency to a chosen successor. For the first time in nearly six decades, Cubans are about to see what it's like without a Castro at the top.

But Raul will remain as first secretary of the Communist Party, and the diaspora in Florida says the change is meaningless without free and fair elections.

"Let's be clear about something: This is a farce, like those the Cuban government has long orchestrated," said Julio Cesar Alfonso, president of Solidarity without Borders, an organization that has assisted Cuban doctors who have defected. "I do not believe that this will lead to any change that favors the freedom or life of Cubans here or on the island."

Some of the Cubans who either fled political repression or sought better futures by making new homes in Miami get offended that they're even being asked about this transition, because they're so convinced nothing will change.

At 74, Manuel Diaz doesn't hold much hope. The revolution shook his world when he was 16. It was Christmas in 1958 when guerrillas defeated the army forces in his town of Palma Soriano. He flew out of Havana with his family the following year, leaving behind their house and his grandparents. When he gets nostalgic, he goes online trying to locate his childhood home in this mountainous town near Santiago de Cuba.

But the satellite images don't show much, and he says he doesn't yearn to visit his homeland.

"If Raul Castro steps down, it means nothing to me because I have nothing to go back to Cuba for," he said.

Cuba's only official candidate is 57-year-old Miguel Diaz-Canel, all but assuring he'll be the next president. He was smiling broadly Wednesday as he entered the National Assembly at Raul Castro's side.

In Miami's Little Havana neighborhood, a small group gathered at the iconic Cafe Versailles, playing Celia Cruz songs and holding signs calling Diaz-Canel a "poisonous rat."

"Today is a day when the Castro dynasty is appointing a new monarch to commit even more crimes," shouted Miguel Saavedra, president of the group Vigilia Mambisa. "The future ahead for the Cuban people is tragic and pathetic while Castro is still in power."

It was nothing like the commotion following the death of Fidel Castro, which exiles celebrated by clanging pots and beating drums at the same spot in November 2016. Also absent was the negative reaction following former President Barack Obama's December 2014 announcement of restored diplomatic relations with Cuba, an opening President Donald Trump partially closed last year.

Jorge Duany, director of the Cuban Research Institute, says exiles would like to see political reforms that allow opposition candidates to run for Cuba's government, recognition of other parties, and direct popular voting. He says exiles don't like the lack of transparency around the handoff, and the dearth of information about Diaz-Canel.

"People here in Miami and who I talk to are still skeptical that it is going to be a major transformation in the power structure and that it won't be more of the same," Duany said. "They are weary of this process because they have been expecting it for so long."

Eddy Venero is among the more recent arrivals to Miami. A 47-year-old chef, he flew out of Cuba, then made the perilous journey from Ecuador to the U.S. six years ago, leaving behind two older children to find a job and make ends meet. While preparing to order Cuban coffee and breakfast with his new family at a bakery, he said he's pessimistic about the island's future, because he distrusts Diaz-Canel even more than Raul Castro.

"Until I see it, I still don't believe there will be a change," Venero said. "The economy will continue to suffer because the man next in line is worse, and a Castro will still be in power."

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