Raul Castro retires as Communist Party leader, leaving the island without a Castro guiding affairs for the first time in more than six decades, and handing control of the party to first civilian leader, Miguel Diaz-Canel.

Raul Castro, (R), raises the hand of Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel after Diaz-Canel was elected First Secretary of the Communist Party in Havana, Cuba, on April 19, 2021.
Raul Castro, (R), raises the hand of Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel after Diaz-Canel was elected First Secretary of the Communist Party in Havana, Cuba, on April 19, 2021. (AP)

Cuba has marked the end of an era 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.

Mantle passes to younger generation 

The succession marks the end of six decades of rule by brothers Fidel and Raul Castro, who led a 1959 revolution in the Caribbean island nation of 11 million, installing a Communist-run country on the doorstep of the United States.

The mantle now passes, in a carefully orchestrated transition, to a younger generation that worked its way up the party ranks rather than forging itself through guerrilla warfare.

Diaz-Canel, who was party chief in two provinces before joining the national government in 2009, had already succeeded Castro, as president in 2018, and been widely tipped to also take the role of first party secretary - the most powerful position in the country.

His election came as part of a broader reshuffle of the party's political bureau at a four-day congress held largely behind closed doors under the banner of "Unity and Continuity".

"Comrade Raul ... will be consulted on the most important strategic decisions of greatest weight for the destiny of our nation. He will always be present," Diaz-Canel told hundreds of delegates in his first speech as party chief, his dark suit and red tie contrasting with Castro's military fatigues.

The reshuffle of the political bureau, the party's highest decision-making body in between sessions of the broader central committee, includes the appointment of Brigadier-General Luis Alberto Rodriguez Lopez-Calleja, head of the armed forces' enterprises which control swathes of the economy.

The United States placed Lopez-Calleja, once married to Raul Castro's daughter Deborah, under sanctions late last year.

Some Havana residents applauded the generational handover saying Diaz-Canel was more in tune with the times. Others were sceptical it would make much of a difference.

"The only thing that will happen is the Castros will go, but things will continue the same," said nurse Melanie Miranda, 22.

READ MORE: Castro says he is retiring but will keep defending Cuba's 1959 revolution

Challenges facing Diaz-Canel 

Diaz-Canel has emphasised continuity since becoming president and is not expected to move Cuba away from its one-party socialist system, although he will be under pressure to undertake economic reforms.

New US sanctions and the pandemic have exacerbated the woes of Cuba's already ailing centrally planned economy, with widespread shortages of even basic goods spawning multi-hour lines outside stores across the country.

Diaz-Canel said on Monday the economy had shown itself to be durable. Cuba had preserved social achievements - like universal healthcare and education - while showing solidarity with other countries during the pandemic, sending them doctors, he said.

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He also sent a warning shot to opposition activists, in the wake of a growing movement of dissident artists and journalists who have been staging provocative performances or small protests.

Dissent has been strengthened by the rollout of the internet, giving Cubans more platforms to express their frustrations in a country where public spaces are tightly controlled.

Cuba calls the dissident artists part of a new onslaught of US-backed soft coup attempts. They have denounced state security preventing them leaving their homes or cutting their internet and telephone lines during the congress to silence their voices.

"Those lumpen mercenaries who make money on the back of the destiny of all, those who call for invasion, those who continuously offend in words and acts ... would be well advised that this people's patience has limits," he said.

New Politburo 

Castro said at the 2016 congress that it would be the last presided over by the so-called historic generation of those who fought in the Sierra Maestra to overthrow US-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista.

The new policy-setting Political Bureau will not include Jose Ramon Machado Ventura, 90, and Ramiro Valdes, 88, two other famous members of that generation.

The party did not replace Machado Ventura, a hardline communist ideologue, as deputy party leader. Valdes will remain a deputy prime minister.

The only person from the historic generation to remain on the 14-member bureau is Defense Minister Álvaro López Miera, 77, who fought in the revolution as an adolescent.

Cuban podcaster Camilo Condis criticised the committee for not representing the diversity of Cuba's increasingly heterogeneous society.

"There are no artists, who have had so much prominence in Cuban politics in recent months, and no self-employed Cubans who now represent more than 10% of the workforce and have few spaces to be listened to," he said.

Cuba expert William LeoGrande, a professor of government at American University, said the biggest challenge facing Cuba's new leaders now was economic.

"If the government and the party cannot get the economy growing, they will face real political peril," he said.

READ MORE: US imposes sanctions on Cuban defence minister over support for Maduro

Source: Reuters