Raul Castro is due officially to step down from Cuban political life during the country's Communist Party congress that begins Friday. He is expected to cede the post of party secretary-general, the country's most powerful role, to Miguel Diaz-Canel, who took over from Castro as Cuba's president in 2018. The move represents a new step in the transition of power from the Castro family to a new generation born after the 1959 revolution.
More than 60 years after Fidel Castro entered Havana and took power, Cuba is poised for public life without a member of the Castro clan. The 89-year-old Raul, a fellow leader of the 1959 revolution who first took over Cuba's presidency from his ailing older brother in 2006, will attend his final Communist Party congress as secretary-general this weekend. At the close of the four-day event, Castro will hand over the reins to its freshly elected chief, with his protege Diaz-Canel the favourite in line for the role.
"Raul Castro's departure from political life has been expected for a long time," Cuba specialist Stephane Witkowski, of the Institute for Higher Learning on Latin America (IHEAL) in Paris, told FRANCE 24. "It represents a step in the process of generational transition between those who lived through the 1959 revolution and the new generation."
"Indeed, the date surely wasn't chosen randomly," the specialist noted, coinciding as it does with the 60th anniversary of the failed landing attempt at the Bay of Pigs by 1,400 anti-Castro paramilitaries trained and financed by the CIA. "It's highly symbolic," said Witkowski.
The transition between generations
Cuba's political transition had already seen a decisive line crossed in 2018 when Castro ceded the country's presidency to Diaz-Canel. The former minister for Higher Education, who turns 61 next week, incarnates a new generation that came of age after the revolution.
That succession, under Cuba's one-party system, was meticulously prepared and, significantly, Castro retained a political role. He remained secretary-general of the Communist Party, a post that had until then been combined with the country's presidency.
And yet, according to Cuba's constitution, the Communist Party is the ultimate political force governing society and the State. "It is really the supreme authority that defines political directions during its congress, which is held every five years," Witkowski explained. So even with the powers separate, the party under Castro retained control of Cuba's progress.
Over the past three years, Diaz-Canel's presidency therefore represented continuity, following Castro's lead. His government carried on with the principal reforms begun previously, for instance in moving to end Cuba's dual currency system. In January, Diaz-Canel's government went ahead with vast economic reforms aiming to unify the two local currencies while significantly revaluing wages, pensions and consumer prices.
Diaz-Canel is the favourite to take on the role of new party secretary after Castro. "Nothing is decided. It happens by vote, during the congress," Witkowski explained. "But in all likelihood, it will be him."
What role for Raul Castro?
It remains to be seen what role Castro will occupy going forward. During the party's last congress, in 2016, when asked about his plans for life after politics, he said he wanted to retire to "look after the grandchildren" and "read books like the rest of the historic generation".
Still, it is difficult to imagine Fidel Castro's younger brother completely disappearing from the political stage. "He seems to be in tune with his brother's model," Witkowski said of Raul. "Fidel Castro also gave up his political roles one after the other. He then adopted a neutral status, as an advisor. Indeed, he presented himself as 'a wiseman'. So perhaps Raul Castro will also take on an advisory role, but his intentions so far have not been made clear."
Former diplomat Carlos Alzugaray, for his part, finds it impossible to imagine Castro totally withdrawing from Cuban political life. "He will always be there,' Alzugaray told Agence France-Presse. "It could become a model similar to what happened in China when Deng Xiaoping no longer had a position but he was still alive and so he had to be consulted on everything. He had the last word."
The most serious economic crisis in 30 years
The new generation at the helm in Cuba will have its work cut out with the island nation facing challenges on multiple fronts amid its most serious economic crisis in more than 30 years.
Weakened by the Covid-19 pandemic that has brought valuable tourism to a halt, and amid US sanctions imposed by the Trump administration, Cuba's GDP plunged 11 percent in 2020. In recent months, Cubans have been waiting hours for supplies as supermarkets suffer shortages.
The country's leadership will also be dealing with growing opposition spurred along by the late-2018 arrival of mobile internet via 3G. In a nation that had previously been among the least connected in the world, the Internet has unleashed expression in Cuba, allowing the population to voice its demands and to take to the streets to demonstrate, phenomena previously unseen on the island. Indeed, one point on the agenda at this weekend's Communist Party congress is exploring a way to be "more efficient in fighting against political-ideological subversion" on social media.
"There will be many challenges," Witkowski explained. "In terms of the economy, they need to manage this reform ending currency duality, to reduce agricultural dependence and to keep attracting further foreign investment.
"And they will also, of course, need to continue coping with the Covid-19 pandemic, even though, from a public health perspective, the experience has been relatively positive."
Cuba regularly lauds its management of the crisis, having registered only 88,445 cases, including 476 deaths, among its population of 11.2 million.
"What will also need to be determined is what's next in the revolutionary process. What will become of the process of institutionalising the 1959 revolution?" asked Witkowski.
"Raul Castro is a figure who had an impact on an entire people," said Witkowski. "From now on, Cuban politics enters a new phase. It will be up to this new generation to take up the torch and prove its legitimacy."
This article has been translated from the original in French.