WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
20 Apr 2011 | Commentary | News

Old Guard Still in Charge, but Change is Underway in Cuba

Cuba’s Communist Party finished its first Congress in fifteen years this week. This Congress approved a major set of economic reforms, and opened a discussion about the party itself and how it functions. Because Cuba is a single party state, the decisions made at the Congress are likely to be implemented, and they confirm that a process of evolutionary change is underway in Cuba—something that the United States should acknowledge in its policy toward the island.

A lot of the reporting focused on Raul Castro himself, his newly confirmed role as head of the party, and the surprise appearance of the aging but still vigorous Fidel Castro. There was also discussion about the naming of a second-in-command, the veteran Machado Ventura, rather than a younger figure. But the less high-profile issues are more important for the future of Cuba.

The Congress approved more than three hundred proposals for economic changes. While the detailed proposals are yet to be published, their outlines are clear. Months ago, party officials began to circulate proposed economic reforms for internal discussions. Cuban leaders claim that the proposals were widely discussed and that more than two-thirds were modified as a result of feedback from neighborhood and workplace meetings. When the proposals are approved by Cuba’s National Assembly and implemented by the government, the economy will begin to move toward a new and untested model—one in which the state is still the largest actor, but no longer the only actor. Cooperatives, small businesses, and self-employed individuals will likely make up twenty to twenty-five percent of the workforce. Central planning will be reduced and government-sponsored social services will be more limited than in the past. 

In the Cuban context, these are dramatic changes. As the country seeks to shift to a state-led but mixed economy, the road to reform will not be easy, and Cuba is likely to move ahead cautiously. Yet, the decisions of the Congress make clear that Cuba will move ahead.

Politically, the Congress opened a debate about how the party itself works. Raul Castro was confirmed as party leader, and another aging veteran of the Cuban Revolution was appointed to the number two position. But in his opening speech to the Congress, Raul Castro called for term limits for party leaders, and the appointments to the party’s Central Committee included a younger and more diverse group of members. This looks forward to a coming generational change in the Cuban leadership. The Congress agreed that later this year, a special conference will examine how the party itself functions, perhaps opening a space for greater internal debate and self-criticism. And in the same vein of self-reflection, this interestingly comes after a year in which the Cuban government has released most of the political prisoners held in Cuban jails, and exhibited somewhat greater tolerance for dissent.

What this Congress suggests is that Cuba is evolving, albeit slowly and imperfectly, toward a new mixed economy and a modest political opening that includes greater tolerance for different points of view. Critics will complain that these changes aren’t enough—“cosmetic reforms” is the phrase we are likely to hear—and there is no question that, from a human rights perspective, there will still be much to criticize in Cuba over the next few years. Yet it is clear that the country’s economic and political system is evolving, even if unevenly, which is positive for the Cuban people.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about U.S. policy toward Cuba. While Cuba appears to be moving ahead in a process of change, the U.S. embargo on Cuba—the trade ban, travel restrictions, and banking regulations that impinge on third party countries—seems to be frozen in place. President Obama has allowed Cuban Americans to travel freely to the island, and he announced his intention to make it easier for educational groups to travel there. However, the guidelines to implement that announcement have not yet been released, and no other significant changes are on the horizon.

It’s an ironic twist that Cuba is moving more rapidly toward the future than is U.S. policy.