Cuba: Raúl Clarifies the Lack of Clarity on Future

By Fulton Armstrong

raul pcc congress

Photo Credit: Alexandre Seltz and Sarumo74 (modified) / Google Images / Creative Commons

The report that Cuban President Raúl Castro delivered to the 7th Party Congress last weekend walked a tightrope between pressing harder for change – embracing the importance of the small, emerging private sector – and reassuring party conservatives that the basic tenets of the revolution will not be touched.  He reiterated his commitment to step down in 2018 and promote younger cadre, but he left unclear what he proposes the Cuban system look like in the future.  He defended his decision to normalize relations with the United States, but used Washington’s continuation of the embargo and “democracy promotion” and immigration policies as a rationale for not letting down the Party’s guard.  Among key points:

On Conceptualización.  Castro said this Congress was basically to give “confirmation and continuity” to policies set five years ago to update Cuba’s economic and social model,  but it kicks off a process of consensus-building around a conceptualización, which he said “outlines the theoretical bases and essential characteristics of the economic and social model that we aim for as result of the updating process.”  Private property is a major topic, and Raúl sought to reassure the party that respect for it does not mean – “in the slightest bit” – a return to capitalism.

On reforms approved previously.  The road has been difficult, he said, held back by “an obsolete mentality that gives rise to an attitude of inertia and an absence of confidence in the future.”  He referred to the foot-draggers as “having feelings of nostalgia for other, less-complicated moments in the revolutionary process,” such as when the USSR and socialist camp existed.  But he insisted that the reforms have continued advancing at a steady pace – “without hurry but without pause.”

On upcoming reforms.  Castro talked more about what will not happen rather than any new vision.  He firmly ruled out “shock therapies,” and he said that “neoliberal formulas” to privatize state assets and health, education, and social security services “will never be applied in Cuban socialism.”  Economic policies can in no case break with the “ideals of equality and justice of the revolution.”  But he confirmed that one of the potentially most disruptive reforms – unifying currencies and exchange rates – must be done as soon as possible to resolve and many distortions.  On foreign investment, he called on the party “to leave behind archaic prejudices about foreign investment and to continue to advance resolutely in preparing, designing, and establishing new businesses.”

On Cuba’s economic model.  Castro acknowledged “the introduction of the rules of supply and demand” and claimed they didn’t contradict the principle of planning, citing the examples of China and Vietnam.  “Recognizing [the role of] the market in the functioning of our socialist economy,” Castro said, does not imply that the party, government, and mass organizations stand by and watch abuses occur.

On private and state enterprises.  He said the “non-state sector” – which includes “medium, small, and micro-enterprises” – is providing very important goods and services, and expressed hope for its success.  This sector will continue to grow, he said, “within well-defined limits and [will] constitute a complementary element of the country’s economic framework.”  Castro also called for greater reform efforts to strengthen the role of – and, simultaneously, the autonomy of – state companies, telling managers to overcome “the habit of waiting for instructions from above.”    He noted that the creation of cooperatives outside agriculture “continues in its experimental phase,” with some achievements and shortfalls.

On U.S. policies and intentions.  Castro criticized Washington’s efforts to drive political change in Cuba, which he called “a perverse strategy of political-ideological subversion against the very essence of the revolution and Cuban culture, history, and values.”  He said, “We are neither naive nor ignorant of the desires of powerful external forces that are betting on what they call the ‘empowerment’ of non-state forms of management as a way of generating agents of change in hopes of ending the revolution and socialism in Cuba by other means.” Castro said that U.S. officials recognize the failure of past policy toward Cuba but “do not hide that the goals remain the same and only the means are being modified.”

Rhetoric about forever rejecting capitalism (and multi-party democracy) is standard, especially for a Party event meant to assuage anxieties of conservative factions reluctant to give up their familiar, if failed, models.  The re-election of 85-year-old Vice President Machado Ventura is another sop to the aging right as the country inches each day to its biologically imposed transition, as Fidel Castro made explicit in his closing remarks.  The pace of change in Washington is also slow in some areas, particularly the embargo and the Administration’s “democracy promotion” strategies,  but pro-normalization voices cannot be faulted for lamenting that Cuba could more effectively influence U.S. policy through simple regulatory measures encouraging business deals that will give momentum to embargo-lifting initiatives in the U.S. Congress.  All politics is local, however, and both governments seem content holding off on changing their paradigms for now.

April 21, 2016

Changing of the Guard, Cuban-Style

By William M. LeoGrande

Cuba Coat of Arms | Wikipedia Commons

Cuban Coat of Arms | Wikipedia Commons

In his speech to the closing session of Cuba’s National Assembly on February 24, Raúl Castro formally announced that he would retire at the end of his current presidential term in 2018. Even now, only a handful of “los históricios” – the founders of the revolutionary regime – remain in office, though they still dominate the Communist Party’s Political Bureau. Raúl also announced the immediate retirement of several elderly comrades-in-arms, including First Vice-President José Machado Ventura. In his place, the Assembly elected 52-year-old, Miguel Díaz-Canel, putting a leader born after the triumph of the revolution in the direct line of political succession for the first time.

But Díaz-Canel is not the first presumptive heir to appear on the Cuban political scene. He is preceded by several others, all of whom came to a bad end, falling into disgrace and obscurity as quickly as they rose. The first was “Landy” – Luis Orlando Domínguez, a rising star in his forties whose power derived from his leadership of the Grupo de Apoyo, Fidel’s personal staff. He was arrested in 1987 for embezzlement and sentenced to 20 years in prison. The next was Roberto Robaina, the charismatic pony-tailed head of the Young Communist League. In 1993, Fidel appointed “Robertico” foreign minister at the age of 36, then sacked him six years later for disloyalty. Robaina, it turned out, was a little too friendly with foreign businessmen and officials.  Next came Felipe Pérez-Roque and Carlos Lage. Pérez-Roque served as Fidel’s personal assistant for a decade before being appointed, at age 34, to succeed Robaina at the Foreign Ministry. Announcing his appointment, Granma explained that he was qualified for the job despite his age because, “He is familiar, as very few others are, with Fidel’s ideas and thoughts.” Lage served as Fidel’s economic adviser during the Special Period, becoming one of the vice-presidents of the Council of State and executive secretary to the Council of Ministers – the closest thing Cuba had to a prime minister. Pérez-Roque and Lage were both removed by Raúl in 2009 for criticizing los históricos behind their backs and being too eager to push the older generation off stage. They were, as Fidel wrote, “seduced by the honey of power.”

All these early heirs owed their ascent to their personal relationships with Fidel.  Before his illness, the elder Castro was, as we social scientists say, a “minimum winning coalition” all by himself. If Fidel decided on a policy, the rest of the leadership dutifully fell into line. Political power, then, was directly correlated with proximity to Fidel. It was no accident that the principal path to power for an aspiring young politician led through Castro’s personal staff. But the meteoric rise of Domínguez et al., denied them the political savvy only experience can provide, and imbued them with the hubris of Icarus.

Díaz-Canel appears to be an heir of a different order. An electrical engineer by training, he has spent his career rising through the ranks of the Communist Party, building a reputation for competent, pragmatic management. He served as Party first secretary in Villa Clara and Holguín provinces before moving to the national stage, becoming Minister of Higher Education and a vice-president of the Council of State. In public, his austere demeanor suggests the archetypical apparatchik, but in person he is said to be warm, personable, and modest – disdaining the prerogatives of office. While serving as first secretary in Villa Clara, he visited far-flung towns and villages by bicycle.

Díaz-Canel seems to be as different from the earlier heirs as Raúl is from Fidel. Fidel was always suspicious of institutions that might constrain his freedom of action, and never hesitated to circumvent them when it suited his purposes. Raúl, on the other hand, has been the quintessential organization man, valuing careful management, sound administrative processes, and institution-building. His proposal for term limits for all senior government and party officials represents the final institutionalization of the revolution, elevating the system over the pretensions of individuals. In 1973, Granma ran a headline, “Men Die, but the Party is Immortal.” Now, as los históricos are dying, the future of the revolution is finally being vested in the institutions they built and the successors those institutions have produced.