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Cuba’s Communist Party Congress: back to the future?

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By Nick Caistor, Latin America Bureau

raul_castro-20abrilRaúl Castro addresses delegates on the last day of the Communist Party congressThe 6th Congress of the Cuban Communist Party was held for four days this week. Whether by accident or design, the meeting coincided with the 50th anniversary of the failed Bay of Pigs invasion. This was celebrated with huge military parades, which critics of President Raúl Castro saw as a deliberate attempt to intimidate Cubans.

There seems little doubt that Raúl is keeping faith with the generation of leaders who fought in the guerrilla struggle in the 1950s and were part of the attempts to build a new society in the 1960s despite the threat from the United States and Cuban exiles. While it was officially confirmed at the Congress that his brother Fidel now occupies no official position in the Cuban Communist Party (and has not done so for five years), José Ramón Machado Ventura, an 80 year-old veteran of the Sierra Maestra days was appointed as Raúl’s vice-president. The 78 year-old Ramiro Valdes was named as the party’s number three. Only three new appointments were made to the 15-strong central politbureau of the party.The main business of the congress was to approve the economic reforms Raúl Castro has been proposing for the past few months.

The biggest shift in policy concerns employment in the public or private sectors. As the Revolution has established itself over more than 50 years, so the percentage of Cubans working in the state sector has grown with it. This has meant that on the surface, there has been little or no unemployment in Cuba. In practice though, many of those state sector jobs involved little or no work, while the Cuban state had to pick up the bill for wages and welfare.

Now the Communist Party has endorsed Raúl Castro’s proposal to lay off up to one million state sector workers so that they can seek employment as private individuals. In part, this is a recognition of what is already going on: ordinary Cubans rent rooms to tourists, offer food in paladares, set up ramshackle beauty parlours or hairdressing salons in their front rooms. Under the new proposals, the provision of services of this kind will be allowed in many more areas: there could be private plumbers, painters and decorators, car mechanics, pizza parlours and so on.

Although the Congress accepted that an initiative of this kind is needed to try to balance the government’s books and to end the country’s economic stagnation, there is still an ingrained ideological suspicion of private initiative. Many prominent members of the party still reject the notion that one person should be able to profit from somebody else’s labour. To placate them, it seems that any new venture will be allowed a maximum of seven workers. There is also agreement that the state should control the key sectors of the economy, and that any new move should not lead to the re-establishment of private enterprise in the sugar or other basic industries.

More than 170,000 Cubans have already applied to start up new businesses. To do this, they need official sanction, and to agree to pay tax on their earnings- something that has not happened in Communist Cuba until now. Many of the would-be new entrepreneurs have expressed their concern that this will mean the Cuban state is still controlling what they can and cannot do. They also complain that they are going to have to buy all their stock or equipment from government sources: where for example is a plumber to buy copper piping from, if there is no wholesale sector, or if imports are not allowed? Others remember earlier experiments at allowing a small version of a market economy in the 1980s and 1990s- experiments which Raul Castro is said to have played a leading role in closing down.

This time however, the experiment may go much further. Raúl himself said recently that the ‘Cuban model no longer works’ and he and his closest associates are obviously casting around for a new one. In addition, although the United States is no longer backing invasion attempts as it did 50 years ago, the amount of US dollars now finding their way into Cuba means the government there has to find a way of making sure at least part of these funds finds its way into government coffers. In a further attempt to lessen demands on the over-stretched government finances, the ration books for staples such as sugar and tobacco, rice and other foodstuffs which have been in use since the early days of the Revolution are now to be limited only to the ‘neediest’ in society.

The other major reform proposed by Raúl Castro was that ‘it is advisable to limit the fundamental political and state offices to a maximum period of two consecutive periods of five years’. This innovation sits rather oddly with the fact that he and many others in the party leadership have held official positions for more than five decades, especially since at the same time he recognised the fact that ‘due to mistakes’ there was no ‘reserve of substitutes who were adequately prepared,’ to take over posts of responsibility. In the past, his brother Fidel seems to have been the one who squashed any attempts by talented younger figures to play a prominent role in Cuban politics, and there have so far been few signs that, outside his own family, Raúl has done much to encourage new blood.

All the new proposals put forward by the Party Congress will now be put to the National Assembly. They should become law in the next few weeks- only then will it gradually become clear if there is the political will to make them become reality.