'Jose Marti would be very sad': Cuban Americans react to Raul Castro's handoff of power

Vic DiMaio sees the statue of 1800s Cuban revolutionary Jose Marti in Ybor City and knows even the end of the Castro regime wouldn't put a smile on Marti's face.

"He was the dreamer, he was the inspiration, and the people around him were the ones fighting for freedom," said DiMaio, who is a Cuban American and president of the Hillsborough County Hispanic Democratic Party caucus.

Marti fought to free Cuba from Spanish hands, but it fell into those of the Castros in 1959. 

DiMaio has been there a dozen times and even saw Raul Castro at a baseball game in 2016 as he sat next to then-President Obama.

Vic DiMaio stands at the Ybor City statue of 1800s Cuban revolutionary Jose Marti

"He was very quiet, very demure, very to himself," said DiMaio. "He was a bureaucrat."

But Raul, who took over for his brother in 2011, has chosen loyalist Miguel Diaz-Canel to take charge, just as the Cuban economy has bottomed out.

"Toilet paper, believe it or not, is a huge commodity that is in little supply in Cuba," said DiMaio.

The Castro departure may provide a psychological lift to those who have lived under -- or fled from -- the rule of the Castros. 

Raul Castro

FILE - Cuban President Raul Castro acknowledges applause following a speech.

But more of the same is expected.

"A one-party communist state, that's exactly what Cuba will be," said DiMaio. "[Regardless] of who is in charge, the government is so intertwined in peoples' lives that you won't see a radical change."

Cuba scholar and American University professor Dr. William LeoGrande expects that beyond allowing Americans to send money to relatives and lifting some travel restrictions, that the Biden administration will not fully reengage with Cuba.

"I do not expect President Biden to go back to Obama's policy of proactive forward-leaning engagement to normalize relations with Cuba," LeoGrande said.

Standing in a neighborhood with Cuban heritage as rich as Ybor City, in a park dedicated to those who fought so hard for Cuban freedom, it's easy for DiMaio to feel another opportunity is lost.

"Jose Marti would be very sad."