Cuban President Raul Castro attends the May Day parade at Revolution Square of Havana, on May 1, 2017. Credit: AFP photo.

It was a good beginning.

US President Barack Obama was moving toward a gentle rapproachment, with Cuba.

The target of fierce sanctions that have lasted since the President John F. Kennedy years, it finally seemed that America was coming to its senses with regard to the Caribbean island nation.

Fidel Castro, a thorn in America’s side for a half a century, was dead. It was time to move on, to a new US-Cuban Détente.

And then along came the mean-spirited Republican presidency, of Donald Trump. He would re-establish sanctions, and, even add more in his final days.

The tourism-dependent island had already been battered by the pandemic; the economy shrunk at least 11% in 2020 according to government estimates.

Cuba’s failing farms can’t feed its population of 11 million, so queues of six hours and more have formed to buy chicken, medicines and other essentials. 

This was far from the plan Raul Castro had announced three years ago, as head of Cuba’s all-powerful communist party.

He had envisioned the island on firmer economic footing, thanks to the transition of a new generation of leaderhip.

Things have not worked out exactly according to Castro’s plan. As the 89-year-old announced he was stepping down on Friday, his country is deep in crisis, CNN News reported.

It will likely take many more months to know if Cuba’s ambitious, “Hail Mary” plan to develop the island’s own homegrown vaccines will prove successful.

And while the Trump administration enacted some of the toughest economic penalties on the island in decades, so far current President Joe Biden has been reluctant to engage with the communist-run island despite the most significant change in leadership in Cuba in decades.

“Regardless of what administration we have, Republican or Democrat, it’s a good time to engage,” said former Senator Jeff Flake (R-AZ), a rare member of the GOP to push for improved relations, who met with Raul Castro during frequent trips to Cuba, CNN reported.

“It benefits the Cuban people and puts pressure on the Cuban government that they don’t have when we try to isolate them.

“It’s difficult to imagine a more precarious time for the last members of the aging generation that transformed Cuba into a socialist state to finally relax their hold on power.”

Despite deepening uncertainty, Cubans witnessed an historic changing of the guard at this week’s 8th Congress for the Cuban Communist Party, “the supreme body” of the only political party permitted on the island.

The congress started Friday, timed to commemorate the 60th anniversary of Cuba’s victory over CIA-trained exiles during the Bay of Pigs invasion.

Even if the outgoing head of the party’s family continues to wield unquestionable power on the island, once the congress is over, no one with the last name Castro will occupy a senior position of leadership for the first time in over 62 years, CNN reported.

In 2018, Castro stepped down as president, making way for his handpicked successor, Miguel Diaz-Canel, to take over running the day-to-day management of the government.

Castro stayed as head of the party, which oversees long term planning, but said Diaz-Canel would likely assume that position too in 2021.

“After that,” Castro said in 2018, “If my health permits it, I will be just one more soldier with the people, defending this revolution.”

His departure brings an end to the era of his famous clan occupying the top leadership on the island. None of the children of Castro’s older brother, Fidel, who died in 2016, hold government posts, CNN reported.

Raul Castro’s son, Alejandro, is a colonel in Cuba’s Interior Ministry and his daughter, Mariela, runs a government center promoting LGBTQ rights.

A son-in-law, Gen. Luis Alberto Rodríguez López-Callejas, heads a sprawling military company that controls state-owned hotels, marinas and infrastructure projects but he maintains a low public profile, CNN reported.

Cuba is one of the countries that has changed the least since the end of the Cold War, even as government officials acknowledge the island desperately needs to adapt.

“We’ve lost an entire decade,” said Alina Lopez, a Havana historian who runs a blog that is a forum for leftist criticism of the government.

“They don’t how to bring real change because any change must start with a lot of self-critique.”

Finding the path to modernizing Cuba’s economy will now fall squarely on the shoulders of Miguel Diaz-Canel, Castro’s successor as president who is expected to take over as head of the communist party, CNN reported.

Trained as an electrical engineer, Diaz-Canel ran local governments in two provinces before becoming minister of higher education and then vice president and president.

Gaining the leadership of the party will further establish the tall, grey-haired technocrat as the political heir to the Castros. But it remains unclear how the 60-year-old leader differs from his predecessors.

“I believe in continuity,” Díaz-Canel told reporters in 2018 when asked about his vision for Cuba’s future. “I think there always will be continuity.”

But even with all the official talk of maintaining the course, Cuba is changing.

Many in Cuba’s nascent private sector complain openly about the slow pace of reforms, CNN reported.

Artists fed up with official censorship and activists pushing for legislation protecting animal rights have used increased internet access to organize and publicize small protests that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago.

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 fuelled by the spread of the internet and growing inequality.

“No one knows what is coming,” says the Cuban-born historian Ada Ferrer, author of the forthcoming Cuba: An American History.

“No one knows what it will be like not to have this Castro family dynamic at the heart of Cuba after 60 years.”

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 and various mobsters 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.

Rafael Hernández, the Havana-based editor of social science journal Temas, says he hopes for three main changes under a new party leader: extending private business beyond mom and pop restaurants and self-employed taxi drivers, giving Cuban state industries more autonomy, and a decentralization of power to the provinces.

“It is particularly challenging because we are in the middle of an economic crisis, a pandemic, a political transition,” he says.

“But that is no reason to slow down.”

Sources: CNN News, CNBC, Al Jazeera, CBC News, CTV News