Raul Castro retires as communist party chief, ending an era for Cuba

·3-min read

Raul Castro is to step down as secretary general of Cuba's Communist Party during the party congress which opened on Friday. He is expected to be succeeded by Miguel Diaz-Canel, who took over as Cuba's president in 2018. The move marks a new step in the transition of power from the Castro family to a new generation of leaders born after the 1959 revolution.

Raul Castro in 2016 said that he would give up the post of party secretary-general at the party's eighth congress, which begins on Friday. Standing down will complete the move to turn control over to a younger generation of revolutionaries led by Miguel Díaz-Canel, who took over the presidency from Castro in 2018.

Many Cubans are anxious about the change after having their daily affairs guided for more than six decades by a Castro, and Raul Castro's expected exit from the political scene couldn’t come at a more difficult time.

The coronavirus pandemic, painful financial reforms and restrictions reimposed by the Trump administration have again brought food lines and shortages reminiscent of the “special period” that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s.

But, unlike past crises that brought Cubans together, concern is on the rise, fueled by the spread of the Internet and growing inequality that has laid bare the socialist system’s failings.

'Inexorable laws of life'

At the previous Communist Party congress, in 2016, Castro announced that, owing to the “inexorable laws of life,” he would step down as first secretary-general of the Communist Party in 2021 and yield power to Diaz-Canel. Also expected to resign at the gathering is Castro’s deputy, 90-year-old José Ramón Machado.

That would potentially leave the 17-member Politburo for the first time without any veterans of the guerrilla insurgency, or what many Cubans affectionately refer to as the “historic generation”.

In January, Diaz-Canel finally launched a plan approved two congresses ago to unify the island’s dual currency system, giving rise to fears of inflation. After the economy contracted 11 percent last year, Diaz-Canel also threw the doors open to a broader range of private enterprise that had been stamped out by state planning, permitting Cubans to legally operate almost any self-run businesses from their homes.

Meagre salaries

But the authorities have yet to tackle an overhaul of bloated state-run companies and government agencies on which the vast majority of Cubans depend for their meagre salaries and subsistence.

Any change in Cuba is likely to be slow. The word “continuity” scrawled in red is repeated many times on a giant billboard erected in the Revolution Plaza where Fidel Castro at his height in the 1960s and 1970s used to mesmerise Cubans with his anti-imperialist harangues.

But at least some on the island are agitating for more radical change. Hundreds of artists, some of them wrapped in the Cuban flag, have in recent months carried out anti-government protests.

Top leaders have tried to vilify the demonstrators, accusing them of being paid by exiles in Miami. But the movement has gained momentum thanks to the arrival of mobile internet service two years ago that has made it easier for dissidents to organize.

'Northern empire'

As always in Cuba’s history, the wildcard is the “Northern Empire,” as communist stalwarts refer to the US. This year’s congress, like the two before it, coincides with the anniversary of the 1961 invasion by CIA-funded Cuban exiles at the Bay of Pigs.

President Joe Biden campaigned on the promise to partially revive the Obama administration’s opening that saw the US raise the American flag at its long-shuttered embassy in Havana, ease the decades-old trade embargo, and boost air connections between the two countries.

Most of those policies were reversed by the Trump administration, which at the last minute even declared Cuba a state sponsor of terrorism, despite Havana having helped broker a peace deal between Colombia’s government and leftist rebels.