Raúl Castro stepped down from the role of First Secretary of the Communist Party of Cuba this week, with Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel set to replace him. Castro ended his speech at the 8th Party Congress to roars of applause by remarking that “as far as I am concerned, my work as First Secretary of the Communist Party of Cuba Central Committee comes to an end with the satisfaction of having fulfilled my duty and confidence in the future of the homeland, with the carefully considered conviction to not accept proposals to remain on higher bodies of the Party organization, in whose ranks I will continue to serve as one more revolutionary fighter, ready to make a modest contribution until the end of my life. Nothing obliges me to make this decision, but I strongly believe in the power and value of example and in the understanding of my compatriots. Let no one doubt, as long as I live, I will be ready, with a foot in the stirrup, to defend the homeland, the Revolution and socialism. With more strength than ever let us shout: Viva Cuba Libre! Long live Fidel! Homeland or Death! We will win!”
The ALBA intergovernmental alliance of socialist and social democratic Latin American states issued a communique that paid tribute to Castro by declaring that “We are convinced that he will continue to be a beacon, guiding our steps on the road to the construction of a more just and humane society.”
In his speech, Raúl also reiterated the central role of the Cuban Communist Party and attacked the way in which “The existence in Cuba of a single party has been, and will always be, at the centre of the enemy’s campaigns, determined to fragment and disunite Cubans with the siren song of sacrosanct bourgeois democracy, based on the ancient tactic of ‘divide and conquer.’”
Quoting a speech by Fidel in 1974, Raúl declared that “The Party is the vanguard of the people, the people’s security, the people’s guarantee. The vanguard organization is fundamental. Do you know what gives security to the Revolution? The Party. Do you know what gives permanence to the Revolution? Do you know what gives future to the Revolution, what gives life to the Revolution, what gives future to the Revolution? The Party. Without the Party the Revolution could not exist.”
Raúl had become increasingly influential in domestic politics after being elected as President of the Council of State and Ministers in 2008 and First Secretary of the Communist Party in 2011. In the 8th Congress, Raúl acknowledged that Cuba has had to grapple with the “very trying international economic situation” caused by covid-19 and the increasingly restrictive 60-year blockade enacted by the US. Because of the realities of Cuba’s international isolation in the post-Cold War era, Raúl has initiated cautious market reforms over the last decade. This has been necessitated by the need to open up the economy to entice the foreign investment necessary to stimulate development, whilst simultaneously working to balance this with the desire for socialist production and the maintenance of socialist consciousness. Raúl has previously stated that defending, preserving and continuing to improve socialism is his “principal mission and purpose in life,” and in the 8th Congress he reassured Cubans that “It can never be forgotten that the ownership by the entire people of the fundamental means of production constitutes the foundation of workers’ real power.” This marked a reiteration of his claim in the 7th Congress that the increased role of private companies in the economy does not threaten the aims of socialist construction because they “will operate within well-defined limits,” whilst “the concentration of property shall not be allowed.” These development strategies flow from the principles laid out in ‘Plan 2030’. This economic strategy was formally adopted after the 7th Congress following discussion and debate in over 47,000 meetings between 1.6 million representatives from the trade unions and committees that make up the ‘organisations of the masses’.
Raúl had previously served as the Cuban Minister of Defence from 1959-2008. He showed his capabilities as a military commander in the lead up to the overthrow of the Bastista dictatorship on the 31st December 1958. Earlier in 1958, Fidel had selected Raúl to move a force of rebels from the remote Sierra Maestra to the lower and more densely populated areas in North Eastern Cuba in order to create a second front to divide Batista regime and lay the necessary groundwork for the eventual overthrow of the regime. The second front quickly managed to liberate areas and set up institutions for both the rebels and the civilian population. This was all achieved despite Raúl being a relatively inexperienced military commander and leading a poorly armed group of rebels against a much more powerful enemy. The second front took 12,000 square kilometres of territory in 1958. As military historian Hal Klepak has recently written, Raúl was able to achieve this success because he “calmed and brought under discipline bandit elements in his sector; had made fast a network of connections with the peasantry and workers in the area in which his forces operated; had established a number of factories, schools, and clinics that made his area of the country a haven and beacon for others; and had produced a functioning command in the midst of the ferocious attack of government forces.”
After helping overthrow Batista, Raúl was rewarded for these successes by being appointed as the Minister of Defence. Shortly after the revolution, he oversaw the creation of the National Revolutionary Militias (NRM) in order to defend the revolution from the threat of external and internal threat counterrevolution. In the first two years after the revolution, the number of Cubans (mostly poor workers and peasants) that joined the militias totalled up to two hundred thousand. Raul oversaw the establishment of numerous schools for the often poorly educated officers. These helped to increase their general level of education and gained their loyalty by teaching them the increasingly Marxist-Leninist orientation of the government. When the CIA-sponsored counterrevolutionaries began the infamous Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, the invaders expected the NRM to quickly disintegrate and desert. Instead, the still poorly armed militia managed to withstand the invasion for several hours before the regular army arrived in time to rout the invaders.
Perhaps Raúl’s finest hour as head of the armed forces came in the 1970s and 1980s. In these decades, Cuban military aid helped to liberate Portuguese colonies and ensure the defeat of apartheid South Africa in Angola and Namibia. Although Cuba is home to less than ten million people, over three hundred thousand Cuban soldiers fought in Africa and two thousand lost their lives there. In his four decades at the helm of the armed forces, Raúl’s leadership deterred counterrevolution at home and liberated millions around the world from the yoke of colonialism and settler-colonial domination.