Raul Castro said he is resigning as head of Cuba’s Communist Party, ending an era of formal leadership by he and his brother Fidel Castro that began with the 1959 revolution.
The 89-year-old made the announcement in a speech at the opening of the Eighth congress of the ruling party, the only one allowed on the island.
He said he was retiring with the sense of having “fulfilled his mission and confident in the future of the fatherland”.
Mr Castro did not say who he would endorse as his successor as first secretary of the Communist Party. But he previously indicated that he favors 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 an economic opening without touching Cuba’s one-party system.
His retirement means that for the first time in more than six decades Cubans will not 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 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 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.