End of the Castro era: Diaz-Canel becomes Cuban Communist Party chief

Miguel Diaz-Canel, 60, was born after the revolution and already succeeded Raul Castro as Cuba's president in 2018. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

HAVANA (REUTERS) - Cuba's ruling Communist Party elected President Miguel Diaz-Canel to succeed Raul Castro as party first secretary, the most powerful position in the country, on the final day of its congress on Monday (April 19).

The succession marks the end of six decades of rule by brothers Fidel and Raul Castro, who led Cuba's leftist 1959 revolution. The mantle now passes to a younger generation that worked its way up the party ranks rather than forging itself through guerrilla warfare.

Diaz-Canel, 60, who was born after the revolution and already succeeded Castro as president in 2018, had been widely expected to also take the role of first party secretary.

Sporting a dark suit and red tie that contrasted with Castro's military fatigues, Diaz-Canel said at the party congress on Monday he would continue to consult his predecessor on strategic decisions.

"He will always be present, aware of everything going on, fighting energetically and sharing ideas and thoughts on the revolutionary cause through his advice, orientation and alerts in the face of any error or deficiency," he said in his first speech as party chief.

Diaz-Canel was party chief in two provinces before joining the national government as education minister in 2009, and then in 2013 became Castro's right-hand man.

He 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.

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 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.

"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

The congress is the party's most important meeting, held every five years to review policy and elect new leadership.

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 the US-backed government of 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 has not yet announced who will replace Machado Ventura, a communist ideologue, as deputy party leader. Valdes will remain a deputy prime minister.

The only person from the historic generation to remain on the bureau, reduced to 14 members from 17 previously, is Defense Minister Álvaro López Miera, 77, who fought in the revolution as an adolescent.

The party promoted Luis Alberto Rodriguez Lopez-Callejas, once married to Raul Castro's daughter Deborah and head of the armed forces' enterprises which control much of the economy, to the bureau.

Lopez-Callejas is the only person related to the Castro family in the political bureau or the broader party central committee.

"The biggest challenge facing Cuba's new leaders is economic," said Cuba expert William LeoGrande, a professor of government at American University. "If the government and the party cannot get the economy growing, they will face real political peril."

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