Cuba’s leadership is passing to a younger generation, with the last Castro leaving office and ending a 60-year family monopoly, but there is little other change as power remains firmly with the Communist Party.
At a four-day party congress starting Friday, 89-year-old Raul Castro will relinquish the country’s most powerful position – that of party first secretary – to 60-year-old Miguel Diaz-Canel, Cuba’s president.
This officially ends six decades of dominion over Cuban politics by Castro and his brother Fidel, who ruled for nearly half a century from 1959 to 2006 and is widely revered as the country’s father and saviour.
However, observers say Raul is unlikely to completely relinquish his power and could continue to pull the strings from behind the scenes.
Cuba’s leadership is passing to a younger generation, 89-year-old Raul Castro will relinquish the country’s most powerful position – that of party first secretary – to 60-year-old Miguel Diaz-Canel, Cuba’s president
This officially ends six decades of dominion over Cuban politics by Castro and his brother Fidel (pictured), who ruled for nearly half a century from 1959 to 2006 and is widely revered as the country’s father and saviour
Diaz-Canel will be only the third-ever first secretary of the all-powerful Communist Party of Cuba (PCC), while still retaining the presidency.
He also becomes Cuba’s first civilian leader since the Castro-led revolution of the 1950s, which happened before he was even born.
But while the suit-and-tie wearing, tech-savvy Beatles fan may be more modern in some ways than his predecessors – both of whom were fond of donning military garb – he remains first and foremost a party disciple.
‘He is part of the political struggle, the ideological struggle,’ said Carlos Alzugaray, a former Cuban diplomat.
‘The absence of a Castro at the helm doesn’t necessarily mean there’s going to be an abrupt change in the Communist party’s style,’ added Norman McKay, an analyst with The Economist Intelligence Unit.
Diaz-Canel will be only the third-ever first secretary of the all-powerful Communist Party of Cuba (PCC), while still retaining the presidency
A new constitution passed in May 2019 made it clear that the country’s commitment to socialism was ‘irrevocable.’
Yet many Cubans pay little heed to politics, preoccupied as they are by the worst economic crisis in 30 years, sky-high inflation, biting food shortages, snaking queues for basic necessities and limited freedoms.
‘I hope the congress will lead to an improvement because the prices are too high,’ said pensioner Maria Martinez, 68.
‘There is nothing to hope for,’ added Sergio, a 44-year-old cook who declined to give his full name in a country where speaking out against the government can land you in trouble.
‘Salaries are a problem, they are not enough. There are problems with food, the lines are long,’ he said.
Diaz-Canal also becomes Cuba’s first civilian leader since the Castro-led revolution of the 1950s, which happened before he was even born
Cuba’s economic crisis is caused in part by its own management failures, worsened by US sanctions ramped up under Donald Trump and the coronavirus pandemic, which dried up tourists – a key income source for the island.
The economy plummeted by 11 per cent in 2020, the worst decline since 1993 in the country of 11.2 million.
Economic reforms to phase out the US dollar-pinned ‘convertible’ peso, leaving only the less valuable official peso in place, saw salaries increased by the state, but not enough to make up for the resulting price inflation.
Many stores now accept only US dollars and these are better stocked than others, but few people can afford to frequent them.
The PCC has said its congress would ‘review core issues of the political, economic and social life of the country.’
Cuba is currently holding its VIII Congress of the Communist Party of Cuba being held between April 16 and April 19
Raul Castro will officially hand over the leadership of the Communist Party of Cuba to Miguel Diaz-Canal during the Congress
There are signs that Cuba’s leadership will have little choice but to increasingly balance the interests of the old guard with a clamour for more rights and better quality of life from younger generations.
In February, it opened the bulk of its government-monopolised economy to entrepreneurs in the private sector.
There have also been small nods to social liberalisation by Havana, under sanctions from the United States since 1962.
In recent months, the government held its first-ever talks – though short-lived – with pro-free speech protesters, after authorising Cuba’s first non-political demonstration, by animal rights activists, in 2019.
‘Raul Castro stepping down as head of the Communist Party in #Cuba isn’t real change,’ tweeted US senator Marco Rubio, who is of Cuban origin. ‘But real change is already underway nonetheless.’
The arrival of the internet on mobile phones at the end of 2018 has made for a paradigm shift in Cuba, with never-before-seen access to information and new forums for expression.
People are even organising demonstrations in a country where protests are rare.
In response, the PCC has said its congress would be ‘confronting political and ideological subversion, which has made internet and social media its principal field of operations.’
Control over information has always been a key tool of PCC rule.
Castro has said he plans to read and take care of his grandchildren after retiring. But there are those who think he may hover in the background.
‘Raul will be there,’ said former diplomat Alzugaray, in a system that may resemble ‘the one in China when Deng Xiaoping had no position but… everything had to be discussed with him. He had the last word.’
The reign of the Castros: How brothers Fidel and Raul led a revolution and controlled Cuba for decades
As Raul Castro passes the leadership of the PCC on to President Miguel Diaz-Canel, it marks the end of the reign of Castros at the helm of politics in Cuba.
Raul became the first secretary in 1965, when his older brother, Fidel Castro, founded it.
The brothers overcame imprisonment at the hands of dictator Fulgencio Batista, were exiled in Mexico and survived a disastrous start to their rebellion before triumphantly riding into Havana on January 1959.
At age 32, Fidel became the youngest leader in Latin America and put his younger brother Raul in charge of the armed forces.
Despite initial setbacks, the bearded guerrillas, operating in the eastern mountains, steadily gained support across the country.
On January 1, 1959, Batista fled and Fidel became the unquestioned leader of Cuba, with his younger brother put in charge of the armed forces.
Fidel’s government initially executed or imprisoned many foes, and veered to Soviet-backed socialism in the early 1960s.
Cuba backed revolutions across Latin America, and while most of those failed, the Castros’ resistance to U.S. domination inspired millions across the continent and beyond.
Fidel’s control survived repeated U.S. plots to overthrow or kill him, and even the hardships that followed the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, which had kept the island’s economy afloat.
But illness finally forced Fidel to turn over power in 2006 to Raul, who formally became president two years later.
Raul announced that he will step aside as president in April – though he plans to remain in what is probably a more important position: head of Cuba’s lone permitted party, the Communist Party.