Delegates from Cuba’s Communist Party are meeting to vote on reforms ushered in under President Raul Castro as the country’s ageing leadership struggles to relax its grip on the economy while affirming its socialist ideology.
Military fanfare and a parade of children and revolutionary veterans in the streets of Havana on Saturday opened the sixth congress of Cuba’s Communist Party, an event many hope will lead to a new economic era for the island nation.
Revamping Cuba’s economic strategy has been the central focus of the congress ever since it was announced in November by President Raul Castro, who has already launched limited initiatives that are meant to promote entrepreneurship and loosen the state’s control over business.
“This is an effort to give the Cuban people more freedom in the marketplace, but this does not mean the establishment of free labour unions or free political parties,” explained Eduardo Cue, a writer and specialist on Cuba based in France.
Communist conference kicks off with military march
Castro has turned over tens of thousands of hectares of government land to small farmers, allowed citizens to open up small shops, and has gradually cut some of generous health and food subsidies since he took over from long-time Cuban leader and brother Fidel nearly five years ago.
The Communist delegates are expected to make these reforms official at the congress, and to pass a number of other laws. These include relaxing regulations on buying and selling private property and opening some 170 new categories of self-employment.
The reforms were also supposed to include cutting back hundreds of thousands of state employees, but that plan has now been shelved. According to Janette Habel, a Cuba specialist and lecturer at the French Institute for Latin America (Ifal), the massive layoffs can only be possible if private enterprise grows. She told FRANCE 24 in September that the new laws would permit illegal commerce “which already thrives on the island” to be integrated into the authorised system.
'Reaffirming' the socialist model
Raul Castro has acknowledged publicly that the congress – the first Communist Party congress in 14 years – would be the last for what the Cuban leadership calls the “historic generation”, the aging group of men and women who launched and lived through the 1959 revolution.
Speaking to Cuban lawmakers last December, Castro acknowledged that the old guard had committed “errors” and insisted on a “path of correction and a necessary renewal of our economic model”. But he warned that in no way would the country return to “the capitalist and neocolonial past”.
While the reforms are clearly meant to open up Cuba’s economy, the communist party is struggling to reaffirm its socialist ideology. Castro has sworn the changes are meant reaffirm the “socialist character of the revolution”, not toss it out.
According to Eduardo Cue, the Cuban government is willing to establish an economic model “such as the one in Vietnam, for example, or China”.
The party’s official news agency, Granma, said that Saturday’s parade would end with a parade by tens of thousands of youths, who were “symbolic of the New Generations of Cubans and the guarantee of the continuity of the Revolution”.
But beyond this symbolic show, the Communist establishment could give a more tangible sign of its willingness to empower younger Cubans. Delegates will also vote for a new party leadership at the congress. While no longer the country’s president, Fidel continues to be the Communist Party’s first secretary, a job he has said he no longer expects to keep.
With Raul Castro, 80, all but certain to be voted to the party’s top post, the real signal of the potential change to come in Cuba could be in the congress’ choice for the number two spot: perhaps a fresh face who is not the object of commemorative parades, but who belongs to the next history-making generation.
Date created : 2011-04-16