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Cuba gets new leader as last Castro officially retires

Leticia PINEDA
·4-min read

Cuba marked the end of an era Monday with the official transfer of power from the Castro clan, in charge for six decades, to the communist country's first civilian leader, Miguel Diaz-Canel.

The transition, while hugely symbolic, is unlikely to result in dramatic policy shifts in the one-party system that 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.

Diaz-Canel added the outgoing leader, 89-year-old Raul Castro, would still be consulted on "strategic decisions."

From retirement, Castro would give "direction and alert to any error or deficiency, ready to confront imperialism as he first did with his rifle," said the new leader.

Already Cuba's president since 2018, Diaz-Canel has now also taken the most senior position of first secretary of the Communist Party of Cuba (PCC).

The pre-determined power change at a four-day PCC congress in Havana, marks a watershed for the country of 11.2 million people, many of whom have not known a leader who was not 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 took over.

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.

- The more things change -

Diaz-Canel takes the reins 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 in the world, faces constant shortages and needs to import 80 percent of what it consumes.

"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 added. But today, "we are a little stuck, and it's a shame that Fidel is dead because he solved all our problems".

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. Analysts say there is unlikely to be any ideological shift.

A new constitution passed in May 2019 made it clear that the country's commitment to socialism was "irrevocable."

There have been small nods to liberalization in recent years, including the recent opening up of the economy to small businesses in hundreds of sectors previously under exclusive state control.

- 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 frustration 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 free speech activists claimed their internet had been cut and police were preventing them from leaving their homes to stop them from gathering.

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 its head, has an average age of 61.6 and includes three women. Five of the 14 are newcomers.

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.

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.

White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Friday the United States was not planning any immediate change in its policy toward Cuba, which would continue to focus on "support for democracy and human rights."

lp/mlr/jm