At the opening session, on April 16th, 2020, Raúl Castro, the younger brother of the late Cuban jefe máximo, Fidel Castro, confirmed his plans, as he had promised he would, to step down as the First Secretary of the Communist Party. This was the last senior post he held, since he vacated the Presidency, in 2018, to make way for his handpicked Party loyalist, Miguel Díaz-Canel, who now also succeeds him as First Secretary. Raúl, who will turn ninety in June, has held the position for ten years, just as he held the Presidency for two five-year terms, after succeeding his ailing brother, in 2008. (Raúl had, in fact, served as Cuba’s de-facto leader for the previous two years, after Fidel nearly died from a bout of diverticulitis.)
Fidel had been Cuba’s undisputed strongman since January, 1959, when the Castros, their Argentine friend Ernesto (Che) Guevara, and several hundred guerrilla comrades overthrew the regime of a gangsterish dictator, Fulgencio Batista, and seized power. For most of the subsequent decades, Raúl served as his brother’s defense minister, and remained in the shadows. Now, he returns to them. It is believed that Raúl intends to retire to Santiago, Cuba’s second city, which is at the opposite end of the seven-hundred-and-forty-mile-long island from Havana, and near where he and Fidel grew up. He has already prepared his final resting place, a mausoleum alongside his former guerrilla comrades in the Sierra Maestra, at the site of their old base camp. (Fidel’s ashes are interred in a Santiago cemetery, next to the mausoleum of the nineteenth-century independence hero José Martí.)
Ushered in by Fidel’s defiant proclamation of “the socialist nature of the Cuban Revolution” exactly sixty years ago, just as the C.I.A.-backed Bay of Pigs invasion got underway, Cuba’s radical transformation made the country a dynamic player in the Cold War. Cuba sponsored covert guerrilla missions to dozens of countries in Latin America and Africa, and dispatched troops to fight in wars in Angola, Mozambique, Ethiopia, and elsewhere. For the past thirty years, however, since the implosion of the Soviet Union and the disappearance of most of the world’s other Communist states, the narrative has changed, and Cuba’s story has been mostly one of pluck and survival, while the rest of the world has changed around it, not necessarily for the better.
That, at least officially, is how the Communist Party wants Cuba to be seen today. The slogan of the congress at which Raúl bade farewell was Somos continuidad—We are continuity. And indeed, there is much that is unchanging in Cuba. It remains a single-party socialist state that exists in eternal counter-position to the United States, the capitalist superpower—or “the Empire,” as it is known to Cuba’s Communists—just ninety miles away, across the mouth of the Gulf of Mexico. In his speech, while lambasting the United States for its long-standing trade embargo, which Donald Trump extended with more than two hundred measures, Raúl called for “a respectful dialogue to build a new relationship with the United States, but without renouncing the principles of the Revolution, or of socialism.”
The formal end of the Castro era has elicited polarized reactions among Cubans, with Party loyalists expressing unquestioning faith in the system, and disbelievers signalling cynicism about the future. Requesting anonymity for fear of official retaliation, a Cuban friend told me that the revolutionary government is “just a big theatre piece that made its début sixty years ago and continues today. They’re not going to change anything and will do whatever they want as long as they can maintain control of things. There’s a lot of need on the street, and discontent too, but people won’t be able to do anything about it, because, if they try, they’ll just send in more police to keep a lid on things.”
The “discontent” he referred to is the San Isidro Movement, a loose alliance of dissident rappers, artists, journalists, and academics who, assisted in recent years by access to the Internet, have become increasingly active, staging protests in public and on social media. Last November, after one of them was arrested, the movement organized a sit-in and hunger strike in Havana, which was broken up by the police after ten days, and was followed by an unprecedented street protest of hundreds of people outside the ministry of culture. Both actions garnered widespread media attention, and the government has responded with police harassment of activists, occasional arrests, and a vituperous trolling campaign by commentators on state media.
When I asked Carla Gloria Colomé, a thirty-year-old independent journalist, whether she felt that the San Isidro Movement was the seed of a new restlessness, she said, “When its activists carried out their hunger strike, many of us observers thought that their headquarters had been turned into a free and democratic experiment—democratic space. I believe it has given back to us something we Cubans had lost: our civicism. We had forgotten that we had the right to protest and had the right to demand freedoms. If Díaz-Canel’s slogan is Somos continuidad, the movement’s is Estamos conectados: We are connected. It has also allowed us to imagine another thing we had forgotten—that we have a country and that it is possible to recover it.”
Another friend, the novelist Wendy Guerra, expressed blunt skepticism about the significance of Castro’s departure from power. In a Whatsapp message, she wrote, “I don’t think Raúl has really packed his bags. After living in Cuba for forty-nine years, this narrative seems familiar to me, one in which there is always an attic, a second floor, or a basement, where the government decisions are concealed. Raúl is like the abusive husband who has nowhere else to go, nor wants to go. He has separated but hasn’t left home.”
Indeed, at the end of the Party congress, Díaz-Canel promised to “consult with Raúl Castro on strategic decisions about the future of the nation.” The lack of clear signposts to Cuba’s future intrigues Ada Ferrer, a Cuban-American scholar at New York University who is the author of a forthcoming book, “Cuba: An American History,” and a Personal History, “My Brother’s Keeper,” which recently appeared in The New Yorker. “There’s no script for a post-Castro Cuba. Maybe it will end up being anticlimactic, as was Fidel Castro’s departure from power—his death. That seems to be the point of the Somos continuidad, right? But it feels less like a motto than a prayer sometimes. I think the leaders realize that, whatever continuity they seek, in terms of retaining power, everyone is seeking, needing some change.”
What other changes are in the offing? Not many, at least on the surface. At the Party congress, it was announced that, in addition to Raúl Castro, three other members of the seventeen-person Politburo, the governing council of the Communist Party, were leaving—including two other veterans of the Revolution who had fought in the Sierra, José Ramón Machado Ventura, who is ninety, and Ramiro Valdés, who is eighty-eight—and five new members were sworn in. Among them is Luís Alberto Rodríguez López-Calleja, a sixty-year-old general who was once married to Raúl’s daughter, Deborah, and who in recent years has been the influential boss of the anodynely named Grupo de Administración Empresarial S.A., or gaesa, a conglomerate that oversees the island’s many military-owned businesses, which include tourist resorts, hotels, supermarket chains and retail stores, financial-services institutions, gas stations, shipping and construction companies, and ports. Lopez-Calleja’s addition to the Politburo sends an important message that the Communist Party and the military will remain the ultimate stewards of economic affairs, even if, as Díaz-Canel recently promised, there is to be an increase in private-sector opportunities.