Cuba’s last Castro is set to leave the political stage, as Fidel’s 89-year-old brother Raúl cedes power to a younger generation at next week’s communist party congress which must also tackle a dire economic crisis and growing political dissent.
The Communist party, which has ruled Cuba unchallenged since the 1959 revolution, finds itself besieged by the coronavirus pandemic, US sanctions, chronic shortages of basic goods and a population impatient with bureaucratic bungling and long queues to secure daily necessities.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen things as bad as they are now,” said Anaida González, a retired nursing professor in central Camagüey province. “This is cattle country but there’s no milk, butter, yoghurt or meat. People are very critical and preoccupied over this and the pandemic and nothing else.”
Raúl Castro is to stand down as the party’s first secretary, the true source of power on the island, and armed forces commander after serving two five-year terms. He succeeded his brother Fidel, who handed power to him several years before his death in 2016.
At the last party congress five years ago, Raúl Castro suggested the other remaining revolutionaries of a similar age on the all-powerful politburo should retire with him.
Carlos Saladrigas, a Cuban-US businessman and head of the Cuban Study Group which advocates engagement with Cuba, said the changing of the guard would “truly mark a new era where a Castro will not be anywhere in Cuba’s government.”
President Miguel Díaz-Canel, Castro’s 60-year-old protégé, is expected to take his place, concluding a lengthy transition from revolutionary veterans to the generation born after 1959.
One Cuban-US émigré businessman said of the president: “He’s been able to navigate difficult times, but he now has to up his game and take effective control. He must show imagination and initiative to deal with the train wreck of the economy and rising tide of pushback from the base.”
In his three years as president, Díaz-Canel has grappled with the pandemic, heightened hostility from the Trump administration and tighter US sanctions, as well as greater dissent over Cuba’s one-party system fuelled by growing internet use.
Vital imports such as food, fuel and raw materials fell 40 per cent and the economy contracted 11 per cent in 2020, according to the government. Cuba imports more than 60 per cent of the food it consumes. Tourism, a key source of income, was also decimated by the pandemic.
At the four-day party congress, which begins on April 16, participants will hail the country’s handling of the pandemic with low mortality, medical brigades abroad and advance of homegrown vaccines as evidence that the values of Fidel Castro continue to guide policy.
But at the same time the congress is expected to double down on Cuba’s first monetary reform of consequence, portrayed in some state-run media as the “most sweeping change in daily life since the 1959 revolution”.
The monetary reform was approved a decade ago after Raúl Castro took over, but only pushed through under the rubric of the pandemic crisis plan to raise exports, limit imports, improve efficiency and cut subsidies.
It unified a dual currency system from January 1 and involved devaluing the peso by more than 2,000 per cent. It ended up dollarising parts of the economy and setting off a surge of inflation which economists estimate will hit 500 per cent this year.
The measures came with hefty pay rises for state employees and pensioners but not for the other 40 per cent of the workforce in the private sector, agriculture and informal economy.
This has again prompted exiles, dissidents and some experts to forecast that collapse is imminent. They are demanding that Joe Biden’s administration maintain Trump-era sanctions to keep pressure on Havana while, via social media, they urge Cubans to revolt.
In recent months a group of activists and independent artists known as the San Isidro movement have challenged the government over freedom of expression, staging an unprecedented demonstration in front of the culture ministry and a small rally in one of the capital’s poorest quarters, where a group of residents stopped police from arresting a dissident rap artist.
Another group of protesters say they are staging a hunger strike in eastern Cuba, apparently timed to coincide with the party congress.
William LeoGrande, a professor of government and Cuba expert at American University, said he expected the pace of economic reform to pick up after the congress, but not necessarily political tolerance.
Díaz-Canel’s approach was “in line with Raúl Castro’s strategy of maintaining tight political control while making difficult economic changes,” he said.
The party and its powerful youth wing appears confident. “The complex conditions in which the Cuban Revolution unfolds . . . allow us to envision more challenging scenarios in the coming years,” a preparatory document on cadre development, cited by the party daily Granma, reads.
A foreign businessman with decades of experience working with Cuba summed it up: “As long as the US maintains the embargo and hostilities, the system is safe and relatively stable.
“Were that to disappear, the system would need to adjust and adapt faster than it possibly could.”