Raul Castro is stepping down as chairman of the Cuban Communist Party, the most powerful position on the island, with few expectations of significant change among Cubans, although this is a historic move.
The Communist Party’s eighth congress begins Friday when it certifies President Miguel Díaz-Canel as the party’s next general secretary and sets policy guidelines. Castro and his late brother Fidel Castro have been in power since the 1959 revolution, and he said in 2018 that he expected Díaz-Canel to replace him after he retired in 2021. Díaz-Canel, 60, represents a new generation and serves the first of two five-year terms as president.
Many analysts believe that Castro, who will turn 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 historical 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 resigns as Cuba, one of the last communist run countries in the world, faces numerous challenges. The economy contracted 11 percent in 2020 due to the pandemic, and it had to contend with tightened US sanctions and a decline in aid from its ally Venezuela. The government lacks hard currency to import food and medicines. This means endless queues outside of stores when groceries become available and one meal a day for some families.
The country is also dealing with a surge in Covid-19 cases. Tight lockdowns and measures have kept the number of cases and deaths below those of most countries in the region, but 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 generated public discontent at levels seldom seen since the communist revolution of 1959. Mobile internet enabled videos of protests to quickly spread among Cubans and help activists mobilize. A major protest by artists calling for more freedom of expression in November made headlines around the world.
President Joe Biden campaigned to reverse some of the harsh measures taken by the previous administration, such as limiting remittances and restricting American entry to the island, while focusing on human rights. However, so far administrative officials have indicated that they will not be making any changes anytime soon. Juan Gonzalez, Executive Director of the National Security Council, said recently that the “political moment” has changed since the Obama administration and that “the repression of Cubans is worse today than perhaps during the Bush years”.
The island’s disillusionment with the country’s centrally planned system, stagnating economy and decaying infrastructure has been brewing for years, especially among younger Cubans. Ambitious economic reforms were promised during the Communist Party Congress in 2011 that were not fully implemented.
Victoria Hernández 37, a businesswoman who sells products like hangers and batteries in East Havana, doesn’t expect much from Congress.
“I think our officials should change their mentality more to make things better. Right now we’re thinking about food. I also want to think about having a car, a better house, ”she said.
Need for economic reform
However, some experts believe Castro’s pace is important in order to accelerate economic reforms. This includes making strategic decisions to make the public more satisfied without giving up the party’s close influence on society.
Arturo López-Levy, a professor at Holy Names University in California, believes economic reforms will pick up pace once the pandemic is under control.
“What is happening now is a new generation is taking control,” he said. “Now they will be forced to undertake important reforms because their legitimacy does not come from a revolutionary background, but from the ability to perform better.”
He said that there are not high expectations among Cubans because the country “will remain a Leninist system, which basically means the political monopoly of the Communist Party”.
Fabio Fernández, a history professor at the University of Havana who is often quoted in the Communist Party’s Granma newspaper, says it is important for the party to move forward, fulfill the economic reforms promised over a decade ago and make political changes without theirs Socialists abandon the system.
“A new concept of Cuban socialism is what we have to adopt because the old one no longer works,” he said.