Sixty-two years after a band of revolutionaries set Cuba down the path of confrontation with Washington — and unleashed waves of exiles that reshaped American cities — the last of the Castro brothers, towering figures of the Cold War, is poised to surrender official power.
The anticipated exit of Raúl Castro, 89, has been a chronicle of a retirement foretold. Fidel Castro’s younger brother has hinted for a decade at an expiration date to his public life; he’s expected to step down as first secretary of the Communist Party when it meets this weekend in Havana.
Raúl Castro will be remembered as the prose to his brother’s poetry, a less showy, more grounded figure who pushed for a communist state that often appears stuck in time to adapt to modern reality. His departure, which would come four and half years after the death of Fidel, brings an end to an era that has seen the Cuban system survive — if not thrive — through decades of tense standoffs with U.S. presidents from John F. Kennedy to Donald Trump.
The more reform-minded of the brothers who overthrew the U.S.-backed dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista in 1959, Castro leaves having set in motion an important period of political and economic change — albeit one that never went far enough for most Cubans, and has failed to prevent the Caribbean island nation of 11 million from plunging into what is now its most brutal economic crisis since the fall of the Soviet Union.
Many watchers now expect other senior members of Cuba’s revolutionary old guard to offer their final bows at the party congress, an event held every five years.
“I think he’ll be considered as a more pragmatic figure than his brother, one who recognized that the deep flaws within the system needed to be addressed, particularly within the economy if not politically,” said Ricardo Herrero, executive director of the Cuba Study Group, a Cuban American body that promotes dialogue between Washington and Havana. “He perhaps did not have the drive to see many of reforms that he himself supported early on in his tenure all the way through.”
Castro began the transition of power three years ago when he relinquished the key title of president, a mantle he took over from his loquacious brother in 2011. It was bestowed on his handpicked successor, Miguel Díaz-Canel, a 60-year-old engineer who has sought to embody a new generation of Cuban leader, one who has traded the olive drab of the Castros for a causal white guayabera and who embraces social media.
At the time, Castro also committed to giving up the last pillar of his authority — the party post, a position viewed as more powerful than the president — this year. That’s expected to happen during the party congress, which runs from Friday through Monday.
In keeping with the opaque workings of the Cuban government, there’s been no official confirmation that he’ll step down this weekend, as he pledged in 2018, but expectations that he will are widespread — as is the belief that he’ll continue to wield enormous influence as the patriarch of the nation.
He is said to have been building a retirement compound in Santiago de Cuba, the island’s second city, while weekending in the mountains where he helped changed the course of history. The 1953 guerrilla attack on the Moncada Barracks in the southeastern city is widely regarded as the start of the movement that culminated in their triumphant seizure of power in 1959.
The revolution transformed Cuba from a Caribbean playground for wealthy Americans into a one-party police state synonymous with repression and anti-U. S. defiance, even as Havana achieved outsized global recognition in the fields of medicine and health care. Cuba’s flip to communism also changed U.S. communities, nowhere more than Miami, where well-off exiles would transform the city’s politics, economy and culture. In South Florida, they would turn Spanish, a language of poverty in New York and Los Angeles, into a lingua franca of power and wealth.
Castro in recent years has drifted from the public eye. When he has appeared, he has played the lion in winter, prepared to pass his crown.
“In practice, Raúl has been quite missing from the political sphere for the last year, and when he does appear, it is to sit with Díaz-Canel and be silent next to the leader,” said the political analyst Arturo Lopez-Levy, a former Cuban interior ministry official.
“He has said that the time has come for the historic generation of Cuban leaders to be replaced, and very clearly understands that the country needs younger leadership.”
During Castro’s tenure as Communist Party chief, Cuba introduced term limits for public officials, lifted travel restrictions for Cubans, and legalized the sale of real estate. In the past year alone, the island has reformed its outdated two-currency system and launched an extraordinary campaign to develop multiple promising coronavirus vaccine candidates.
Still, concern is growing over the nation’s worst economic emergency since the Special Period, when the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union sparked years of hunger and desperation.
This time, the economy has been ravaged by harsh new sanctions slapped on Havana by the Trump administration, reversing a thaw in relations under President Barack Obama, and the near-total loss of tourism during the pandemic. Food and fuel shortages have lengthened already long lines for scarce basic goods, feeding pent-up frustrations for change.
Cuba is witnessing its most serious bout of protests and hunger strikes in years, with the clamor for personal freedoms and government accountability growing as more Cubans gain access to the internet.
Some believe Castro’s departure could chip away at the sense of invulnerability of the communist state that he and his brother embodied. But in the short term, few believe his retirement will lead to major political change.
Castro said in 2018 that he wanted Díaz-Canel to succeed him as Communist Party chief; Díaz-Canel has voiced strong commitment to the one-party state, even tweeting under the hashtag #continunity.
“Castro’s retirement is going to be hard on the dictatorship,” said Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, a coordinator of the San Isidro Movement, a group of artists who have staged the most prominent free-speech protests on the islands in years.
Otero Alcántara spoke by phone from his home in Havana, where, he said, the Cuban police have posted guards outside his doors. In recent months, authorities have arrested or briefly detained dozens of its members.
“But this doesn’t mean there will be more freedom,” he continued. “We see it now, with our protests. When they feel vulnerable, the only thing they have left is the repressive system they inherited from Fidel Castro.”
The Cuban state has begun a charm offensive to boost the image of Díaz-Canel, who has yet to earn the level of public loyalty enjoyed by the Castros. On Wednesday, a state media outlet aimed at young adults published a lighthearted illustration titled “Six Things You Never Knew About Díaz-Canel” that included images of him as a Segway-riding tech nerd and doting grandfather.
“I don’t expect much change after Raúl, but I think many Cubans would feel relief if there was someone other than Díaz-Canel,” said electrical contractor Camilo Condis, one of a new class of private business owners on the island. “He has become a bad luck president for us. Since he arrived, we’ve only had troubles. Tornados. Hurricanes. Trump.”
After the brief warming in U.S.-Cuban relations under Obama, Trump reinstated barriers on flights and cruises and curbed remittances sent home by exiles. An expected return to detente under President Joe Biden has yet to be seen.
That could put pressure on Díaz-Canel to move faster on economic reforms than Castro ever did. There are fresh signs that might already be happening. In February, Cuba announced a vast expansion of the types of private businesses allowed on the island. This week, the government said it would permit ranchers to earn greater profits from meat production.
Yet even in retirement, experts say, Castro is likely to remain Cuba’s decider on the big questions.
“I think Díaz-Canel will have a lot of leeway,” said Carlos Alzugaray, a former Cuban diplomat based in Havana. “But Raúl will still be consulted on issues that are important — especially anything to do with the U.S.”
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The Washington Post’s Ana Vanessa Herrero in Caracas, Venezuela, contributed to this report.