HAVANA: Picture released by Cuban News Agency (ACN) of Cuban First Secretary of the Communist Party Raul Castro attending the opening session of the 8th Congress of the Cuban Communist Party at the Convention Palace in Havana Friday. — AFP

HAVANA:  The all-powerful Communist Party of Cuba (PCC) opened a historic congress Friday to rubber-stamp the transfer of power to a new generation as outgoing leader Raul Castro committed it to “respectful” talks with the United States. In an address to a few hundred party delegates, Castro emphasized that Cuba would not renounce “the principles of the revolution and socialism.”

But he affirmed a “willingness to conduct a respectful dialogue and build a new kind of relationship with the United States,” which has had sanctions against Cuba since 1962. Castro, 89, is stepping down as PCC first secretary-the most powerful position in Cuba-ending a near six-decade family hold on power that started in 1959 under his revolutionary brother, Fidel, who died in 2016.

The reins will now pass to 60-year-old Miguel Diaz-Canel, who has already served as Cuba’s president since 2018, when Castro relinquished that part of his executive portfolio. Ties with the United States, after a historic but temporary easing of tensions under president Barack Obama between 2014 and 2016, worsened under Donald Trump, who reinforced sanctions.

White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Friday the United States was not planning any immediate change in its policy toward Cuba. “Support for democracy and human rights will be at the core of our efforts,” she said.

First civilian leader

Diaz-Canel will become Cuba’s first civilian leader since the Castro-led revolution of the 1950s, which happened before he was even born. The official handover of power to the first non-Castro PCC first secretary is expected on the fourth and final day of the congress next Monday. In a tweet Friday, Diaz-Canel said the congress would be a forum where “ideas are entrenched, history recognized and the future discussed” while underlining there would be “continuity.”

Diaz-Canel, who will remain Cuban president, takes over as the country battles its worst economic crisis in 30 years, sky-high inflation, biting food shortages, long lines for basic necessities and growing disgruntlement over limited freedoms. Cuba’s economic crisis has been caused in part by its own management failures, worsened by ramped-up US sanctions and the coronavirus pandemic, which dried up tourists-a key income source for the island. — AFP