Cuba

On the same track

Print edition : May 13, 2016

President Raul Castro (fourth from right) at the opening of the Seventh Congress of the Cuban Communist Party in Havana, on April 16. Photo: ISMAEL FRANCISCO/AFP

At the end of his visit to Cuba on March 22, U.S. President Barack Obama, accompanied by Raul Castro, at Havana's international airport. Photo: CARLOS BARRIA/REUTERS

In the historic Seventh Congress of the Cuban Communist Party, President Raul Castro reiterated the party’s commitment to the socialist model of development, allaying fears that Cuba would implement “formulas of privatisation” to update its economic model.

AFTER UNITED STATES PRESIDENT BARACK Obama’s landmark visit to Cuba in March, there were suggestions in the Western media that the government in Havana was on the verge of embracing market economics. But Cuban President Raul Castro had made it clear, even when he was hosting Obama, that there was no question of Cuba deviating from the path of socialism. He reiterated this position at the opening of the Seventh Congress of the Cuban Communist Party on April 16, clearing any lingering doubt about the way the country’s economy was shaping up. Raul Castro warned Cubans that the U.S. was still intent on changing the country’s socialist system. He said that the U.S. while ostensibly trying to promote the nascent private sector on the island was using other means to undermine the socialist system. Cubans, he said, “needed to be more alert than ever” as powerful external forces were out to destabilise the country by creating “agents of change to end the revolution”. Raul Castro said: “If one day they manage to fragment us that would be the beginning of the end of the revolution, of socialism and independence of our homeland.” Raul Castro, who is also the First Secretary of the Cuban Communist Party, said the party would continue to play a leading role in politics. Article 5 of the Cuban Constitution gives the party the status of the highest leading force in Cuban society. “We have a single party and I say that with pride,” he said. “It is no coincidence that they attack us and demand, in order to weaken us, that we divide ourselves into several parties in the name of bourgeois democracy.”

Committed to diplomatic thaw

During his visit to Cuba, Obama spent a considerable amount of time interacting with small groups of private entrepreneurs who have emerged with the start of the reform process. It is estimated that around 27 per cent of the country’s workforce is now effectively in the private sector. Hundreds of private restaurants and cafeterias have opened to mainly cater to the burgeoning tourism sector. Raul Castro said his government remained committed to the diplomatic thaw with the U.S. but expressed scepticism about Obama’s pledge that the U.S. would not try to influence the course of Cuban politics.

“The goals are the same, only the methods have changed,” Raul Castro said. The economic blockade remains intact despite Obama’s half-hearted efforts to remove many of its draconian elements. The Obama administration has refused to even consider the Cuban demand that the illegally occupied Guantanamo Bay, where the infamous U.S. detention centre is located, be returned to Cuban sovereignty. Raul Castro said the Obama administration could have scrapped the “migration policy” that was specifically designed to provide incentives for Cubans to abandon their country as this policy, he said, was “a weapon against the revolution”. For a Cuban to become a U.S. citizen, all he has to do is to set foot on American soil. Thousands of Cubans working outside the country want to take advantage of this rule before the U.S. changes this special “Cold War” loophole in the immigration laws after the normalisation of diplomatic ties with Cuba. While praising the growth of self-employed people, Raul Castro cautioned Cubans about the role of “powerful external forces” that wanted to use non-state actors to finish off the revolution.

He said the party remained committed to reforms and that they should be implemented at a faster pace. Cuba’s dual currency system, which has created distortions in wages among ordinary citizens, needed to be rectified urgently, he said. Emphasising the need to attract more foreign investments, he said the government approved a new foreign investment law in 2014 and wanted international companies to invest in the Muriel Free Trade Zone, a business centre and port situated near Havana.

Many of the younger members of the party are said to be unhappy with the slow pace of reforms, which were promised in the previous party congress held five years ago. Of the 311 guidelines approved in the 2011 congress, only 21 per cent have been implemented so far. While pledging to continue with the reform process, Raul Castro stressed that the party was committed to the socialist model of development. He said Cuba could borrow from the Chinese and Vietnamese models of socialist development but emphasised that a system of cooperatives and social ownership of property were much more preferable than the capitalist model. Raul Castro promised that Cuba would never implement “formulas of privatisation” or apply “shock therapy” as it updated its economic model.

The Seventh Congress is viewed as a historic one as it is the last party congress in which the revolutionaries, known as the “historic generation”, will play a hands-on role. Raul Castro will be leaving the presidency in 2018. A new generation of leaders will gradually take over the reins of power. The Seventh Congress also took place at a time when the left-wing governments in the region are being destabilised with the active connivance of outside forces. The Left has already faced electoral setbacks in Argentina and Bolivia. In Brazil and Venezuela, the opposition is trying unconstitutional means to oust democratically elected left-wing governments.

Lessons in human rights

While making a joint appearance with Obama in Havana, Raul Castro did not shy away from declaring that there were “profound differences between our countries that will not go away”. He said Cuba and the U.S. had differing views on a host of fundamental issues relating to democracy, human rights, international relations, world peace and stability. “We defend human rights. We consider that the civil, political, economic and cultural rights are indivisible, interdependent and universal.” Responding to Obama’s implicit criticism of Cuba’s human rights record, Raul Castro said that Cubans “oppose manipulation and double standards in the approach to civil rights”, adding that his people found it inconceivable that a “government does not ensure the right to health care, education, social security, food and development, equal pay and the rights of children”.

Education and health care are defined as basic human rights in Cuba. The U.S. has refused to ratify the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and defines human rights only as civil and political rights. The U.S. government has also committed serious human rights violations on Cuban soil, including torture and arbitrary detention at Guantanamo. The economic blockade imposed on the island for more than 50 years has directly impinged on Cuba’s economy and human rights. The Dwight Eisenhower administration’s decision to impose sanctions on Cuba was based on a U.S. State Department memo which proposed that action should be taken “to deny money and supplies to Cuba, to decrease monetary and real wages, to bring about desperation, hunger and the overthrow of the Castro government”.

Fidel Castro’s warning

After Obama concluded his visit, Fidel Castro, in one of his rare columns in Granma, the official newspaper, warned against the machinations of the U.S. In one of his key speeches delivered on Cuban soil, Obama had said that he had come to the island “to bury the last remnant of the Cold War in the Americas” and to “extend the hand of friendship to the Cuban people”. Obama had chosen to gloss over the unjust blockade and acts of war and terror that the Cuban people had been subjected to since the triumph of the revolution in 1959. Fidel Castro observed in his column titled “Brother Obama” that the American President could be excused for his ignorance as he was only born in 1962. Fidel Castro wrote that Obama was probably unaware of the tremendous sacrifices and contributions made by the Cuban people in the past 50 years. He also rebutted Obama’s gratuitous assertion that both the U.S. and Cuba helped in the decolonisation struggle in Africa. He pointed out that Cuba was instrumental in the liberation of Angola after the battle of Cueto Cuenavale in 1988 in which a Cuban-led force defeated the South African Army, which was supported by the West. That battle subsequently led to the demise of the apartheid regime in South Africa.

Fidel Castro quoted a statement from the Cuban black revolutionary Antonio Maceo in his article. “Whoever tries to appropriate Cuba will reap only the dust of its soil drenched in blood, if he does not perish in this struggle,” declared Maceo, who had sacrificed his life in the fight against Spanish colonialism. Fidel Castro wrote said that Obama seemed to be unaware of many of the accomplishments of the Cuban revolution. He took particular exception to the omission in Obama’s speech of a reference to the sufferings of the native populations when North America was colonised.

Interestingly, Fidel Castro chose not to meet the visiting U.S. President, although Obama had expressed a desire to meet him. Fidel Castro has, on many occasions, described Obama warmly as America’s first black President. A few days before Obama landed in Havana, Fidel Castro had a long meeting with Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro.

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