Cuba's Sixth Communist Party Congress—Going through the Motions
April 29, 2011
Since the 1959 revolution that brought them to power, Cuba’s Castro brothers have been so hostile to democracy and capitalism that whenever they mentioned the possibility of easing their government’s authoritarian grip just a little, they made headlines. Usually, such talk occurred during episodic economic crises and was couched in terms of perfecting their brand of socialism.
Now, as the brothers’ planned economy seems to be unraveling at an increasing pace, complicated by the advancing age of the regime’s leadership, reforms proposed at the April 16–19 Sixth Communist Party Congress seem to offer substantial economic concessions to market principles in order to keep the government on a stable financial footing. Yet if such proposals are fully implemented, preservation of the revolution may be more of a question than a goal.
Gathering the Faithful
The Cuban constitution places the Communist Party above the government and society. It names members to the National Assembly of Popular Power, which contains the Council of State that issues decrees. Party congresses have taken place more or less every five years since their inception in 1975, usually coinciding with new five-year plans to deal with self-admitted economic errors accompanied by affirmations of the Castro brothers’ leadership. The second took place in 1981 after the Mariel Boatlift. The fourth occurred on the cusp of the Soviet Union’s collapse and Cuba’s loss of subsidies. The fifth and last, until this year, followed the implementation of tighter U.S. sanctions contained in the 1996 Helms-Burton Act.
Before each gathering, minor party chiefs and organizers solicit opinions among members to stimulate interest, but Fidel, and now Raúl, offer the only real proposals. Sometimes expectations outstrip outcomes. Fidel was expected to step down at the Fifth Congress, but did not. This time, he retired as first secretary and Raúl moved up, but the number two spot went to 80-year-old José Ramón Machado Ventura, dashing internal hopes that a younger crowd might take control.
And while there was some turnover in the Politburo and Central Committee, senior positions remained in the hands of Raúl’s military colleagues. The result—Raúl Castro remains head of government until the practical end of his life. Afterward, the state and its myriad business enterprises will probably become the patrimony of trusted members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces who are being rewarded for their decades of loyalty—although that is just a guess.
The 300 or so proposals announced by Raúl might seem radical for a totalitarian society, but follow a recent pattern of liberalization. Shortly after assuming the presidency from Fidel in 2006, Raúl Castro permitted computer and cell phone sales to the general public. Last year, he said Cuba could not be “the only country in the world where one can live without working” before announcing layoffs amounting to a fifth of the workforce, reportedly 85 percent of which is employed by the state. Micro-entrepreneurs in Cuba’s tiny self-employed sector would be permitted to hire employees for the first time.
At the Sixth Congress, he went further, promoting an expansion of self-employment in certain job categories, declaring an end to ration books, giving more autonomy to state companies, offering more generous land leases to foreign investors, reducing the state’s reliance on imports, and enabling the private purchase and sale of homes and cars. Still, the point seems to be to introduce market production incentives only up to a certain point.
Too Little, Too Late?
Ordinary Cubans seem wary of forcing a half million people off state payrolls. Anecdotal reporting suggests that young adults, especially, may not be interested in most of the main choices available to Cuba’s cuentapropistas or self-employed, such as rabbit husbandry or mending bicycles. The Economist reports that less than a fifth of the planned 500,000 state worker layoffs took place by the end of March. Concerned about survival prospects, many have appealed their pink slips.
Small surprise since Cuba lacks a culture of entrepreneurship. The University of Havana teaches economics but not business skills. There is no credit market besides what friends can offer cuentapropistas to purchase supplies or equipment. Cuba’s tax code imposes stiff burdens on microenterprises, especially those that hire employees. Moreover, farmers leaving cooperatives to cultivate idle state land on their own depend on the government for inputs while Cuba still imports most of what its citizens consume.
As Raúl Castro tweaks the economy in hopes of sustaining the revolution, he must be betting that economic freedom will not lead to political license. At one time, the regime could limit free speech when the main channels were radio, television, and wire telephony. Now thanks to looser controls on personal electronics, Internet access, and cell phones offer communication channels that are more difficult to block, such that independent bloggers now report on news and human rights conditions. Follow-on technologies may push speech limits further.
Able to connect to the rest of the world, Cubans may become less satisfied with conditions in their country. The Bush administration’s 2004 Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba report notes that the regime wasted 30 years of Soviet subsidies on supporting communist insurgencies outside of Cuba, while deferring maintenance on water, sanitation, power grids, ports, and roads. Indeed, a recent International Republican Institute opinion survey on the island showed that three quarters of respondents had little confidence in Cuba’s current leadership to solve such challenges and favored a change to multiparty democracy.
There is little the United States can do to guide the outcome of clashing policies and personal desires in Cuba. The regime still has the ability to quarantine its society from outside influences. On the other hand, ordinary Cubans are increasingly capable of articulating their thoughts. The United States should neither lift existing trade sanctions in a way that strengthens the hand of a fading regime nor urge more complete reforms in a way that usurps Cuban voices. Perhaps the United States can best promote a friendly public takeover of Cuba’s authoritarian regime by
- Encouraging and supporting Cuba’s tepid market openings through trade preferences targeted at Cuba’s fledgling independent producers;
- Negotiating academic exchanges on business creation and industrial skills, even if to third countries;
- Fostering access to more diverse communication channels for ordinary Cubans, even if it benefits regime officials and party members; and
- Engaging in dialogue to head off another boatlift—a possible consequence of clashing internal policies and dashed expectations.
During the Sixth Communist Party Congress, Raúl sold his fellow graybeards on market-oriented reforms to save the economy and give citizens a sense of progress. Yet, when it came to giving the government a leadership transfusion, the old guard balked. By refusing to move on, they risk taking the revolution to the grave. Perhaps Raúl knows this and is secretly hoping to introduce enough change to start an irreversible transition. The trick for Washington will be to take advantage of these reforms to nurture the growth of a democratic polity by supporting access to communication in ways that do not directly challenge the regime and by increased people-to-people contact that gently informs all Cubans what they could be doing on their own.
Stephen Johnson is a senior fellow and director of the Americas Program, and Andrés Blanco is an Americas Program intern scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.