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Era Ends as Raul Castro Steps Down     04/17 10:27

   

   HAVANA (AP) -- Raul Castro said he is stepping down as Cuban Communist Party 
leader, leaving the island without a Castro guiding affairs for the first time 
in more than six decades and handing control of the party to a younger 
generation.

   The 89-year-old Castro made the announcement in a speech Friday at the 
opening of the eighth congress of the ruling party, the only one allowed on the 
island.

   "I concluded my task as first secretary ... with the satisfaction of having 
fulfilled (my duty) and confidence in the future of the fatherland," he said in 
a typically terse, to-the-point finale that contrasted with the impassioned 
verbal pyrotechnics of his brother Fidel, who died in 2016.

   Castro didn't say who he would endorse as his successor as first secretary 
of the Communist Party. But he previously indicated he favors yielding control 
to 60-year-old Miguel Daz-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.

   "All processes have a continuity and I think Daz-Canel should be there 
now," said 58-year-old driver Miguel Rodrguez.

   Castro's retirement ends an era of formal leadership that began with his 
brother Fidel and country's 1959 revolution.

   "One has to step aside for the young people," said 64-year-old retiree Juana 
Busutil, for whom Castro "is going to continue being the leader."

   The transition comes at a difficult time for Cuba, 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 fueled 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 Castro has 
been too slow to open the economy.

   In January, Daz-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

   For most of his life, Raul played second-string to his brother Fidel -- 
first as a guerrilla commander, later as a senior figure in their socialist 
government. But for the past decade, it's Raul who has been the face of 
communist Cuba and its defiance of U.S. efforts to oust its socialist system.

   The fourth of seven children of a Spanish immigrant in eastern Cuba, Raul 
had joined his charismatic older brother in a nearly suicidal attack on the 
Moncada military barracks in the eastern city of Santiago in 1953 and survived 
the crackdown that followed from the forces of dictator Fulgencio Batista.

   He led a major front in the ensuing guerrilla war led by Fidel that toppled 
Batista. And he served for the following generation or two as head of the armed 
forces. For many years, he was considered a more orthodox communist than his 
brother.

   But it was Raul who reached accords with U.S. President Barack Obama in 2014 
that created the most extensive U.S. opening to Cuba since the early 1960s -- 
creating a surge in contacts with the United States that was largely reversed 
under Obama's successor, Donald Trump.

   "Nothing, nothing, nothing is forcing me to make this decision," said 
Castro, part of whose speech Friday to the closed Congress was aired on state 
television. "As long as I live I will be ready with my foot in the stirrup to 
defend the homeland, the revolution and socialism with more force than ever."

 
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