Havana, Cuba – By Monday, Cuba looks set to be without Castro at the helm for the first time since Raúl and his brother Fidel descended from the Sierra Maestra mountains in 1959, forcing dictator Fulgencio Batista into exile .
One of the last surviving members of this “historic generation,” Raúl said he would step down from his post as supremely powerful first secretary at the 8th Congress of the Communist Party of Cuba (CPC), which begins Friday in Havana.
The 89-year-old is leaving a country awaiting food, ravaged by the economic effects of the coronavirus and US sanctions, and showing increasing signs of dissent.
New song, Patria y Vida (Homeland and life) plays on the old slogan Patria o Muerte (Homeland or death) and is heard in taxis and in the streets, rap: “It’s over, it’s 62 [years] injured. His message – enough is enough – infuriated authorities enough to respond with theirs, using the original slogan. It wasn’t as popular.
And yet, Raúl leaves on his own terms, in the middle of a Congress that meets under the banner of “continuity and unity”. He is leaving after initiating economic and political reforms which – until the coronavirus disaster – had started, at least according to local economists, to overturn the rusty ship of the state.
It is widely believed that he will be replaced by Miguel Díaz-Canel, 60, who succeeded him in 2018 in the slightly inferior role of president.
“Nobody knows what’s coming,” says Cuban historian Ada Ferrer, author of the upcoming Cuba: An American History. “No one knows what it will be like not having this dynamic Castro family in the heart of Cuba after 60 years.”
Raúl Castro came to power in 2008 after his brother Fidel’s health failed, first as president and then in 2011 as first secretary of the Communist Party. Until then, he had led the army, the enforcement agent and his brother’s most trusted and loyal adviser.
Surprisingly for a man who, in the words of Jorge Duany, director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University, “began by radicalizing the Cuban revolution, perhaps even to incite Fidel to embrace Marxist Leninism. He would have been much more inclined to market reforms than his brother.
As early as the 1980s, according to defector Jesus Renzoli, Raúl’s secretary for 20 years, Raúl was pushing pro-market reforms in his disputes with Fidel. These beliefs came to fruition at the Party’s 6th Congress in 2011, when 311 economic reforms were introduced, creating a new class of self-employed workers to fill the void as Raul began to downsize the state.
Raúl also said in 2011 that it was time for a new generation to push the revolution forward, introducing a two-term limit for leadership. A new constitution was drafted and passed in 2019. At first it seemed to liberalize – introduce marriage equality – before this measure was pushed back under pressure from a newly empowered church.
Donald Trump’s inauguration in 2017 undermined Raúl’s most important achievement, a detente with the Obama administration that sparked a flood of American visitors. Trump tightened 60-year-old U.S. sanctions, before COVID-19 finished work, ending all tourism on the island.
According to the Cuban state’s own figures, the economy contracted by 11% in 2020, while imports fell by 40%.
Cuba’s failing farms cannot feed its population of 11 million, so queues of six hours or more have formed to buy chicken, medicine and other essentials. After the Cuban health system succeeded in everything but keeping the virus from entering 2020, the numbers are now rising as COVID has gained a foothold over Christmas.
It is into this crisis that Miguel Díaz-Canel will enter, if he is confirmed at the head of the party. “It seems to me that his position is not enviable, given the problems he inherited and the challenges that have fallen on his knees,” said Michael Bustamante, author of Cuban Memory Wars.
At first glance, Díaz-Canel looks disappointing, a departure from the Castros. While much of the rest of the world has turned to the populists, Cuba will be ruled by a nervous-looking electrical engineer in a guayabera, a traditional men’s shirt – the epitome of a bureaucrat.
Yet those who have known him in his previous roles as regional party leader, first in his home province of Villa Clara, then in Holguin in the east, say he was witty, engaging and quick. to laugh. There have been few signs of this exuberance since.
“There was so much emphasis on continuity, on his attempt to clearly telegraph to the outside world that, you know, ‘I’m not Mikhail Gorbachev’, that he didn’t project his own vision much,” Bustamante says, stressing a vision for the future is exactly what a suffering country wants.
It remains to be seen whether any new ideas will emerge during the Congress on April 15 and 18. There will certainly be a big celebration as the country has created its own vaccines, Soberana 2 and Abdala, both currently in late testing phase. Cuba’s foreign medical brigades and the work they have done in the poorest parts of the world will be commended.
Rafael Hernández, editor-in-chief of Havana-based social science journal Temas, says he hopes for three main changes under the leadership of a new party leader: expanding private commerce beyond mom and pop restaurants and independent taxi drivers, giving Cuban public industries more autonomy, and decentralization of power to the provinces.
“It’s particularly difficult because we are in the midst of an economic crisis, a pandemic, a political transition,” he said. “But that’s no reason to slow down.” I tell a friend about it who scoffs at the idea that it’s possible to go slower.
Raúl Castro has made it clear, he wants to leave with others of the historic generation. He said it was wrong to let leaders age.
As Raul heads to his retirement in the city of Santiago, it looks like his deputy, 90-year-old Second Secretary José Ramón Machado, will be heading to his as well. As for the other octogenarians and nonagenarians of the leadership structure, their political future is not clear.
Of course, Raúl will not be judged only on the last 10 years, but on the whole of the revolution. Duany points out dire aspects – that Raúl, along with Che Guevara, was widely credited with “the execution of political enemies” at the start. He also says that Raúl can be credited with “creating the military and police state”.
As small but significant protests continue in Havana and Santiago, the question is whether Díaz-Canel will resort more to state security to maintain the “continuity” he espouses. As for Raúl, he clarified his plans in 2018: “I will be just one more soldier to defend this revolution.”