Raul Castro said on Friday he is resigning as head of Cuba’s Communist Party, ending an era of formal leadership held by him and his brother Fidel Castro that began with the revolution in 1959.
The 89-year-old leader made the announcement in a speech at the opening of the eighth party congress.
He said he was retiring with the sense of having “fulfilled his mission and with confidence in the future of the fatherland".
Mr Castro didn’t say whom he would endorse as his successor as first secretary of the Communist Party. But he previously indicated that he favours yielding control to 60-year-old Miguel Diaz-Canel, who succeeded him as president in 2018 and is the standard bearer of a younger generation of loyalists who have been pushing for economic opening without challenging Cuba’s one-party system.
His retirement means that for the first time in more than six decades, Cubans won’t have a Castro formally guiding their affairs.
This 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 per cent 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 Mr Castro has been too slow to open the economy.
In January, Mr 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 private 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 according to Cuba’s constitution, it is in charge of 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 brought the party under his control and was the country’s unquestioned leader until falling ill in 2006.
In 2008, he handed the presidency to his younger brother Raul, who had fought alongside him during the revolution.
Raul Castro became head of the party in 2011. Fidel Castro died in 2016.