Raul Castro’s decision to retire as head of the Cuban Communist Party marks the end of an era. It ends his family’s six decades in power, in itself testament to the profound influence of the Castro clan since the revolution of 1959 and the decades that followed. The nation is now headed for what they call a generational shift, almost inevitable with the march of time. Raul expects the next generation at the helm of the Communist Party to be “full of passion and anti-imperialist spirit”, going by his presentation at the party congress. At the ripe age of 89, the brother of the legendary Fidel Castro announced that he is handing over the leadership to a younger generation, recalling Jyoti Basu’s statement as Chief Minister, also when 89 ~ “Let the younger lot take over.” Raul told party delegates in Havana over the weekend, “I believe fervently in the strength and exemplary nature and comprehension of my compatriots.” The move is not wholly unexpected; it is historic and symbolic nonetheless. Such pregnant symbolisms have shaped a welter of events in history and Cuba in the 21st century.
Although Raul has not endorsed a successor, it is widely believed the party leadership will pass to Miguel Díaz-Canel, who took over as President in 2018. Díaz-Canel may well succeed him now as the party’s first secretary, too. It seems likely he will be forced to take further steps to liberalise Cuba’s centrally controlled economy. The island is currently in the grip of its worst economic crisis since the period immediately following the end of the Cold War. And this will be the forbidding challenge as Cuba gears up for the next phase. Small wonder that “private farmers” were recently permitted to sell beef and dairy products, indeed commodities that previously were under the sole control of the State. The reality is that, at least in the short term, little might change.
Any hope of improving ties with the United States of America may have to wait, however. Not the least because the Biden administration has shown little or no inclination to discontinue the Trump administration’s harsh sanctions on Cuba at this stage when the country has reached a turning point and America bears witness to almost a watershed change of guard. Arguably, Raúl Castro’s words of keeping “one foot in the stirrup” means he will remain a powerbroker, if behind the scenes. And by reiterating the country’s eternal commitment to socialism, political change remains as unlikely under his successor as it was under his late brother, Fidel. As leader, Raúl maintained the Communists’ one-party grip on power. He can be credited with an improvement in relations with the United States between 2014 and 2016, pre-eminently the historic talks with President Barack Obama in 2016. As Cuba shifts from the family paradigm, the change of guard in Havana will be no less profound.