MEXICO CITY – Raúl Castro announced on Friday that he was handing over the leadership of the ruling Cuban Communist Party to a younger generation “full of passion and anti-imperialist spirit”, leaving the island nation for the first time without Castro in a leadership role over 60 years.
Mr Castro, who will turn 90 in June, reiterated his long-awaited intention to step down in a speech opening the Communist Party Congress on Friday. He is expected to officially resign and announce his replacement before the conference ends on Monday.
After two terms as President of Cuba, Mr. Castro resigned from this office in 2018 and was replaced by his hand-picked successor, Miguel Díaz-Canel Bermúdez.
The Cuban leadership is likely to announce further reforms during the party congress that will allow for more free market activity and further divert the country’s economy from the strict, state model introduced after the revolution that brought Mr Castro and his brother Fidel to power in 1959.
The Communist Party has no choice but to reform itself or to face growing discontent as Cuba faces its worst economic crisis since the 1990s following the fall of the Soviet Union. By introducing a new, younger political class, Mr Castro hopes to put the country on track to fully and fully embrace the economic reforms he has put in place in the years since the death of his brother Fidel – the leader of the revolution – five years ago to be fully accepted and implemented.
Mr Castro is seen as more pragmatic than Fidel, who is more willing to turn Cuba away from the communist model his brother advocated, which has brought the country great development successes, including high literacy rates and quality health care for all Cubans but leaving it has the economy in ruins.
“Of course, Raúl will continue to have influence, as Deng Xiaoping did when he resigned,” said Carlos Alzugaray, a party insider and former diplomat in the Cuban government, referring to the Chinese revolutionary leader who took over and implemented China after Mao Zedong a time of far-reaching market reforms.
Mr Alzugaray added that Mr Castro could deliberate on fundamental issues such as relations with the United States and major economic issues from his retirement. But he is unlikely to get involved in everyday life in Cuba.
“It won’t be a clean affair, it’s not how the system works in Cuba,” said Alzugaray. “It’s not like the US where the former presidents have no influence if they step down.”
In 2016, Mr Castro announced that he would leave his post as General Secretary of the Communist Party during this year’s party congress in order to hand over power to a younger generation. The Secretary General is the most powerful position in Cuba, more powerful than the Presidency, and is considered the second highest position.
Mr Díaz-Canel is likely to be elected as the Communist Party’s new general secretary over the weekend to consolidate his leadership over Cuba. The two roles are often filled by the same person, with Fidel holding both positions for about 30 years.
It is expected that younger members will be elected to the 17-member Politburo before the end of the party congress in order to exonerate the bodies of the armed revolution veterans, referred to by the Cubans as the “historical generation”.
Cuba has been ruled by an aging political class for decades, many of whom sparked the revolution in the 1950s and are seen as resistant to the reforms Mr Castro sought to impose.
Maria Abi-Habib reported from Mexico City. Ed Agustin was from Havana, Cuba.