Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

CUBA: Changes Lie Ahead, on Obstacle Course

Dalia Acosta

HAVANA, Apr 22 2011 (IPS) - Although it failed to bring about the hoped-for generational renewal at the highest level of Cuba’s governing Communist Party, the recent party congress may have marked the start of a new stage of socialist development, if the resistance to change among the most conservative sectors is overcome.

Not a few observers lamented that the Cuban Communist Party (PCC) sixth congress ended Apr. 19 with the presentation of a 15-member political bureau mainly made up of the old guard, with an average age of 67. Others stress that any real change in the country will depend on new ways of thinking.

“Years of reductionist thinking and simplifications, of wilfulness, weigh down on those who must push the changes through,” psychologist and professor of communications José Ramón Vidal told IPS. “Awareness of these limitations and barriers is the first condition for preventing them from distorting or frustrating the proposed changes.”

Vidal said it is clear that the “desired scenario” would require strengthened institutions, a break with the state monopoly over all economic activities, greater autonomy for public enterprises, and administrative decentralisation to make management of municipal governments more independent.

However, “popular participation is still limited to consultation processes, to listening to public demands, and no new ideas have been set forth for how to boost the role of citizens in political decision-making or how to increase citizen oversight over the country’s institutions and leaders,” he said.

The new first secretary of the PCC, President Raúl Castro, acknowledged the need for a change in mentality.

At the four-day party congress, he said Cubans would have to overcome a “mentality of inertia,” and the only thing that could threaten the revolution was “our inability to rectify errors.”

However, the resistance to change is not only identified with a specific generation, but with sectors that could see the proposed transformations as a threat to privileges they have gained in their careers as politicians or civil servants.

Since Raúl Castro first became acting president when his brother Fidel fell ill in 2006, he has insisted on the need to be wary of a false sense of unanimity and to respect diversity of opinion.

But in Castro’s case, that respect may end where dissident groups start.

In the party congress, Castro called for doing away with prejudice against private enterprise or “self-employment,” insisted on delinking the party and the government, and reiterated the need to move forward without “haste or improvisation.”

The party congress’s “approval of the Guidelines for Economic and Social Policy gave us the main tool, the ‘what’; now we need the ‘how’: the legal framework, regulations and even changes to the constitution,” economist Armando Nova, a researcher at the Centre for the Study of the Cuban Economy (CEEC), told IPS.

In the analyst’s view, the country is facing “a realignment, more than an updating,” of the social economic model. “There is the development of different forms of property, spaces are opening up to a non-state sector in the economy, and more rational labour and wage policies” are being introduced, he said.

The touchiest changes, he said, are the restructuring of the labour market – which involves the dismissal of half a million public sector workers this year alone – and the elimination of the ration card, which guarantees heavily subsidised food and other basic products to the entire population.

These changes are necessary for economic reasons, “but it is good that it has been clarified that conditions will be created for these things to happen, that the process will be gradual, and that in the case of cuts to state payrolls, the modifications will be linked to the workers’ employment possibilities and options,” added Nova, one of the leading scholars on agriculture in Cuba.

Gender and racial inequalities acknowledged

One of the questions that drew the most attention from civil society was the recognition of the persistence of gender and racial inequalities – issues that tend to be ignored and denied by government authorities, who prefer to highlight the achievements and downplay the shortcomings of the socialist system.

“We have to remain alert, to avoid falling into the traps of the past, when the idea was that by declaring the abolition of a society divided into antagonistic classes, all social, political and cultural problems would disappear,” writer Tomás Fernández, a member of the Cofradía de la Negritud – an association of black people aimed at raising awareness of the problem of racial discrimination – told IPS.

“Social problems have always been shouldered aside by economic and political problems; let’s not fall into this same mistake again,” said Fernández, who warned against “closing our eyes to the social problems” that plague the segments of the population in greatest need of assistance, like blacks.

Blogger Sandra Álvarez recognised that the number of women and blacks on the 115-member PCC Central Committee had grown. But she called for close monitoring of “racial inequalities that could be generated or exacerbated” in the process of the implementation of the new economic and social policy guidelines.

“I hope the debate on race-based inequality in Cuban society will also be taken up by the PCC National Conference,” added the writer of the blog “Negra cubana tenía que ser”.

The conference, which will focus on internal party questions, is slated for Jan. 28, 2012.

Professor Vidal commended Castro’s criticism of the party’s policy of hastily promoting “inexperienced and immature cadres” based on the mistaken “idea that an unspoken premise to occupy a leading position was to be a member of the Party or the Young Communist League.”

Castro linked the errors of this policy to the impossibility of “rejuvenating” the political bureau.

The professor also mentioned the president’s call for the eradication of prejudice against religion and people of faith.

With respect to the national press, Vidal said it would live up to its “social responsibility” when it overcame its current role, which is heavily focused on “propaganda,” and once it strengthened its informative and educational functions and became a vehicle for the exchange of ideas for “the construction of inclusive consensuses.”

Analysing the significance of the congress, historian and anthropologist Jesús Guanche said “it is still necessary to struggle with those who have not yet understood that the means and the end of development are human beings, in all their diversity of cultural expression and personal choice, and that the economy, no matter how successful it is, is only a means.

“All of the necessary changes, especially the loosening up of the knot of productive forces, must head in the direction of dealing a devastating blow to corruption, at both the low and, especially, the high levels, which also contributes to blocking everything that can be blocked,” he told IPS in an email interview.

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