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Raul Castro: change with continuity

As the first secretary of the Cuban Communist Party steps down, BERNARD REGAN assesses whether he has achieved his task of modernising the celebrated socialist nation

ON SUNDAY April 18 2021 Raul Castro Ruz stepped down as first secretary of the Cuban Communist Party.

When he became the president of the republic of Cuba in 2008 he announced that he would be a candidate of transition from the “historic generation” that made the revolution to a new generation. He has kept that promise.

Now in his 90th year, he became politically active as a teenager, participating in student demonstrations in Havana against the military dictator Fulgencio Batista who staged a coup with the backing of the US in 1952.

Batista gave the Mafia licence to run gambling casinos and prostitution on the island. He was responsible for the deaths of thousands of opponents, including trade unionists, socialists and communists. Some suggest as many as 20,000 people were killed.

At the age of 22 Raul took part in the 1953 raid on the Moncada barracks, a military base for Batista’s armed forces. Although the attack on the barracks was unsuccessful, it marked a major turning point in the struggle against the dictator.

Raul served 22 months of the 13-year sentence he received before being released through an amnesty. He then left the island for Mexico where he met Che Guevara and was joined by his older brother Fidel.

They formed the nucleus of the 82-strong group which set out for Cuba in the yacht Granma in December 1956. Only a dozen survived an ambush by Batista’s forces and regrouped in the Sierra Maestra.

As part of the revolutionary army he established a force which formed a key wing of the liberation struggle the Frank Pais Eastern Front which was noted for the establishment of social programmes, hospitals, schools and even manufacturing plants to address the concerns of the people in the liberated zones.

Following the long illness of Fidel and on the basis of the constitution Raul became president of Cuba in 2008. When he was re-elected in 2013 he declared that it would be for one term only.

He encouraged the moves towards the transition of leadership from the heroic generation which had carried out the revolution to a new generation.

In this, as in his contributions to debates on the economy and on the wider political field, he was in favour of change with continuity: preserving the principles of the revolution and the socialist goals that it embodied but looking to meet the challenges that the country faced.

During his presidency he made clear that the government was not anti-US — it was anti-imperialist and against the punitive measures enacted by successive administrations against Cuba.

He encouraged dialogue with the administration of president Barack Obama insisting it be conducted on the basis of mutual respect.

In the course of those discussions the Cuban side made it clear that respect for Cuban sovereignty meant the complete abolition of the blockade and included the complete and unconditional withdrawal of the US from their Guantanamo base.

In 2014 Obama finally released the last three of the Cuban Five, heroes who had been unjustly imprisoned by the US on false charges when they had in fact being acting to stop terrorism taking place against Cuba from US soil.

Embassies were opened in Havana and Washington and Obama visited Cuba in 2016 to hold historic talks with Raul and the Cuban government.

Undoubtedly in Raul’s term of office, the last few years, have seen the economic situation oscillating wildly — from the Obama period that moved to restore diplomatic, though not “normal” relations, to the harsh realities of Donald Trump, who introduced no less than 240 new measures, tightening the blockade of Cuba.

President Biden has made no move to jettison Trump’s vindictive measures which intensified the blockade, in particular targeting the Cuban economy’s financial areas that are critical to trade.

This unrelenting offensive has coincided with the colossal challenge of Covid-19 robbing Cuba of revenues through the closure of the tourism industry.

This combination has hit Cuba with an 11 per cent decrease in its GDP, constituting the most difficult period since the “special period” of the 1990s following the ending of trade relations with the former USSR.

Cuba has also embarked on a major overhaul of its currency system, moving to re-establish a single currency to end the division between the Cuban peso (CUP) or “moneda nacional” and the Convertible peso (CUC) which was used by tourists.

This has been an extremely complex task, but one that Cuba has been carrying out while ensuring that people’s well-being and living standards are not jeopardised.

In March 1999 Raul opened the Latin American School of Medicine which has seen thousands of graduates from all over the world including the US train as doctors and medical professionals.

During his term of office Cuba has continued to do pioneering work in the medical field with the production of a range of vaccines to counter Covid-19 and vaccinate the whole population.

In the realm of medicine, other feats are well known, like the exemplary and selfless actions of the Henry Reeve Medical Brigades which has recently seen thousands of Cuban medical professionals going to 40 countries across the globe to help in the fight against the pandemic.

While some in the mainstream media in Britain and elsewhere have viewed the increase in the areas of self-employment from 127 jobs to 2,000 as a sign that the Cuban government is moving towards capitalism, Raul made clear that Cuba would ensure the continuity of socialism on the island by maintaining overall control of large companies and key areas of the state, as well as foreign trade. What he urged was a need to change “old bad habits” for a more innovative and more efficient approach to production.

The theme of Raul’s presidency might be defined as promoting the need for change within the socialist framework of continuity.

As promised, he stood down as president in 2019 to be succeeded by Miguel Diaz Canel — now he has stood down as first secretary of the Communist Party of Cuba.

As Gerardo Hernandez, one of the Cuban Five, said in a recent interview — “For us he is a light, his resolve, his sense of direction serves us as a guide.”

Bernard Regan is national director of the Cuba Solidarity Campaign.

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