Raul Castro confirmed Friday he is stepping down as the head of the Communist Party of Cuba, the most powerful position on the island.
During a speech on the first day of the Communist Party's eighth congress, he said he would hand over power to a younger generation that is "full of passion and anti-imperialist spirit."
"I believe fervently in the strength and exemplary nature and comprehension of my compatriots, and as long as I live, I will be ready with my foot in the stirrups to defend the fatherland, the revolution and socialism," Castro told party delegates at the closed-door meeting at a convention center in Havana.
He was retiring, Castro said, with the sense of having “fulfilled his mission and confident in the future of the fatherland.”
Though there are few expectations of significant change among Cubans, it is however a historic move — Castro and his late brother, Fidel Castro, have been in power since the 1959 revolution.
Though Castro did not name his successor during the speech, it's expected that a subsequent vote will ratify President Miguel Díaz-Canel as the next party secretary-general and set policy guidelines.
Raul Castro had said in 2018 he expected Díaz-Canel to replace him after his retirement in 2021. Díaz-Canel, 60, represents a new generation and is serving the first of two five-year terms as president.
Many analysts believe Castro, who turns 90 in June, will continue to be the most influential figure on the island until his death.
In Cuba, major events are put together during historic celebrations and this year’s congress is no exception. It coincides with the 60th anniversary of the failed, CIA-backed Bay of Pigs invasion.
Castro’s retirement comes as Cuba, one of the last communist run-countries in the world, is facing multiple challenges. Its economy shrank 11 percent in 2020 due to the pandemic, and it's been grappling with tightened U.S. sanctions and a decline in aid from its ally, Venezuela. The government lacks hard currency to import food and medicine, which means endless lines outside stores when food becomes available, and one meal a day for some families.
The country is also dealing with a spike in Covid-19 cases. Strict lockdowns and measures have kept the numbers of cases and deaths below those of most countries in the region, but they have also tested the patience of many Cubans. Cuba has developed five vaccine candidates and two are in late-stage trials.
The country’s challenges have led to public discontent at levels rarely seen since the 1959 communist revolution. Mobile internet has allowed videos of protests to quickly spread among Cubans and also helped activists mobilize. A large protest in November by artists demanding greater freedom of expression made headlines across the globe.
President Joe Biden campaigned on reversing some of the previous administration’s harsh measures, such as limits on remittances and restricted travel to the island by Americans while focusing on human rights. But so far, administration officials have indicated they won’t be making changes anytime soon. Juan Gonzalez, executive director of the National Security Council, said recently that the “political moment” has changed from the Obama administration years and that “oppression against Cubans is worse today than perhaps during the Bush years.”
Disenchantment in the island over the country’s centrally planned system, stagnant economy and decaying infrastructure has been brewing for years, especially among younger Cubans. During the Communist Party’s congress in 2011, a set of ambitious economic reforms were promised that have not been fully implemented.
Victoria Hernández 37, an entrepreneur who sells products such as hangers and batteries in East Havana, says she does not expect much from the congress.
“I think our officials should change their mentality more to improve things. Right now what we’re thinking about is food. I want to also think about having a car, a better house,” she said.
Need for economic reform
But some experts believe Castro's move is important in order to speed up economic reforms. This involves strategic decisions in order to keep the public more content without ceding the tight grip the party has over society.
Arturo López-Levy, a professor at Holy Names University in California, thinks the economic reforms will gain traction once the pandemic is under control.
“What is happening now is a new generation is consolidating control,” he said. “Now they will be forced to make important reforms, because their legitimacy doesn't come from a revolutionary background, but from being capable of showing better performance.”
He said there aren’t high expectations among Cubans because the country “will remain a Leninist system and that basically means the political monopoly of the Communist Party.”
Fabio Fernández, a history professor at the University of Havana, often quoted in the Communist Party newspaper Granma, says it’s important for the party to move forward, fulfill the economic reforms it promised over a decade ago, and make political changes without abandoning its socialist system.
“A new concept of Cuban socialism is what we need to adopt because the old one no longer works,” he said.