While it may only be symbolic, it is hard to ignore the historic fact that this weekend Cuba is set to end 62 years of rule by the Castro brothers – first Fidel, and then for the last decade Raul.
The ruling Cuban Communist Party is opened a four-day Congress on Friday at which Raul Castro, 89, is due to step down as First Secretary of the party, the island’s most powerful position.
In a speech on Friday Castro told delegates that he had faith in the party's new leaders who had decades of experience and were "full of passion and anti-imperialist spirit".
The congress comes at a time of severe economic crisis, coupled with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and signs of growing popular dissent.
Exiting with Castro will also be the other last surviving members of the ‘historic generation’ who led the 1959 revolution that created a Communist-run state 90- miles of the U.S. coast. That includes José Ramon Machado Ventura, aged 90, the Second Secretary of the party and Vice President Ramiro Valdés, 88.
“There will be doing lots of lionizing and heralding the old figures,” said Brian Latell, the CIA’s former Cuba analyst, who now teaches at Florida International University in Miami.
The Congress, only the party’s eighth in six decades of ruling the island, appears to be downplaying the historical significance, while stressing “we are continuity” as its main theme.
The leadership of the party is expected to be placed in the trusted hands of Miguel Diaz-Canel, 60, who was already appointed the country’s president in 2018.
"Much ado about nothing"
“In some sense it’s much ado about nothing given that these affairs are mostly about defending the continuity of the policies that haven’t significantly changed,” said Ted Henken, a Cuba expert at Baruch College, part of the City University of New York (CUNY).
“The irony is that continuity is the buzzword celebrated by supposed revolutionaries who are meant to be all about change,” he added.
Raul Castro famously promised a decade ago he would modernize the island’s highly centralized, state-run economy into a more mixed and market-driven one. The island needed to change "without haste and without pause" he said.
Critics argue that since then there has been too little haste and too many pauses. Castro did institute some important reforms, including allowing limited small, private sector business activity, such as restaurants, bakeries and barber shops, as well as greater freedom to buy and sell private property, including homes and cars. But the state has retained control of agriculture and virtually all imports and exports.
After a short-lived opening up of the Cuban economy and improved relations with the United States under President Barack Obama, Cuba’s leaders retreated under a barrage of new sanctions by President Donald Trump.
The economic crisis has been exacerbated by a tightening of decades-old U.S. sanctions and the coronavirus pandemic which decimated the island’s tourism-based economy. Economic growth contracted 11% in 2020 and imports 40%, according to the government.
Cuba on registered its deadliest day during the covid-19 pandemic on Wednesday with 11 fatalities, taking its death toll to 487, the country's Ministry of Public Health announced.
Over the past 24 hours, the Caribbean nation reported 1,004 new Covid-19 cases, bringing the total number to 89,404.
To reform or not to reform
The congress is expected to revive the long-standing tussle between reformers and party traditionalists who fear that any loosing of economic control could result in a loss of political control. Some of Cuba’s leading economists say the country needs to take bolder reforms to reduce massive inefficiencies in the state-run economy, while allowing the private sector to operate more freely.
In theory, the end of the era of the Castro could open the door to ending the decades old US economic embargo against Cuba which is pegged to Cuba having a government that “does not include Fidel Castro or Raul Castro.”
The US embargo, which was codified into law in 1996, also requires that Cuba allow free and fair elections. But Cuba’s constitution stipulates that the Communist Party is the “the superior leading political force of society and the State.”
While some economic reforms may be discussed at the congress, it is clear there are no plans for political change. "It is not out of arrogance that we continue to bet on the Communist Party for the defense of the socialist project and national sovereignty," state pyschologist Karima Oliva Bello wrote in the island's official Communist Party newspaper, Granma, this week. "We are no less democratic for having only one party as those who have several are no more democratic," she added.
The Biden administration has also made it clear that it has no immediate plans to return to Obama’s policy of engagement with Cuba, at least while Havana maintains keeps jailing dissidents and maintain close ties with the outlaw Maduro regime in Venezuela.
Biden advisor for Latin America in the National Security Council, Juan González, told CNN that " Biden is not Barack Obama in Cuba policy". "The political moment has changed significantly, the political space has been very closed, because the Cuban government has not responded in any way", he added while denouncing the "oppression" of Cuban dissidents.
Considering all the other issues facing Biden, both domestic and international, he does not appear to have Cuba high on his list of priorities. Cuba was not even mentioned in April's 'Annual Threat Assessment,' a global analysis produced by U.S. intelligence agencies.
End of an era
Despite their advanced age, the so-called 'historicos’ of the revolution are unlikely to disappear altogether. “As long as they are alive they will have influence,” said Latell. He noted that Fidel Castro exercised considerable clout after falling ill and officially abandoning power in 2011, making his opinions very public in a series of ‘Reflections’ published in the communist newspaper, Granma.
Raul Castro, who turns 90 in June, is also the country most senior military officer, albeit now retired, and the only four-star general. But he has always played a more discreet role, than his fiery brother, shying away from public speeches. Since stepping down as president in 2018, he has also spoken openly of his desire to spend more time with his grandchildren and reading books.
Valdés fought alongside the Castro brothers at the famous attack on the Moncada barracks in 1953 and was a member of the party’s Politburo of the Communist Party of Cuba since October 1965. Machado Ventura was also one the original revolutionaries who fought the guerrilla war in the Sierra Maestra. He joined the Politiburo in 1975 and was considered a hardline ideologue within the party.
Perhaps as an insurance policy, one of Raul Castro’s closest advisors, General Álvaro López Miera, was named head of the Cuban Armed Forces on Thursday. López Miera, aged 77, has been by Castro’s side joining him in the Sierra Maestra as a 14-year-old in the 1950s.
"It's a sign of how intent they are to preserve the legacy of the historicos," said Latell.