By Rebecca Walker
The Communist Party Congress of Cuba ended its first session in 14 years on Tuesday, April 19, 2011. The date for the meeting was announced in November of 2010 with the publication of 311 proposed reforms intended to revive the socialist spirit of the island. At the same time, the Cuban leadership explored alternative policy avenues for the future of the country.
Though global social upheavals have recently pushed several autocratic mid-East leaders out of power, Havana can be said to be before the curve in realizing that the time had come to initiate change before its own public would demand it. While it was hoped that the Congress would come forth with a bona fide aperture in the arena of U.S.-Cuba relations, rather than the under-nourished version which the White House has occasionally prated about, Havana was not able to rise to the challenge.
This is because it is Washington who has refused to blink and Obama who has refused to act, as evidenced by the lack of promised diplomacy from the current administration. According to the terms of the Helms-Burton Act, Cuba must act first and U.S. analysts on Cuban affairs predict that without formative changes the U.S. will not change its policy. Meanwhile, the Castro regime will not easily survive the angry economic realities it is sure to confront. This will unfortunately disappoint the Cuban people who are in dire need of substantial changes in order to transform the island nation into the vibrant society they seek and which they were promised by the Revolution.
The first public announcement regarding the Communist congressional agenda came on April 16, 2011. Raúl Castro—both the president of Cuba and the leader of the Communist Party—shocked his audience by proposing term limits for Cuban politicians. The parameters submitted by Castro stipulate that no official, himself included, would serve more than two five-year consecutive terms. The rationale for this proposal is rooted in the cluttering of octogenarian cabinet officials in key executive offices, all of whom have exceeded the national age of retirement. Raúl Castro, now clocking in at a spry 79, will be forced to relinquish leadership in 2021 under this new criterion. Finding that younger generations have become increasingly apathetic to the present political process, Raúl Castro wants to rejuvenate civic engagement among young Cubans by thrusting them into the vortex of a new more rewarding and fulfilling political life.
The new politburo, now pared down to a meager 15 members, was also ratified during the four-day meeting of the Communist Congress. Perhaps the most dramatic element unveiled at the gathering was not so much the announcement of who was on the list, but rather, who was not. Fidel Castro, for the first time since the Revolution, is no longer the First Secretary of the Communist Party. The reason for his omission is not due to an ideological shift, but as a matter of health. Now in his 82nd year, the elderly Castro is suffering from an unspecified intestinal illness that has visibly slowed him down. Health-related issues will inevitably pose a problem for other cabinet members down the line, as the average age of the typical politburo member is 68. Most notably, the next in line for leadership, Cuba’s Vice President José Ramón Machado, is already 80 years old.
A disappointing component of the Havana meeting was the absence of adequate discourse over the status of the proposed reforms. It was declared that nearly all the reforms were unanimously passed, but it is not known how many alterations were made to the guidelines. If the motivation for such reforms is genuine and seen from the orientation of real need, they may come to symbolize a new era of change, spliced with the leadership’s acknowledgement that the socialist status quo is preventing the country’s political system to fully function. However, some Cuban dissidents fear that the reforms now being put in place would have the government exercise greater control of what is now an underground economy. Though it is seemingly contradictory to say that privatization is likely to enhance government power, underlying these reforms is an effort to seize functional control of the country’s now thriving informal economy. Although this network represents one of Cuba’s most profitable markets, it yields no rewards to the government.
The black market includes illegal service industries such as plumbing, bartending, and other activities deemed lucrative by the government; now that the Havana bureaucracy is allowing more privatization and self-employment, the authorities will be better able to effectively monitor and tax these once-forbidden trades. Legitimizing the buying and selling of homes—something that the Cuban society seems quite excited about—is another method to oversee and extract revenue from already deeply entrenched under-the-table dealings.
As Raúl has promised not to burden his nation with immediate and crippling changes due to the maleficent effects on a nation unprepared for such shock therapy, the transition time for adopting these reforms will likely turn out to be more torpid than electrifying. It is unfortunate that the mere fact that the congressional meeting occurred was more monumental than the fruits of its minute-by-minute proceedings. The upcoming weeks will likely uncover more layers of the true impact of the meeting. Hopefully, this ripple effect will turn into a tidal wave of cumulative positive change.
This analysis was prepared by COHA Research Associate Rebecca Walker