Cuba marked the end of an era Monday with the transfer of power from the Castro clan, in charge for six decades, to the communist country’s first-ever civilian leader in Miguel Diaz-Canel.
The transition, while hugely symbolic, is unlikely to result in dramatic policy shifts in the one-party system Diaz-Canel, 60, has vowed to safeguard.
“The most revolutionary thing within the Revolution is to always defend the party, in the same way that the party should be the greatest defender of the Revolution,” he said on Monday.
Already Cuba’s president since 2018, Diaz-Canel has now also taken the all-powerful position of first secretary of the Communist Party of Cuba (PCC) as Raul Castro, 89, entered retirement.
The pre-determined power transfer at a four-day PCC congress in Havana, marks a watershed for the country of 11.2 million people, many of whom have known no leader other than a Castro.
Fidel Castro, still revered as the country’s father and savior, led the country from 1959 to 2006, when he fell ill and his brother Raul took over. Fidel Castro died in 2016.
Diaz-Canel was born after the revolution led by the Castro siblings in the 1950s, leading in 1959 to the overthrow of dictator Fulgencio Batista.
The PCC congress was held 60 years after Fidel Castro declared Cuba a socialist state, setting up decades of conflict with the United States, which has had sanctions against the country since 1962.
It also marked six decades since the failed Bay of Pigs invasion by anti-revolutionary Cuban exiles, backed by the CIA.
– The more things change –
Diaz-Canel, a suit-and-tie wearing, tech-savvy Beatles fan, while in some ways more modern than the Castros with their love for military uniforms, is a staunch party disciple.
And a new constitution passed in May 2019 made it clear that the country’s commitment to socialism was “irrevocable.”
In his final address to the party last Friday, Castro affirmed a “willingness to conduct a respectful dialogue and build a new kind of relationship with the United States.”
But he stressed the country would not renounce “the principles of the revolution and socialism” as he urged the new generation to “zealously protect” the one-party dogma.
“There are limits that cannot be crossed,” warned Castro.
The leadership change comes as Cuba battles its worst economic crisis in 30 years, sky-high inflation, biting food shortages, long lines for basic necessities and growing disgruntlement over limited freedoms.
Cuba, one of just five communist countries along with China, Vietnam, Laos and North Korea, faces constant shortages and imports 80 percent of what it consumes for lack of sufficient local production.
“Since I was born, I have only known one party,” said Miguel Gainza, a 58-year-old in Havana.
“And no one dies of hunger, it’s true,” he adds. But today, “we are a little stuck, and it’s a shame that Fidel is dead because he solved all our problems”.
– Internet driving change –
The internet, which arrived on mobile phones on the island in 2018, has been an engine of social change, even used to organize protest, previously unheard of in the country.
Young Cubans, many of whom go overseas each year for lack of opportunities at home, are increasingly venting their frustrations on social media.
In response, the PCC adopted a congress resolution to confront online political and ideological “subversion”.
Even as the congress was underway, a group of activists, independent journalists and artists claimed police were preventing them from leaving their homes in a bid to stop them from gathering.
The group, which goes under the name the San Isidro Movement and organized free-speech protest last year, also claimed its members’ home internet had been disconnected.
Party delegates voted Sunday for a new 114-member central committee, which in turn chose the 14 members of the PCC politbureau — at the cusp of power in Cuba.
The politbureau, with Diaz-Canel at the head, has an average age of 61.6 and includes three women. Five of the 14 are newcomers.
Party number two Jose Ramon Machado Ventura, 90, retired along with Castro.
Ties with the United States, after a historic but temporary easing of tensions under president Barack Obama between 2014 and 2016, worsened under Donald Trump, who reinforced sanctions.
White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Friday the United States was not planning any immediate change in its policy toward Cuba.
“Support for democracy and human rights will be at the core of our efforts,” she said.