Cuba’s old guard faces a new world

Young and old debate merits of market socialism, balancing politics with pragmatism at latest Communist Party congress.

Raul Castro
Cuba’s Communist Party seeks to reach out to the island’s youth

It has been described as a gerontocracy run by 80-year-olds, and Cuba’s Communist Party convention over the weekend largely lived up to the stereotypes surrounding the country’s political leaders, despite the slow push towards economic liberalisation.

The conference, a rare occasion, saw more than 800 delegates discuss a series of economic changes, largely aimed at making it easier for Cubans to run small businesses. The party is also considering age limits for high-ranking officials, and term limits for politicians, as it seeks to broaden its base among the youth.

Much of today’s Cuban population was born after the 1959 revolution, which saw Fidel Castro and his comrades oust the US-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista. “The old guard grew up in the context of seeing the difference between pre-revolutionary Cuba and the revolution,” Larry Catá Backer, a professor of international affairs at Pennsylvania State University, told Al Jazeera.

“Those who were brought up in the system see how their country is struggling internationally… and a seismic debate is going on [between them],” Backer, a Cuba specialist, added.

Isbel Diáz, a writer with Havana Times, a left-leaning online newspaper in Cuba’s capital, senses two lines of private debate happening within the party. “The first rejects any kind of change, preferring paternalistic and authoritarian control,” he said. This tendency is supported by “Stalinist leaders” from the party’s conservative old guard, he added. “The other group understands the need to promote changes … and that the current state of affairs is untenable.”   

‘Pragmatic’ goals

Al Jazeera’s Teresa Bo reports from Havana on the Communist Party conference and Cuba’s food production challenges

Cuba’s economy grew by just 1.5 per cent in 2010, which is weak compared with rising “socialist” countries in Asia; Vietnam’s rate was 6.8 per cent and China’s clocked-in at 10.3 per cent, according to the CIA’s World Fact Book.

The average monthly salary for Cuban workers is $20, according to the US state department, although food, housing and other goods are heavily subsidised. Raul Castro, who assumed power from his brother Fidel in 2008, is hoping to lay off up to one million public sector workers, gradually reducing dependency on the government. 

Brazilian diplomats, according to a 2009 confidential WikiLeaks cable from the US interests section in Havana, describe Raul Castro as “more pragmatic and less ideological than Fidel” as he is focused “on getting short-term economic results”.

This weekend’s conference builds on a party convention in April of last year, where officials approved 178 professions in which Cubans could operate as independent business owners, rather than state employed socialist labourers.

Down to business

“There are two ways you can become an entrepreneur,” Richard Becherer, a professor of business at the University of Tennessee who has studied Cuba’s private sector, told Al Jazeera. “One is by creating a job for yourself – becoming the guy who cuts the grass or that kind of thing. The other option, that really helps the economy, is allowing someone to create a company that has its own intrinsic value. Those are the ones which really create jobs.”

The new rules, he said, still make it difficult for Cubans to create companies – or corporations – which can hire workers who lose their government jobs.

More than 2.5 million tourists visited Cuba in 2010 and foreigners will drive many of the new self-employed positions, analysts say. New rules allow Cubans to sell products directly to hotels.

“Try telling a Cuban: ‘You should pay higher rent, or pay for your own healthcare’ … There is no serious opposition to the current government.

– Saul Landau, professor and film maker

Small businesses that sell farm products or services to hotels will be in the best position to make a profit, compared with other newly legalised trades such as barbers and fruit peelers, said Roger Betancourt, a professor of economics at the University of Maryland.

Many Cubans, young and old, are relatively happy with the current system, which provides good quality public healthcare and free education, and doesn’t demand a lot of hard work, analysts say. “I don’t think anyone knows how many Cubans want change and how many want the same thing,” Betancourt, a government critic, told Al Jazeera.

Cuba’s universal public health and education systems are some of the strongest in the Caribbean, and most Cubans likely want to see them maintained.

“Try telling a Cuban: ‘You should pay higher rent, or pay for your own healthcare,'” said Saul Landau, a professor and filmmaker. “Cubans bitch and moan, like citizens everywhere, but there is no serious opposition to the current government,” he told Al Jazeera. “They do not face a legitimacy crisis at home.”

Oil and power

China and Vietnam are frequently viewed as socialist economic success stories which could serve as examples for Cuba. But Betancourt worries Cuba will end up looking more like Russia, where former state officials cashed in on privatisation to become oligarchs.

“The military and former government members have monopolies in certain sectors – particularly airlines and the oil sector,” he said. “If there is a broader [economic] opening, those people are not going to give up the benefits they are attaining.” 

A massive drilling platform, contracted to the Spanish firm Repsol and its partners, currently sits off Cuba’s coast, waiting to explore for oil and gas. The Financial Times reported that Cuba’s largely unexplored share of the Gulf of Mexico is thought to contain “billions of barrels” of oil and gas.

The old guard may be staking its hopes on black gold, Betancourt said. “They might stop liberalising once oil comes online.” Other analysts dispute that view, and believe the changes that have been set in motion are largely irreversible. 

Severed links

With the end of the Cold War, it became popular for western academics to make a direct link between market liberalisation and political opening, in Cuba and beyond. The rise of China and the great recession in the West have – however – largely severed those intellectual linkages.

“I think in the short run there is no link between economic liberalisation and political liberalisation,” Betancourt said. “China has been liberalising [its economy] since 1979,” while the Communist Party remains in firm control of politics in the world’s most populous country.

Many Cubans are unhappy with the pace of change, reports Al Jazeera’s Tom Ackerman

While China maintains vigorous trade with the US, Cuba is not formally allowed to trade with the world’s biggest economy, due to a US trade embargo.

During recent debates in Florida, which has a large community of Cubans who left the island, Republican candidates issued harsh proclamations against the Castro government.

About one million Cubans – including most of the government’s fiercest critics, have left the island for the US, where they have far easier access to citizenship than other immigrants.

By allowing critics to leave, the Castro brothers effectively nullified domestic opposition, Landau said.

Paradoxically, anti-Castro Cuban-Americans will likely provide some of the capital, via loans to family members still on the island, to make the government’s economic reforms possible.

“The relationship between the US and Cuba is quite stable,” Bracker said. “The US has an enemy it can point to, in order to energise the local population, but one that is not really a threat, while the Cubans can blame all of their failings on the Americans.”

The relationship is still viewed “in Cold War terms” by elements in both countries, he said.  

Green revolution?

After the collapse of the USSR, and the end of the Cold War, Cuba experienced one of the worst economic crises in modern history. “When Soviet oil ran out, they had to go green,” Landau said. The government encouraged rooftop gardens to produce food for urban areas, increased public transportation and permaculture farming techniques, where chemical fertilisers were not required.

“They are now really developing wind and solar energy, recycling and energy efficient light bulbs,” Landu said.

In the 1960s, Che Guevara became the iconic symbol of revolutionary internationalism, gallivanting around the Americas to spread the gospel of social revolution. Landau thinks Cuba could harness a new internationalism, sending “environmental missionaries” around the global south, exporting new green technologies along the way.

This could “reignite the flame” that initially inspired young people to join Castro’s revolution, he said, while perhaps, improving the country’s generational divide and economy along the way. 

Follow Chris Arsenault on Twitter: @AJEChris

Source: Al Jazeera