Raul Castro confirmed he was handing over the leadership of the all-powerful Cuban Communist Party to a younger generation that was “full of passion and anti-imperialist spirit” at its congress that kicked off on Friday.
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In a speech opening the four day closed door event, excerpts of which were broadcast on state television, Castro, 89, said he had the satisfaction of handing over the leadership to a group of party loyalists that had decades of experience working their way up the ranks.
“I believe fervently in the strength and exemplary nature and comprehension of my compatriots, and as long as I live I will be ready with my foot in the stirrups to defend the fatherland, the revolution and socialism,” Castro told hundreds of party delegates gathered at a convention center in Havana.
While the congress takes place behind closed doors, the party tweeted a video showing hundreds of delegates at a convention center in Havana greeting Castro with a standing ovation early on Friday.
Castro’s olive green military fatigues contrasted with the civil get-up of his protege, President Miguel Diaz-Canel, 60, who is widely expected to take over the party leadership.
The new generation of leaders, which did not forge itself through rebellion against a U.S.-backed dictatorship like the “historic generation,” will have no easy task.
The congress takes place as Cuba faces the worst economic crisis since the collapse of former benefactor the Soviet Union, and there are signs of growing frustration, especially among younger Cubans.
“My generation does not want to take the dull path of my parents’ generation,” said Havana resident Guillermo Estrada, 31, adding he had no idea what would arise from the congress as it was all so secretive.
“I wish for a better future without so many internal and external restrictions.”
New U.S. sanctions and the coronavirus pandemic have exacerbated a liquidity crisis in the ailing centrally planned economy, which was already struggling following a decline in Venezuelan aid.
That has led to shortages of even basic goods, with many Cubans spend hours lining up to buy groceries.
The dire situation has pushed the government to speed up the implementation of long-planned reforms, which have proven painful. A monetary overhaul this year sent inflation soaring four or fivefold, according to economists.
Havana has dollarized much of the economy, leaving those who do not receive remittances from family abroad or who did not earn hard currency from tourism struggling to get by. That has eaten away at equality, a pillar of the party’s legitimacy.
“The party congress is taking place in one of the most complex situations the revolution has had,” said Cuban economist Omar Everleny.
Social reforms Raul Castro took after inheriting the party leadership from his brother Fidel in 2008, in particular the expansion of internet on the island, have opened up society.
Cubans are increasingly expressing criticism on social media while online non-state media are challenging the state monopoly of mass media. Tight control of public spaces by the authorities means protests are still relatively rare and small-scale, but they are on the increase nationwide.
“You cannot only control with repression, you need prosperity and hope,” said Luis Manuel Otero Alcantara, 33, a dissident artist who has become one of the best known faces of an ‘artivist’ movement challenging the government, partly through performances.
Diaz-Canel, a party loyalist who already inherited the presidency from Raul Castro in 2018, has been careful to underscore the continuity of policy throughout the transition, dubbing this weekend’s party meeting the “congress of continuity.”
Yet he will have to prove himself, in particular in terms of improving the economy, to retain popular support, say analysts.
Cuba experts will carefully scrutinize other senior party appointments to assess whether Diaz-Canel will have backing to speed up the reforms – decentralization, autonomy for state companies, and reducing bureaucracy for private firms – demanded by economists.