In a speech at the opening of the 8th Congress of the ruling party, Raul Castro said he was retiring with the sense of having “fulfilled his mission and confident in the future of the fatherland.”
Raul Castro has confirmed he was handing over the leadership of the all-powerful Cuban Communist Party to a younger generation at its congress, ending six decades of rule by himself and older brother Fidel.
In a speech opening the four-day event, Castro, 89, said on Friday the new leadership were party loyalists with decades of experience working their way up the ranks and were "full of passion and anti-imperialist spirit."
Castro had said at the last party congress in 2016 it would be the last one led by the "historic generation" who fought in the Sierra Maestra to topple a US-backed dictator in a 1959 leftist revolution. He already handed over the presidency to protege Miguel Diaz-Canel, 60, in 2018.
The Congress is the party's most important meeting, held every five years to review policy and fix leadership.
"I believe fervently in the strength and exemplary nature and comprehension of my compatriots, and as long as I live I will be ready with my foot in the stirrups to defend the fatherland, the revolution and socialism," Castro told hundreds of party delegates gathered at a convention centre in Havana.
The congress is a closed-door event but excerpts are being broadcast on state television.
Castro hailed Diaz-Canel as one of the new generation of leaders, praising the "good results" he had achieved in his three years in office.
Castro's olive green military fatigues contrasted with the civil get-up of his protege who is widely expected to succeed him as party first secretary, the most powerful position in Cuba's one-party system.
Worst economic crisis
Cuba's new leaders face the worst economic crisis since the collapse of former benefactor the Soviet Union, and there are signs of growing frustration, especially among younger Cubans.
A tightening of the decades-old US trade embargo and the coronavirus pandemic have exacerbated a liquidity crisis in the ailing centrally planned economy, which was already struggling following a decline in Venezuelan aid.
That has led to shortages of even basic goods, with many Cubans spending hours lining up to buy groceries.
Castro denounced renewed US hostility under former President Donald Trump, who unraveled a detente he had forged with former President Barack Obama.
US President Joe Biden, who took office in January, has vowed to roll back some of Trump's sanctions, although the White House said on Friday a shift in Cuba policy was not among his top foreign policy priorities.
Castro said Cuba was ready for a new relationship.
"I ratify from this party congress the will to develop a respectful dialogue and edify a new type of relationship with the United States without, in order to achieve it, Cuba having to renounce the principles of the revolution and socialism," he said.
His retirement means that for the first time in more than six decades Cubans won't have a Castro formally guiding their affairs, and it comes at a difficult time, with many on the island anxious about what lies ahead.
The coronavirus pandemic, painful financial reforms and restrictions imposed by the Trump administration have battered the economy, which shrank 11% last year as a result of a collapse in tourism and remittances.
Long food lines and shortages have brought back echoes of the “special period” that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s.
Discontent has been fuelled by the spread of the internet and growing inequality.
Much of the debate inside Cuba is focused on the pace of reform, with many complaining that the so-called “historic generation” represented by Castro has been too slow to open the economy.
In January, Diaz-Canel finally pulled the trigger on a plan approved two congresses ago to unify the island’s dual currency system, giving rise to fears of inflation.
He also threw the doors open to a broader range of private enterprise, a category long banned or tightly restricted, permitting Cubans to legally operate many sorts of self-run businesses from their homes.
This year’s congress is expected to focus on unfinished reforms to overhaul state-run enterprises, attract foreign investment and provide more legal protection to private business activities.
The Communist Party is made up of 700,000 activists and is tasked in Cuba's constitution with directing the affairs of the nation and society.
Fidel Castro, who led the revolution that drove dictator Fulgencio Batista from power in 1959, formally became head of the party in 1965, about four years after officially embracing socialism.
He quickly absorbed the old party under his control and was the country's unquestioned leader until falling ill in 2006 and in 2008 handing over the presidency to his younger brother Raul, who had fought alongside him during the revolution.
Raul succeeded him as head of the party in 2011. Fidel Castro died in 2016.
The PCC has said its congress, held 60 years after Fidel Castro officially declared Cuba's government a socialist one, would "review core issues of the political, economic and social life of the country."
There are some signs that Cuba's leadership will have little choice but to increasingly balance the interests of the old guard with a clamor for more rights and better quality of life from younger generations.
In February, it opened the bulk of its government-monopolised economy to entrepreneurs in the private sector.
There have also been small nods to social liberalisation.
In recent months, the government held its first-ever talks, though short-lived, with pro-free speech protesters, after authorising in 2019 Cuba's first non-political demonstration, by animal rights activists.
The arrival of the internet on mobile phones at the end of 2018 has made for a paradigm shift in Cuba, with never-before-seen access to information and new forums for expression and even limited protest.
In response, the PCC has said one of the functions of its congress would be "confronting political and ideological subversion, which has made the internet and social media its principal field of operations."
Castro told the congress he was retiring as "a simple revolutionary fighter.
"Let there be no doubt, as long as I live, I will be ready... to defend the homeland, revolution and socialism," he said to loud applause.