Cuba’s party congress: The road to reform?

Cuba’s Communist Party (PCC) will meet to decide on reforms aimed at modernising the country’s socialist economy.

cuba reforms [GALLO/GETTY]
State run factories in Cuba have been criticised for being inefficent [GALLO/GETTY]

The sixth congress of the PCC, Cuba’s only legal political party for the last five decades, will draw 1,000 delegates from around the nation, who will also select new members of the party’s central committee, which will in turn choose the party’s first and second secretaries.

The party congress was postponed in 2002 due to economic problems, and continued to be delayed after former President Fidel Castro fell ill in 2006, according to official sources.

The April 16-19 gathering will be the first PCC congress to be held in 14 years. The party congress, the PCC’s top-level meeting, normally takes place behind closed doors.

Fidel Castro stepped down from the presidency when he fell ill in 2006. But he never officially resigned as first secretary of the PCC.

However, he clarified on March 22, in one of his regular columns, that when he got sick he “resigned without hesitation all of (my) state and political positions, even that of first secretary of the party”.

Strategies for the economy

It is widely assumed that Fidel’s 79-year-old younger brother Raúl, who took over as acting president in July 2006 and officially succeeded his brother in February 2008, will be elected first secretary in this weekend’s congress, at least until the next congress, which would normally be held in five years’ time.

In 2007, Raúl Castro, who is now officially second secretary, said he would introduce “structural and conceptual” reforms needed to bolster the economy.

The president sees the “economic battle” as “the principal task and the key ideological work” of the PCC and the Young Communist League (UJC), “because on this depends the sustainability and preservation” of Cuba’s socialist system.

The discussions in the sixth congress will focus on a 32-page document called the Draft Guidelines for Economic and Social Policy, which was previously submitted to popular debates in which more than seven million of Cuba’s 11.2 million people reportedly took part.

Suggestions expressed by ordinary Cubans in the nationwide neighbourhood or workplace meetings led, according to official sources, to the modification of more than two-thirds of the 291 paragraphs in the draft guidelines.

The draft document, “enriched” by the popular debates, will serve as the basis for designing the party’s strategy and creating mechanisms and instruments to achieve the desired economic and social model of the economist Armando Nova.

The draft guidelines will introduce sweeping changes, such as a much greater role for private enterprise. But the document clarifies that economic policy will be based on “the principle that only socialism is capable of overcoming the difficulties.”

Another expected change is the eventual expansion of the system of cooperatives, currently limited to agriculture, to the areas of industry and services.

There are also hopes that the possibility of self-employment, currently authorised for 178 private activities, will be expanded. As things stand now, university students cannot use their skills in private business, as none of the permitted occupations involve professional activities.

Self-employment was introduced in Cuba for some 150 occupations in 1993, at the height of the economic crisis that hit the country in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union and East European socialist bloc. It was expanded last year when the government announced massive lay-offs of public employees, potentially affecting one million people by the end of 2011.

Property ownership reform

Many people are hoping for changes in the system of property ownership. Currently, people can own homes and cars but cannot freely sell them. They can only legally swap them for property of equal value. Cubans are also hoping for a loosening of restrictions on travelling abroad.

One worry is the announced elimination of the ration card system, which provides the entire population with staple foods at subsidised prices. The move will have a heavy impact on the lowest-income sectors.

Arturo López-Levy, a Cuban-born lecturer at the University of Denver, Colorado, said that what is most urgently needed, within the context of the reforms that have begun to be adopted, is for the government to stop treating the concepts of private property and the free market as “anathema”.

In his view, there is a need to “usher in a change of mentality among the PCC cadres, so they will become promoters of a mixed economy, with a minimum of coherence,” because the draft guidelines do not clearly outline a new form of economic organisation.

“Progress by two parallel processes also announced as part of the reforms, decentralisation and the downsizing of the state apparatus, depends on that change in mentality,” said López-Levy.

The congress will begin Saturday morning with a military parade in Havana’s Plaza de la Revolución, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the proclamation that Cuba’s revolution was a socialist revolution.

According to unofficial figures, the PCC has some 800,000 members, and the UJC more than 600,000.

The Cuban constitution defines the PCC as “the highest leading force of society and of the state, which organises and guides the common effort toward the goals of the construction of socialism and progress toward a communist society”.

A version of this story first appeared on Inter Press service news agency.

Source: IPS