HAVANA – Raul Castro was relaxed as he gave a 90-minute speech handing over the presidency to his hand-picked successor, Miguel Diaz-Canel. The 86-year-old revolutionary departed from his prepared remarks, making jokes and reminiscing about the past. He talked about his great-grandchildren.
In short, he talked like a man heading into retirement.
Castro, who stepped down from the presidency Thursday, remains the most powerful person in Cuba as head of the Communist Party. He has given all the indications that he is withdrawing after nearly 60 years managing the socialist state he created with his brother, Fidel, though the exact contours of his retirement remain to be seen.
Renowned Cuban singer Raul Torres, also a member of the National Assembly that voted to approve Diaz-Canel, sought to capture the mood with a special song for the occasion, just as he did following the death of Fidel in 2016.
“It’s a song of pre-nostalgia, not sadness because Raul with continue being our guide,” Torres said in an interview with The Associated Press on Friday. “He will always have a voice and a vote.”
The song, heavily promoted by Cuban state media, is called “The Last Mambi,” a reference to iconic machete-toting Cuban rebels who fought against Spanish rule in the 19th century.
“Now you can be happy/confident that you won’t be the last mambi,” Torres sings, addressing Raul. “Confident that there will be millions of arms/with their machetes at the ready.”
Castro’s speech was longer than is typical for him, and much shorter than the marathon ones delivered by Fidel. He said that he expected Diaz-Canel, a longtime party official who remains little known both inside and outside of Cuba, to serve two, five-year terms and take over as head of the Communist Party in 2021. But he spent more time in valedictory mode than as the commanding presence he has been in a tightly controlled country.
“I’ll visit some of the provinces since I suppose I’ll have less work,” he said at one point in the nationally televised speech.
There is a widespread rumor in Cuba that Castro will settle down in a specially constructed home in the eastern city of Santiago but the government has said nothing about it in public.
Raul’s role has yet to be defined by the government. As head of the party, he will still have oversight over what happens in Cuba and the president and his fellow members of the Council of State are all people with close ties to the former president.
Under Cuba’s Constitution, Diaz-Canel, who turned 58 on Friday, is now head of the armed forces. Raul, however, was long the head of the military and would no doubt remain a hugely influential figure with this key segment of society. Diaz-Canel repeatedly referred to him as “general” during his own speech to the nation Thursday, which seemed to underscore the former president’s position.
Castro took on the presidency on an interim basis for two years when Fidel abruptly retired for health reasons in 2006. He became president in 2008 and served two terms. He led the country through a series of gradual but important reforms that included allowing Cubans to travel freely for the first time, re-establishing diplomatic relations with the U.S. and allowing Cubans to begin operating private enterprises to a limited degree.
It would be hard to understate the extent of the power that Castro wields as head of the Communist Party.
All of the reforms instituted under Castro had to be ratified by the party and its militants. Their meetings are still the place where debates take place about how to address the issues facing the country such as the low state salaries, now about $30 per month, or the deterioration of public services.
The party also plays an important role across Cuban society, from promoting public health to organizing civic brigades in times of hurricanes.
“That Raul continues at the head of the Communist Party is a guarantee of continuity,” said Harold Cardenas, a blogger and professor at the University of Matanzas. “It’s also reassurance to anyone who is nervous about having a new generation in the presidency.”
Diaz-Cancel emerged from the party through a series of provincial posts and has been vice president since 2013. There is no sign that he intends to make any break from the past, or whether he can even do so if he desired.
“In terms of the dynamic of how much of a margin Diaz-Canel has to operate, we still don’t know,” said Cardenas.