Raúl Castro says he will step down, marking end of era as Cuba faces economic crisis

Andres Viglucci, Adriana Brasileiro , Mario J. Pentón
·13 min read

Sixty-two years after leading a guerrilla army out of the mountain jungles of Cuba and helping his brother, Fidel Castro, impose communist rule over the island, Raúl Castro on Friday said he will relinquish his hold on formal power in the nation’s affairs.

As has been widely expected, Raúl Castro, 89, said he was stepping down as head of the Cuban Communist Party, the island’s dominant political force, during a subdued opening session of the body’s Eighth Congress in Havana.

In remarks during an address to delegates in Havana’s convention center, Raúl Castro announced he would not seek to retain any high post in the party, though he stressed he would remain an active party member, according to sound and video excerpts and reports in official Cuban media.

“As far as I’m concerned, my task as first secretary to the central committee of the PCC ends with the satisfaction of having fulfilled my mission and the confidence in the future of the fatherland,” Raúl Castro said.

He added: “I will continue participating as one more revolutionary combatant, willing to make my modest contribution until the end of my life.”

Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel is the anticipated heir to Raúl Castro’s role as the party’s first secretary, making the 60-year-old civilian the island’s most powerful figure — on paper at least. The conclave was not being broadcast live, but government-controlled media released video snippets and a synopsis of Raúl Castro’s speech, without immediately acknowledging his announced intention to step down.

Raúl Castro stressed the party conclave’s theme of “continuity,” according to the party website, declaring it was time for the regime’s last remaining “historic” leaders from revolutionary days to yield official power to a younger generation that can preserve and renew the Cuban Communist Party’s ideals.

“Nothing obligates me to make this decision,” he said. “I believe fervently ... in the understanding of my compatriots. And let no one doubt this: While I live I will be ready, with my feet in the stirrups, to defend the fatherland, the revolution and socialism.”

He noted the conclave was taking place almost precisely 60 years after Fidel Castro proclaimed the “socialist character” of the revolution following the failed Bay of Pigs invasion. And while he called the U.S.-backed invasion by Cuban exiles “terrorism,” he also made it clear the Cuban government is willing to seek better relations with the administration of President Joe Biden.

Impact on U.S.-Cuba relations uncertain

What effect if any the transition will have on U.S.-Cuba relations is uncertain. Raúl Castro’s signal accomplishment as president, the restoration of U.S.-Cuba diplomatic relations, stagnated amid hardline intransigence in the Cuban regime and the Trump administration’s effective reversal of much of the renewal, including imposition of sanctions.

The Biden administration has signaled that relations with Cuba are not on the front burner. A senior administration official said Friday afternoon that the White House had nothing substantive to say about Castro’s retirement.

“It is for the Cuban people to speak to the results of the party congress. The United States is focused on democracy, human rights, and empowering the Cuban people to determine their own future,” the official said. “We are currently reviewing policy toward Cuba, and have nothing further to announce at this time.”

Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel is widely expected to take over leadership of the Communist Party from Raúl Castro during a congress this weekend.
Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel is widely expected to take over leadership of the Communist Party from Raúl Castro during a congress this weekend.

Raúl Castro began positioning protege Díaz-Canel to fill his place in what’s regarded as Cuba’s top political job after ill health forced older brother Fidel Castro to resign as president and Communist Party head in 2011. Raúl Castro succeeded his brother in both posts, but gave up the presidential job in 2018, setting the stage for Díaz-Canel’s selection for a five-year term as president by the island’s popular assembly.

The smooth and scripted party transition took place amid a brutal economic crisis and rare displays of public dissent that will challenge the largely untested Díaz-Canel’s skills as the regime’s undisputed leader, though Cuba watchers expect Raúl Castro will retain a significant say and veto power in critical decisions.

The gathering is billed as a “Congress of Continuity” in which there will be a “gradual and orderly transition” of responsibilities to “new generations,” per the official invite. Raúl Castro stated at the last congress five years ago that he would step down as first secretary general in 2021. The top party job is considered a more powerful post than president.

Delegates gathered at Havana’s Convention Palace launched into discussions about Cuba’s Soviet-style economy and reforms adopted in the 2011 party congress that have still not been entirely implemented. Images shared on the party’s website showed Raúl Castro walking into the convention center’s main auditorium wearing a face mask and his customary olive green uniform to a standing ovation.

The four-day party congress has charted a course, with Raúl Castro’s blessing, that will guide Díaz-Canel as he sets out to implement long-delayed reforms to lift Cuban’s cratering economy and improve quality of life for its long-suffering citizens without threatening Communist control.

Raúl Castro made it clear that guide rails will remain in place in a speech during the congress’ opening day Friday. In general terms, he charted a course for his successors to follow in injecting “greater dynamism” in the economy, but warned there are “limits that must not be crossed” in order to protect socialism from destruction.

“Old bad habits must be modified and rectified, and enterprising and proactive traits in the administration of our enterprises and establishments, which each day will function with greater autonomy, pursuing higher production with more efficiency,” he told congress delegates in Havana’s convention center.

It’s unclear how much real impact Raúl Castro’s retirement will have for Cubans on the island. Though never venerated like his brother, Castro was both feared and respected for his role in the revolution and the communist government as the flighty Fidel’s loyal and highly capable second-in-command. But his image and popularity appear to have plunged as the mostly modest economic reforms he and Díaz-Canel promised were slow or failed to materialize and even exacerbated Cubans’ deepening fiscal and social woes.

Even those limited measures, including a currency reform, have sent inflation soaring and exacerbated economic divisions between the regime’s elite and most of Cuba’s 11 million residents. Long lines for food have again become commonplace. Sanctions imposed by the Trump administration have reduced access to vital economic lifelines like remittances. And a nascent but increasingly vocal social movement is venting mounting frustration on social media and in the streets.

Castro lifted some restrictions on Cubans

That some Cubans feel emboldened is in part due to the lifting by Raúl Castro of some longstanding restrictions. Under his presidency Cubans could for the first time under communist rule visit hotels, buy and sell real estate, freely travel abroad, own cellphones and access the internet — giving them a taste of freedom and unfettered news and information that’s only fueling demands for more, something Cuba experts say any successor would find nearly impossible to shut down.

What is clear is that, without Raúl Castro as the face of the regime, Díaz-Canel will have to shoulder full public responsibility for the success or failure of a long list of other long-planned measures meant to brake an economic freefall by promoting limited private enterprise for small entrepreneurs and farmers. At the same time, Díaz-Canel has signaled he’s unlikely to ease restrictions on civil liberties, independent journalism or artistic expression.

Cuba observers believe Raúl Castro does intend to enjoy a real retirement. He’s known to be building an estate in his native province of Oriente, in eastern Cuba, where his guerrilla force operated ruthlessly and effectively during the revolution. He’s reportedly told friends he’s tired.

Unlike his attention-grabbing brother, Raúl Castro has never shown an appetite for the limelight, remaining content to work in Fidel’s shadow while building the Cuban state’s once-formidable army and its feared and brutally effective security apparatus. Even as president and Communist Party head, Raul Castro kept speeches and public appearances to a minimum, often sitting without a word next to Díaz-Canel at official functions.

Behind the scenes, though, Raúl Castro replaced officials in key leadership positions with loyal followers of his hardline approach, ensuring they would remain firmly in control as he charted his gradual exit. Raúl Castro also oversaw the transformation of the military into the country’s dominant economic force. The military and its entrepreneurial offshoot, known by its Spanish-language acronym of GAESA, control as much as 80% of the Cuban economy, including vital sectors such as hotels and tourism, mining and state stores.

The head of GAESA is Raúl Castro’s former son-in-law, Colonel Luis Alberto Rodríguez López-Calleja; though divorced from Castro’s daughter, he and Raúl are still reportedly close.

The shuffling of personnel extended to the eve of the party congress. Two high-ranking ministers were replaced: The head of the armed forces and the chief of the island’s agricultural agency. Authorities also announced several economic reforms, including one that would allow Cuban ranchers to sell beef after meeting state quotas, something that has not been permitted since the early years of the revolution.

The party is under increasing pressure to come up with solutions to improve life on the island as Cubans grow frustrated of waiting in hours-long lines for increasingly scarce goods. But few expect a major shakeup even with a transfer of leadership.

“They may address the crisis, they probably will recognize some of the issues, but the congress is not a space for discussion,” said Pedro Freyre, a Cuban American attorney with Akerman LLP who advises companies doing business in the island. “Don’t expect any significant debate.”

The gathering comes as Cuba grapples with a deepening economic crisis, spurred in part by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has paralyzed tourism, as well as Trump administration sanctions. A painful currency reform earlier this year has fueled inflation, leading some prices to rise as much as 500%. Meanwhile, more Cubans have access to social media, where complaints are rife and an emerging civil society is sharing its message and demanding reform.

Diáz-Canel — who was born after the 1959 revolution — is a regular on YouTube and Twitter, an attempt to connect with the island’s younger and increasingly connected population. He is a longtime government technocrat who rose through the ranks of the Communist Party. Since becoming president in 2018, he has hewed closed to the country’s one-party system while also trying to usher through some modest but slow economic reforms.

In the only interview he has given yet to the international media, he told Spanish-language network Telesur that one of his government’s priorities is to improve communication with young people, calling social media full of “perverse” content that can hurt the revolution.

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“It’s necessary now to flood social media with our own content, with content that elevates our country,” he said in 2018. “It’s necessary for the revolution. That’s what Fidel did with young people, he would go to them and connect directly with them.”

Andy Gomez, a Cuba scholar and former senior fellow at the University of Miami’s Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies, said the leadership replacements leading up to the congress were potentially part of a generational change not just within the party but the military as well.

“The Cuban regime’s main concern is protecting political control,” he said. “They are doing this because they have prepared those who will be taking control.”

Delegates started to arrive from all over the island to take part in Cuba’s Communist Party Congress scheduled for April 16-19
Delegates started to arrive from all over the island to take part in Cuba’s Communist Party Congress scheduled for April 16-19

Though a detailed agenda has not been released, the event’s convocation highlights topics like the pandemic’s impact on the economy and the need to increase food production. It also mentions the need for closer ties between the state and private sector, stating that Cuba’s industry must “increasingly respond to domestic demand.”

Communist Party newspaper Granma said that for almost a year, a commission of party representatives, grassroots organizations, academics and researchers has worked to prepare documents that will be reviewed by the delegates during the congress.

Delegates will evaluate the over 300 economic proposals ushered through in the 2011 congress in what was considered the most significant reforms in decades, among other topics.

Images in state media showed delegates arriving in Havana Wednesday night, wearing masks and red T-shirts as they entered a hotel in the conference complex. Official reports said that COVID-19 public health guidelines such as temperature checks were being implemented.

Civil society activists call for open debate

Meanwhile, members of the island’s nascent civil society were calling on Cuba’s leaders to open the debate on the island’s future to a more diverse range of voices. Using the hashtags #LuzdeAlarma (Alarm Light) and #PCCnoesCuba (Communist Party Congress isn’t Cuba), protesters called on Cubans to turn on the flash on their mobile phone cameras, take a picture of themselves and post it online as a rejection of the party’s continuity slogan.

“It’s undeniable that Cubans want change, but the regime continues to repress and deny citizen participation,” activist Rosa Maria Payá posted on Twitter. “The Communist Party Congress can’t decide the future of the nation because Cuba belongs to everybody.”

Friday’s official announcement of Raúl Castro’s retirement is tempered by the terrible shape of the economy, experts say.

“At this point, Raúl stepping down is besides the point,” said Richard Feinberg, a Cuba expert at the University of California San Diego’s School of Global Policy and Strategy. “The problems run much deeper. There is a significant wing of the Communist Party that is not enthusiastic about major reforms, either because they’re too risky or because they’re opposed to them ideologically.”

He said it will be important to watch whether Raúl Castro and old hardliners “will be replaced not by faceless bureaucrats but by a new young vigorous team capable of making the sharp breaks necessary” to pull the country back from economic disaster.

He said Raúl Castro’s comment Friday about “limits” on reforms that could otherwise destroy socialism underscore the party’s lackadaisical approach to economic reform.

“Raúl has been ambivalent from the get-go. It reflects a wider ambivalence within the party,” Feinberg said. “You also have to recognize that most of the party has minimal understanding of economics. I don’t see a wide understanding of what market socialism is and how to get from here to there.”

Miami Herald staff writer David Ovalle and McClatchy White House correspondent Michael Wilner contributed to this report.