Cuba’s Communist Party meets at critical time for the country

In this April 19, 2011 file photo, Fidel Castro, left, and his brother, Cuban leader Raúl Castro, talk during the 6th Communist Party Congress. Both Castros will be among the 1,000 delegates for the party’s seventh congress, which begins Saturday.
In this April 19, 2011 file photo, Fidel Castro, left, and his brother, Cuban leader Raúl Castro, talk during the 6th Communist Party Congress. Both Castros will be among the 1,000 delegates for the party’s seventh congress, which begins Saturday. AP

When a thousand delegates to the Seventh Congress of the Communist Party of Cuba meet in Havana on Saturday, they’ll debate such weighty topics as the future of the island’s socialist model, results of more market-oriented economic reforms and perhaps a generational shift in party leadership.

But unlike the previous Congress in 2011 when 313 lineamientos, or economic guidelines, were given a thumbs-up and documents on the changes were circulated months in advance, this time party members complain they have been largely in the dark on what they will consider.

Discontent among the rank-and-file over the lack of transparency even spilled over into a recent front-page article in Granma, the party’s official newspaper, which acknowledged the lack of open public discussion prior to the party meeting.

One party member, Francisco Rodríguez Cruz, wrote an open letter to Cuban leader Raúl Castro on March 27 complaining about the secrecy. “Essentially my dissatisfaction stems from the lack of discussion of the central documents — up until today secret — as much among the organizations of the party base as the rest of the population,” wrote Rodríguez, a gay activist who writes for a state newspaper.

He suggested the Congress be put off until July to allow more adequate discussion of the documents that will be presented at the Saturday through Tuesday meeting.

Rodríguez even cited Castro’s own remarks that the changes that began in 2011 would continue “without haste but without pause” and said even though he didn’t have all the information the revolutionary leadership might possess, he didn’t see a reason “to hurry a political process so decisive for the future of our country.”

The Communist Party, the only officially recognized political party in the nation of 11 million people, has about 700,000 members.

“The main problem they have, and I think they know it, is there is a segment of the population that has turned the page on the revolutionary narrative,” said Arturo Lopez Levy, a former analyst with Cuban intelligence who is now a lecturer at the University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley. These Cubans are more market-oriented and not committed to socialism or communism, he said.

Despite the simmering discontent not only among party militants but also among a population still largely waiting for the reforms of 2011 to translate into a better standard of living, the Congress began as scheduled.

Reflecting the hard work at hand, Cuban leader Raul Castro said: "The worst thing a Communist can do is remain with crossed arms."

The six documents that will be presented, Granma said, were discussed within the Central Committee of the party in December and January, scrutinized during meetings of provincial party members in March and were prepared with the help of “dozens” of officials and social, economic and scientific researchers and professors.

Granma portrayed the criticism by party militants as not only the concerns of those “genuinely worried about the work of the party and the destiny of the country,” but also “a demonstration of the democracy and the participation that are intrinsic characteristics of the socialism that we are constructing.”

After Obama’s visit

Still, the public airing of such discontent was unusual and even more noteworthy coming on the heels of President Barack Obama’s March visit — the first trip to Cuba by a sitting U.S. president in nearly 90 years.

Obama’s message that Cubans have nothing to fear from the United States, that the future of Cuba is in the hands of its people and they should feel free to speak their minds without fear and choose their leaders in free and fair elections got an enthusiastic reception from Cubans on both sides of the Florida Straits.

But official commentary in the wake of the visit, including a “reflection” by Fidel Castro, has taken on a scolding tone. “My modest suggestion is that he reflects and doesn’t try to develop theories about Cuban politics,” the 89-year-old Castro wrote.

Some party militants say the Obama visit has put more pressure on the party to deepen economic reforms. The sixth party congress in 2011 led to changes that allowed Cubans to buy and sell homes and cars and travel more freely abroad. The reforms also expanded self-employment and worker-owned cooperatives and revamped the foreign-investment law and agricultural system.

Of the 313 guidelines from the last Congress, Granma said that 21 percent have been implemented, 77 percent are in the process of being implemented, and 2 percent — or a total of five guidelines — haven’t gone anywhere.

Major themes

In broad brush strokes, the themes the seventh congress is supposed to take up are:

▪ The conceptualization of a Cuban socioeconomic model aimed at achieving “prosperous and sustainable socialism.” Theoretically, this is where party leaders think Cuba should end up as it embarks on economic and social change.

Bill LeoGrande, a government professor at American University, said this might be the most interesting aspect of the congress. “This could be an indication of their end game,” he said. “Will their model look like Vietnam or China, or take pieces of each and look like something distinctly Cuban?”

There also have been proposals to make election to Cuba’s National Assembly more competitive, but for some party leaders that would be an “exercise in political suicide,” Lopez Levy said.

If there is any electoral reform that comes out of the Congress, he said, it may start on the local level with the direct election of mayors, for example. “But even small changes could become important in the medium term,” Lopez Levy said.

▪ A review of Cuba’s strategic economic and social plans through 2030, a long-term strategy aimed at solving structural problems of the economy.

“I wouldn’t put too much emphasis on this. If they can’t plan very well for 2017, how are they going to plan for 2030?” asked Lopez Levy.

▪ An evaluation of where the lineamientos stand and what the prognosis for them is during the five years until the next Congress. Since the guidelines were announced, the Cuban tourism industry has boomed, but overall economic growth hasn’t been particularly robust.

One of the big pieces of unfinished business is unification of Cuba’s dual currency system. Cubans generally use Cuban pesos for everyday transactions at an exchange rate of 25 to $1, while international visitors and foreign companies use the Cuban convertible peso (CUC) that theoretically is on par with the U.S. dollar. But Cuban enterprises have been experimenting with various CUC exchange rates, and as part of the gradual transition to one currency, prices in Cuban stores are now marked in both CUCs and Cuban pesos.

Cuba also hasn’t done enough to promote self-employment or the formation of worker-controlled cooperatives, said Lopez Levy.

In the weeks leading up to the Congress, the official Cuban media has featured portraits and comments from a variety of Congress delegates — women, younger delegates, workers, heads of cooperatives — in an effort to show the party is becoming more diverse and isn’t run by a gerontocracy.

Granma, for example, has reported that 43 percent of the delegates are women and there are 55 delegates under age 35.

Role of young people

Party members have reason to be concerned about young people. They are among the most disaffected, and the solution for many who want to improve their lives economically is to leave the country.

Delegate Fidel Muñoz García, a mechanic at Motores Taíno, told Granma that he thought the congress would be the most important ever not only because of the economic aspects but because of the negotiations and reestablishment of relations with the United States.

Participation of younger people, he said, was essential: “Without young people you can’t achieve anything. It’s been shown throughout our history that grand social changes have been carried out by young people.”

Still, Fidel Castro, who will turn 90 in August and hasn’t been at the helm in Cuba since 2006 when he had a health crisis, was dutifully elected as a Congress delegate from Santiago.

Raúl Castro, 84, has said he plans to retire as president of the Council of State and Council of Ministers in 2018, but he has said nothing about leaving his post as first secretary of the party’s Politburo — one of the most powerful positions in the country.

Since the 1970s, a Castro — either Raúl or Fidel — has always occupied both roles: first secretary of the Politburo and president of the council of state.

But as first vice president of the council of state, Miguel Díaz-Canel, who will turn 56 later this month, is Raúl Castro’s heir apparent. Díaz-Canel is the first Cuban leader born after the 1959 Revolution to reach the top echelons of power.

Among the things to watch for during the Congress is whether there is a generational renewal in the Politburo, with older members replaced by the younger generation and more youthful militants, including Díaz-Canel, promoted to party leadership roles. Currently he is just a Politburo member.

There has been widespread speculation that revolutionary leader José R. Machado Ventura, who is 85, may be replaced as second secretary of the party — perhaps by Díaz-Canel. Among the names also mentioned if Machado Ventura vacates the post is Gen. Álvaro López Miera, 72. If he were named second secretary, putting him in line to be party chief when Raúl Castro resigns, it could set up a scenario where the head of government and the party chief might not be the same person.

If Díaz-Canel is elevated, it will give credence to those who believe he truly will succeed Raúl Castro in two years.