HAVANA: Cuba marked the end of an era on Monday with the transfer of power from the Castro clan, in charge for six decades, to the communist country’s first-ever civilian leader, Miguel Diaz-Canel.

As Raul Castro, 89, enters retirement, he handed the all-powerful position of first secretary of the Communist Party of Cuba to Diaz-Canel, 60, already Cuba’s president since 2018. “April 19, an historic day,” tweeted the new leader, lauding the all-powerful PCC’s “founding and guiding” generation for handing over the reins.

Diaz-Canel’s election at a party congress, though pre-determined, marks a watershed for the country of 11.2 million people, many of whom have known no leader other than a Castro.

Fidel Castro, still revered as the country’s father and savior, led the country from 1959 to 2006, when he fell ill and his brother Raul took over. Fidel Castro died in 2016.

Diaz-Canel and some other members of the new PCC executive were born after the revolution led by the Castro siblings in the 1950s, leading in 1959 to the overthrow of dictator Fulgencio Batista.

The PCC congress was held 60 years after Fidel Castro declared Cuba a socialist state, setting up decades of conflict with the United States, which has had sanctions against the country since 1962.

It also marked six decades since the failed Bay of Pigs invasion by anti-revolutionary Cuban exiles, backed by the CIA. The change at the top is not expected to yield any major policy shifts. Diaz-Canel, a suit-and-tie wearing, tech-savvy Beatles fan, remains a staunch party disciple.

And a new constitution passed in May 2019 made it clear that the country’s commitment to socialism was “irrevocable.” In his final address to the party last Friday, Castro affirmed a “willingness to conduct a respectful dialogue and build a new kind of relationship with the United States.” But he stressed the country would not renounced “the principles of the revolution and socialism” as he urged the new generation to “zealously protect” the one-party dogma.

“There are limits that cannot be crossed,” warned Castro, who wore a military uniform.

The leadership change comes as Cuba battles its worst economic crisis in 30 years, sky-high inflation, biting food shortages, long lines for basic necessities and growing disgruntlement over limited freedoms.

Cuba, one of just five communist countries along with China, Vietnam, Laos and North Korea, faces constant shortages and imports 80 percent of what it consumes for lack of sufficient local production.

Published in Dawn, April 20th, 2021

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