Signalling change

Published : May 20, 2011 00:00 IST

PRESIDENT RAUL CASTRO (right) with his predecessor and brother Fidel Castro at the Sixth Communist Party Congress in Havana on April 19. - JAVIER GALEANO/AP

PRESIDENT RAUL CASTRO (right) with his predecessor and brother Fidel Castro at the Sixth Communist Party Congress in Havana on April 19. - JAVIER GALEANO/AP

The Sixth Congress of the Cuban Communist Party heralds the departure of the old guard from the helm of affairs.

THE landmark Sixth Congress of the Cuban Communist Party (PCC), held from April 16 to 19, came at a time the country was facing multiple challenges on various fronts. The five-decade-old American economic blockade has had a devastating impact on the economy. The hope that the Barack Obama administration would relax some of the draconian provisions of the blockade has proved to be misplaced. On the other hand, Washington has been feverishly trying to destabilise Cuba using the democracy card. The United States began its destabilisation efforts in Cuba soon after the 1959 revolution led by Fidel Castro. Recent reports have revealed the hidden hand of the Obama administration in promoting democracy in the Arab world.

A secret U.S. State Department memorandum issued on April 6, 1960, and declassified in 1991 said: Most Cubans support Castro the only possible way to make the government lose domestic support is by provoking disappointment and disagreement through economic dissatisfaction and hardships. Every possible means should be immediately used to weaken the economic life denying Cuba funds and supplies to reduce nominal and real salaries with the objective of provoking hunger, desperation and overthrow of the government. In recent years, these attempts have become even more brazen. American diplomats and agents have been caught distributing money and even laptops to Cuban dissidents. An American contractor named Alan Gross, part of a Washington-backed democracy-building programme, was caught distributing money and electronic equipment in Havana. He is facing 20 years in prison. The Obama administration has been spending $20 million annually to spread democracy in Cuba.

In April, just before the party Congress met, a court in Texas acquitted Luis Posada Carriles, the terrorist known as the bin Laden of the Americas. Carriles was responsible for planting a bomb on a Cuban civilian plane that blew up over Bermuda in 1976, killing all 73 persons on board. He has been continuing with his terror activities against Cuba and other countries in the region since his release. Carriles is wanted on 73 murder charges in Venezuela alone. He had escaped from a jail there in the mid-1990s. Cuba described the trial as a shameful farce. Venezuela said that the U.S. was protecting a known terrorist. It is ironical that the U.S. has listed, for partisan political reasons, Cuba among the states sponsoring terrorism while allowing Carriles, whom the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation had implicated in terrorist acts against Cuba, walk away a free man. At the same time, the U.S. is holding five patriotic Cubans in solitary confinement. Their crime was that they infiltrated a terrorist network in Florida and alerted the Cuban authorities of imminent terror attacks.

Cuban President Raul Castro, in his opening speech to the Congress, said that the American administration had not changed its traditional policy of discrediting the Cuban revolution. On the contrary, it has continued to fund projects designed directly to promote subversion, foster destabilisation and interfere in the domestic affairs. The current administration has taken some positive but limited actions, he said. Raul Castro emphasised that a priority of the government was to improve its relations with the U.S. so that the two countries can coexist in a civilised manner, our differences notwithstanding, on the basis of mutual respect and non-interference in each other's internal affairs.

Congress for change

The latest party Congress, which came after a long gap, was the first one without Fidel Castro actively at the helm of affairs. The last Congress was held in 1997, when the Cuban economy was slowly recovering from the devastating impact of the collapse of the Soviet bloc.

Fidel Castro made a token appearance at the Congress and was given a standing ovation by the delegates. The old guard who fought in the revolution is carefully making way for a new generation of leaders. Raul Castro took over as First Secretary of the PCC after Fidel formally sent in his resignation in 2008. Fidel Castro has not been taking part in any decision-making since falling ill in 2006. However, Raul has taken care to keep him in the loop before important decisions are taken.

At the opening of the Congress, Raul Castro announced that from now on the terms of office for high public posts, including the presidency, would be limited to two, of five-year duration. The date the Congress was convened coincided with the 50th anniversary of the historic Bay of Pigs victory over an American-backed invasion force. That victory was a defining moment for Cuban socialism, instilling in the people the requisite strength and pride needed to safeguard the gains of the revolution.

Economic reforms

The Sixth Congress came in the wake of the wide-ranging economic reforms the Cuban government had announced last year. Among the reforms announced last year was the decentralisation of the administrative machinery, giving greater autonomy to the public sector. The government had decided to expand the role of cooperatives and allow self-employment.

In April this year, the government announced that citizens would be allowed to buy and sell residential property. The party has explained that the idea behind the reforms is to improve the living standards of all Cubans while giving value to labour. The earlier emphasis on excessive egalitarianism, the Congress agreed, limited the development of productive forces.

The new initiatives, according to President Raul Castro, are intended to make the socialist system work with order, discipline and exigency. Raul said the centralised economy would now start moving to a new system that would recognise the trends in the market. He reaffirmed the intention to stop the PCC from being directly involved in business management and in running the bureaucracy. Non-party members would be given access to public offices, he said.

Raul criticised the political elite for being non-responsive to many pressing social issues. He urged the delegates to encourage the participation of women, black people, people of mixed race, and youth in decision-making positions. The discussions on the Draft Guidelines for the Social and Economic Policy centred around the issue of food subsidies. Every Cuban is assured of food rations at highly subsidised prices. Undoubtedly, the ration book and its removal spurred most of the debates and it is only natural. Two generations of Cubans have spent their lives under the rationing system that, despite the harmful egalitarian quality, has for decades ensured every citizen access to basic food at highly subsidised derisory prices, Raul told the delegates. The system was first introduced when Cubans faced shortages of essential commodities and was aimed at discouraging hoarding and speculative activities.

No shock therapies'

Raul assured the PCC that in a Cuba under socialism there will never be space for shock therapies' that go against the neediest, who have been traditionally the staunchest supporters of the revolution. He said that Cuba would never be like other countries that had to implement economic shock therapies under instructions from international financial institutions. Raul described the rationing system in operation since 1963 as an unsupportable burden for a financially strapped government. He confirmed that there were no immediate plans under way to scrap the rationing system and that the government would rationalise the system once wages and output increased. He also confirmed that there would not be any immediate mass retrenchment of workers employed by the state; the hope is that private micro-enterprises will be able to absorb redundant government employees as the state focusses on strategic sectors and public services. Guaranteed health care and education will always be protected, he said.

The reform process in Cuba is not an overnight happening. Its roots can be traced to the Fourth Congress in 1991, after the Socialist bloc collapsed in Europe. The party leadership had realised that the dramatically changed political environment called for domestic changes. The 1991 Congress approved the entry of religiously oriented people into the party and designated the Cuban Constitution as secular. Owing to the dire state of the economy at that time, foreign direct investment was allowed in for the first time along with the legalisation of individual employment and small businesses. State farms were allowed to be leased to cooperatives.

The Fifth Congress, held in 1997, tried to re-exert central control. The economic resolution taken at the Congress talked about the pre-eminence of state property as an element inherent to socialism.

After the 1997 Congress, there was a noticeable slowdown in the reform process. Fidel Castro realised that the reform agenda had to be revived urgently. In a speech in March 2005, he warned about the possible collapse of the revolution, precipitated by the mistakes of the revolutionaries themselves.

This time around, the country seems to be in for serious reforms. Raul said that the implementation of the reforms package would take at least five years. A standing committee has been set up to supervise the reform process and will report directly to the President and the Cabinet. More than eight million Cubans were consulted before the reform package was approved. According to Raul, the discussions on a document with 291 guidelines was a quasi referendum on the economic reform project. There was no unanimity, he said, and that is precisely what was needed, for we really wanted this to be a democratic and serious consultation with the people.

Raul also shrugged off criticism that he was introducing capitalism through the back door. I assume my post to defend, preserve and continue perfecting socialism, and never permit the return of capitalism, he said in his concluding speech to the Congress.

Praise for younger generation

Fidel Castro wrote in his Reflections, published on April 17, that he was proud of the leadership his brother was providing to the country and the party. He was also all praise for the younger generation which was poised to take over the leadership. The new generation is called to rectify and change without hesitation all that has to be rectified and changed, and to continue demonstrating that socialism is also the art of making the impossible happen, he wrote. Fidel was referring to the impossible task Cuba had achieved that of building and bringing about the revolution of the poor, by the poor and for the poor, and defending it for more than half a century from the most powerful military power that ever existed the U.S..

Several young people figure prominently in the new Central Committee and Politburo. Raul acknowledged that his generation had not successfully groomed young leaders with the sufficient maturity and experience to take over the principal duties of the country.

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