Cuba, politics in perspective

Where is Cuba heading more than a half-century after the revolution, and how is Raúl Castro's political strategy balancing the forces around and imperatives of reform? The long-postponed sixth congress of the governing party makes the answers clearer, says Antoni Kapcia.
Antoni Kapcia
22 June 2011

The sixth congress of the ruling Cuban Communist Party had been so long anticipated and so frequently postponed since 2002 that when the event was finally held - in Havana on 17-19 April 2011 - it was surrounded by considerable scepticism inside and outside Cuba. Yet all the political signals suggested that the congress would be significant, not least the pointed coincidence that it took place on the fiftieth anniversary of the Bay of Pigs incident and the first public reference to the Cuban revolution’s “socialist” character.

The scepticism was understandable. Many Cubans had become frustrated by the lack of reforms since Raúl Castro succeeded Fidel (by ruling de facto from 2007, if not 2006, and elected president in 2008), and had begun both to doubt Raúl’s “reformist” credentials and to suspect resistance from his brother. Many outside observers too expected little from a congress Raúl convoked immediately after his election: some, extrapolating from the experience of the Soviet bloc pre-1989 or continuing to read the revolution in personalist terms, saw the congress as a vehicle for Raúl’s wishes; others drew from the continuing delay the expectation that entrenched resistance would thwart Raúl’s proposals.

A cursory glance at modern Cuban history should have dispelled such doubts. For four of the first five congresses proved important in different ways, either changing policies or challenging past patterns; and all of them (despite apparent unanimity) ended preceding debates and generated new ones in turn.

Hence, a condition of understanding the nature of a Cuban party congress is to accept the perhaps uncomfortable notion that debate has been characteristic of Cuba since 1959 and fundamental to the processes of involvement and decision-making. True, many such debates go unnoticed, being rarely public or visible (an exception was the remarkable “great debate” of 1963-65 about underdeveloped Cuba’s path to socialism); rather, they are usually held behind closed doors, within academic centres or Cuba’s many “mass organisations”, and use a coded discourse lost on outsiders. Moreover, they are rarely open-ended, but are initiated by recognised starting-points and work within defined parameters (represented above all by Fidel’s famous dictum of 1961: “within the revolution, everything; against the revolution, nothing”). 

A historical cycle

The approach to most previous congresses has followed this precedent. The Cuban Communist Party (CCP) held its first congress in 1975, ten years after its formation out of the three rebel groups of 1958 - the most important being the guerrillas’ 26 July Movement and the communists’ People’s Socialist Party. The delay testified to internal tensions (between the PSP and the guerrillas, or the Cuban leadership and the Soviet Union), and followed the economic-political crisis of 1968-70).

The congress settled these arguments, but debate continued - and re-emerged after the congress of 1980, as the costs of post-1975 “institutionalisation” (a process often seen, misleadingly, as “Sovietisation”) were felt in the context of a larger and less responsive party, a loss of ideological momentum, and unrealisable youth expectations. These problems, foreseen by many ex-guerrillas, led to the debate on “rectification” and the contentious congress of February 1986; again, a delay (of one year) indicated continuing arguments, further confirmed by the congress’s temporary disbandment before it reconvened in December.

The outcome was a partial return to the precepts of the early 1960s, and a Raúl-led drive for economic streamlining. But this was overtaken by the economic crisis of 1989-91, which made the focus of the 1991 congress predictable: to confirm the results of the debate about how to “save” the revolution. The ensuing reforms were economically successful but politically costly, which in turn determined the focus of the delayed congress of 1997: to redefine that “revolution”. That debate was inconclusive, until - following the Elián Gonzalez affair of 1999 and the “battle of ideas” after 2000 confirmed the message of 1986: that the revolution’s “essence” lay above all in the 1959-61 experience of mass mobilisation and enforced unity.

The reason for the confirmation is clear. Since 1959, the Cuban leadership had followed a conscious strategy designed to realise a long-overdue process of nation-building (something Cuba had, since its belated independence in 1902, never experienced). The main instrument of the process was a necessary oscillation between mass mobilisation (Fidel’s preferred option, where the mass organisations would be used to mobilise for “socialisation” in the areas of labour, defence and politics) and participation through formal structures (Raúl’s preference, where a single party and material provision would be the vehicle). The three decades of revolution from 1959-89 can be seen in those terms; a cycle then disrupted by the urgent need to salvage the revolution through reforms.

By 1998, however, it had become clear that the damaging by-products of these reforms seemed to require a resurrection of ideological energy; the result was the (ostensibly classic fidelista “battle of ideas”). But by 2005, it was equally evident that (as in 1968) this approach too had its limits, and that a period of consolidation and satisfying material needs (with or without Fidel’s sanction) was necessary.

Fidel’s consent could be implied from his past acceptance of similar switches in strategy, and from the underlying reality that both he and Raúl had always shared a common faith in the need to build a “new” Cuba by whatever means necessary. In 2010-11 there was explicit recognition of this endorsement, both in the repeated use of quotations from Fidel’s speeches and in the surprising announcement in 2011 that Fidel had resigned his leadership of the party in January 2008, thus opening the door for Raúl and legitimising the latter’s reform platform.

A political transition

In this historical context, the sixth congress is part of an enduring cycle in Cuba where debate is triggered by particular moments of recognition and bounded by precise understanding of the choices on offer. In the latest case a key event was Raúl’s articulation in July 2007 of scathing if familiar criticisms of the failings of the system; he concluded by urging months of nationwide consultation through the mass organisations, whose outcome was to legitimate the idea of economic (though not political) reform.

But if this reading of the immediate pre-history of the 2011 congress is correct, it leaves an interesting question to be answered: if Fidel was not the source of the resistance to Raúl and instrumental in the long delay in convening the event, then who was? A conventional and all-purpose answer is to attribute internal tensions to an “old guard” or “hardliners” (usually ex-guerrillas); but such labels have rarely been helpful or accurate (and, indeed, were once used to describe pro-Soviet communists opposed to those same ex-guerrillas). Moreover, many of those today held to fit such labels (most notably Ramiro Valdés) are clear loyalists and proponents of the need for reform.

A more persuasive answer is that resistance to reform is something of a state of mind among middle-ranking activists, older Cubans, and those who ignored Raúl’s strictures on petty corruption and criminality and on the irrelevance of old ideas of a universally benefactor egalitarian state. Here, the long failure to convoke the party nationally itself contributed to the problem, in that it allowed structures to ossify and stalwarts to consolidate their exercise of local and institutional power. In fact, just as many ex-guerrillas feared in 1961-65 and witnessed in 1975-84, a “non-institutionalised” party again constituted a serious threat to accountability and change.

Hence, an exasperated Raúl broke the deadlock in 2010 by threatening an unprecedented pre-congress special conference that would make essential “generational changes” and ensure a successful congress. This démarche had the desired effect in that the sixth congress took place without such a prior event; and, following months of widespread discussion of Raúl’s lineamientos (reform proposals) - encompassing the participation of some 7 million Cubans in a process systematically recorded, specifically to avoid any appropriation by entrenched interests - the proposals received unanimous endorsement.

Yet resistance remains, despite this result. Hence, a special national conference is scheduled for January 2012 that is designed to change the nature and role of the Cuban Communist Party - specifically to stop it interfering in government and returning it to a role as ideological guide and servant. There has already been a clear recent shift in this direction according to the leaders’ preference: away from the traditional belief in “the party” and towards the idea of leadership through government and the national assembly.

Raúl has accordingly built a firm base in the government, in part through wholesale ministerial changes. Most of these involve the appointment of loyalists from among the Revolutionary Armed Forces [FAR], Cuba’s most respected institution as well as his enduring political base, and younger technocrats with relevant expertise, rather than the party-based “politicians” whom he seems to dislike and distrust. In addition, he has sought to concede greater legitimacy to the national assembly.

A process of change

Where, then, does Cuba go next? The social risks are great from the forthcoming loss of up to a million jobs from the overstaffed state sector over five years, as part of a shift to an enhanced self-employed and cooperative sector. If the numbers do not match, then Cuba will have a large pool of unemployed, with all the accompanying dangers; and if recovery does not result the whole system’s legitimacy will be at risk. The coming years will certainly see a growth of small businesses (already allowed in new areas and likely to be expanded steadily), alongside a continuing faith in the centrality of a state-run sector and welfare provision. That is clearly what interests Cubans most: an easing of economic austerity and a rapid improvement of material provision and opportunity, without abandoning social protection.

What interests outsiders most, by contrast, is political change: either (the United States and European Union position) a move towards a multi-party competitive electoral system - which, it can be safely predicted, is not on the horizon under Raúl or the FAR - or (the subject of political commentators’ speculation) the elusive question of “the succession”. Here, the best advice to those seeking to identify the “next” Cuban leadership is to have patience. For even if the conference of January 2012 appears to herald the emergence of a new generation, the party itself will be unlike the old one and a future leadership will not be easily glimpsed there; the history of past “rising stars”, moreover, cautions against over-confident expectations of a transformative new generation.

It is far more certain that it the FAR will continue to provide the personnel for government, and that the national assembly will become more decisive. It is true that Raúl Castro has confirmed explicitly that the sixth congress would be his last as party leader, but he has given no such assurance about Cuba’s presidency. The signal here is that he will seek re-election in 2013, thereby remaining in office until 2018. That allows plenty of time for successor-spotting to evolve.

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