Cuba’s Communist Party Congress wants change, but also more of the same

Cuban leader Raúl Castro, right, applauds alongside Jose Ramon Machado Ventura, second secretary of the Central Committee, during the 7th Cuban Communist Party Congress in Cuba. The two occupy the highest posts in the party, which will announce new Central Committee and Political Bureau members on Tuesday.
Cuban leader Raúl Castro, right, applauds alongside Jose Ramon Machado Ventura, second secretary of the Central Committee, during the 7th Cuban Communist Party Congress in Cuba. The two occupy the highest posts in the party, which will announce new Central Committee and Political Bureau members on Tuesday. AP

The seventh congress of Cuba’s Communist Party seems intent on insuring the type of state the older Revolutionary generation, now mostly in their 80s and even 90s, would like to see continue after they’re no longer on the scene.

Nearly 1,000 delegates and 280 guests are attending the party’s twice-a-decade meeting, which concludes Tuesday.

From establishing a model for “sustainable and prosperous socialism” to coming up with a strategic plan that will last until 2030, the work of this party congress seems to be continuity. Although Cuban leader Raúl Castro outlined age limits for party leaderships posts and term limits on Saturday — the opening day of the congress — they aren’t expected to go into effect until the next congress.

“The next five years, for obvious reasons, will be defining,” Castro said. But it won’t simply be a hurried process on the run that replaces a party stalwart with someone 10 years younger, he said.

The methodical approach to reform outlined by Castro and highlighted during debate on Saturday and Sunday throws cold water on hopes by some observers that the party gathering would speed up the process of change that began during the sixth congress in 2011.

“Party leaders are trying to set up continuity in the context of reform — but it will be the type of reform managed by conservative politicians,” said Arturo Lopez-Levy, a lecturer at the University of Texas, Rio Grande Valley, and a former Cuban intelligence analyst.

Congress delegate Julio Camacho Aguilera expressed faith in continuity. “The oldest of us can leave here calmly with the certainty that these young people will know how to follow the revolution,” he said.

On Monday afternoon, delegates voted on a slate of presumably younger candidates for the Central Committee, the Political Bureau and for the first and second secretaries of the Politburo. The new look of the party and its leaders will be revealed Tuesday, the last day of the Congress.

“Generations do matter. Their formative experiences are different,” Lopez-Levy said. The younger leaders will take up their posts at a time when the party is becoming more nationalist and less Communist. Younger militants also are less adverse to market mechanisms in the economy than their elders, he said.

But even though Cubans can now buy and sell homes and cars, self-employment has been expanded, fledgling private enterprises may hire workers and there is a new foreign investment law, Castro made it clear that Cuba isn’t heading toward a return to capitalism.

“The recognition of the existence of private property has generated honest concerns among not just a few of the participants in discussions leading up to this congress, who expressed worries that doing so was taking the first steps toward the restoration of capitalism in Cuba,” he said. “I’m obliged to tell you that this is in no way the goal.”

During the debate, Miguel Díaz-Canel, vice president of the Council of State and Castro’s heir-apparent in 2018 when the Cuban leader has said he will retire, said the private sector is intended to be a complement to the state sector and to contribute to the development of socialism.

“The introduction of the rules of supply and demand aren’t at odds with the principles of planning,” Castro said. “Both concepts are able to coexist and complement each other in benefit to the country, as has been successfully demonstrated in the reform processes in China and the renovation in Vietnam.”

The last Congress came up with 313 guidelines designed to update the economy and allow a limited opening toward the free market. Since then, only 21 percent of the guidelines have been implemented, 77 percent are in the process of being implemented and no progress has been made on 2 percent.

“The fundamental obstacle that we’ve confronted, just as we expected, is the weight of an obsolete mentality that takes the form of an attitude of inertia and lack of confidence in the future,” Castro said.

Some have been nostalgic about the days when the old Soviet Union was Cuba’s benefactor, he said. “On the other extreme, there have been masked aspirations for the restoration of capitalism as a solution to our problems,” Castro said. He said that the international financial crisis, the U.S. embargo and Cuba’s cumbersome dual-currency system also have slowed implementation of the guidelines.

To update the so-called lineamientos for the next five-year period, there will be 268 guidelines — 31 with the original wording, 193 that have been reworked, and 44 news ones, Castro said.

He also noted that Cuba’s focus on foreign investment has changed. Five years ago, he said, investments in infrastructure and production represented 45 percent of the total. Now investments in these two areas are 70 percent of the total.

Even though officials said that economic growth from 2011 to 2015 only averaged 2.8 percent annually — not sufficient to advance the economic development of the country — and Castro himself said that salaries and pensions are still insufficient to meet the needs of Cuban families, economic changes will likely proceed at the same “without haste but without pause” pace of the previous five years.

For the first time, delegates also debated what is being referred to as the “conceptualization” of the economic and social model that socialist Cuba intends to follow going forward. Eight different versions of this model were analyzed before party leaders came up with the one submitted to congress delegates.

Castro called it a “theoretical guide” that will clearly outline the principles of Cuban socialism.

Although it had been hoped that the strategic development plan through 2030 would be finished by the time of the congress, Castro said work will continue on the plan with the hope of completing it by next year.

Both the model and the 2030 plan will be widely debated and will be open to suggestions after the congress, Castro said, before being submitted to the National Assembly of People’s Power, Cuba’s parliament, for final approval.

Díaz-Canel read the text of Castro’s report at the Monday session and it was unanimously approved. He said the documents being debated at the Congress will give the party, the state and the government the tools it needs to discuss and find the consensus to adopt important decisions for the country’s future.