Raul Castro to Stand Down as Head of Cuba’s Communist Party

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Cuba’s Communist Party Congress that kicked off Friday made it official: Raul Castro, late leader Fidel Castro’s brother, plans to step down as party chief, ending his family’s six-decade grip on the communist island.

Castro, 89, didn’t say who would be taking his place, but he’s likely to cede his position to Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel.

The hand-off comes as Cuba has seen its economy hammered by the pandemic and longstanding U.S. sanctions. Its primary financial backer, Venezuela, is also in the midst of an economic collapse, making it an unreliable ally.

Cuba’s economy shrank 11% in 2020. Economy Minister Alejandro Gil has forecast it will rebound 6% to 7% this year.

Diaz-Canel, who took office in 2018, has been pushing dramatic economic reforms since January, including ending a dual currency system. That move was seen as an economic necessity but has sapped purchasing power and decimated savings at a time when some basic goods are running scarce.

The reforms have also included wage and price hikes, and opening up more sectors of the economy to the entrepreneurial class -- loosening the state’s stranglehold on business.

The economic downturn, combined with the pandemic, have exposed the state’s weakness and helped fuel social unrest.

‘Anachronistic’

Cuba’s Communist Party is an “anachronism” compared to other communist countries, said John Kavulich, the president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, a New York-based think-tank.

Unlike Cuba, China and Vietnam “understand how to make a country functional with a Communist Party,” he said. “Neither country operates at a deficit. Neither country has issues paying its bills. Both countries have a robust private sector -- sometimes a bit too robust for their respective political landscapes, but robust, nonetheless.”

The congress meets every five years. During the last meeting, in 2016, Castro had said he planned to step down in 2021.

As he entered the meeting hall in Havana Friday he received a standing ovation before he gave the inaugural address, blasting the U.S. economic embargo and asking the nation to stay the socialist course.

“Let no one doubt that, while I live, I will have my feet in the stirrups ready to defend -- more than ever -- the country, the revolution and socialism,” Castro said.

The meeting runs through Monday, April 19, the 60th anniversary of the failed U.S. invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs.

U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican of Cuban descent, said a passing of the torch during the party’s congress means little.

“Raul Castro stepping down as head of the Communist Party in Cuba isn’t real change,” he wrote on Twitter earlier this week. “But real change is already underway nonetheless.”

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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