When Raul Castro announced the end of his family dynasty’s grip on power in Cuba, Horacio Llerena was happy to see him go.
Llerena, a New Jersey contractor, escaped the Communist island as part of a mass migration of Cubans known as the Mariel boat lift in 1980, when Raul’s brother Fidel Castro was at the helm.
“We’re happy. We’ve been waiting for it,” said Llerena, 61, who was playing rummy with friends at the Jose Marti Park in Union City. The park features a bronze bust of the 19th century Cuban poet and patriot, who lived in exile in New York from 1880 until he returned to fight against Spanish imperialism in Cuba, where he died in 1895.
Like Marti, Llerena originally moved to New York City from Havana. Llerena has lived in New Jersey since 1982, he said. Dubbed Havana on the Hudson, Union City and West New York have been home to a small Cuban community since the 1940s.
Although Raul Castro, 89, stepped down from his leadership of the island’s ruling Communist Party, little will change on the island, Llerena said.
“Every single one who’s got to do with the communist party has got to go,” said Llerena. “All the remaining people alive, they have to pay for all the crimes of the past 61 years.”
After serving two terms as Cuba’s president, Raul Castro stepped down in 2018, allowing his handpicked successor Miguel Diaz-Canel Bermudez to assume the presidency. In 2008, Raul Castro took over Cuba’s leadership from his older brother Fidel Castro, the revolutionary leader who had ruled the island since toppling the regime of Fulgencio Batista in 1959. Fidel Castro died in 2016.
Although Diaz-Canel is part of a younger generation of politicians on the island, he is serving at the behest of Raul Castro and is unlikely to make sweeping changes on the island, other Cuban American critics told The Post.
“They talk a good talk but I don’t see any difference,” said Tony, 52, a first-generation Cuban American who runs La Pola, his family’s Cuban restaurant in West New York. In 2018, a Food Network critic called the restaurant’s Cuban sandwich the best in the US, sparking a feud with other Cuban communities in Florida.
“It’s just one for passing the torch to another,” said Tony about the handover of power on the island.
Diaz-Canel will likely be elected as the secretary general of the Communist Party during this weekend’s party congress. Both the presidency and head of the party have been traditionally held by the same leader in the country.