Thursday, April 21, 2011

Cuban Congress an 'indictment of past 50 years'

Posted on Wednesday, 04.20.11

Cuban Congress an 'indictment of past 50 years'

At first blush, the just-concluded party congress in Havana was more of
the same.

The old guard is still in charge, though with only one Castro at the
helm. The average age of politburo members — 14 men and one woman who
decide the nation's most pressing matters — is 67. Fifty-three percent
is 70 or older.

The gathering exuded symbolism. It met April 16-19, the 50th anniversary
of the Bay of Pigs invasion. The congress, in effect, opened at La plaza
de la revolución with a military review, a reminder that Cuba today is
ready to deflect aggression. To boot, Fidel Castro attended the
concluding session as just a party member.

The politburo includes six generals and one historic comandante.
Military men constitute 19 percent of the 115-member central committee.
Though up and down over decades, these numbers reveal more than relative
shares. Fidel, Raúl and the old revolutionaries have a military
understanding of politics.

Though claiming the mantle of patriarch José Martí, the históricos have
never heeded his words to Máximo Gómez, the generalissimo of
independence: "You do not found a nation, General, the way you command
an army camp." It'll be up to the next generation to mind politics as
civilians, whether as successors to the old revolutionaries or as
founders of a democratic Cuba.

Yet, a second look — always advisable no matter the issue — points us in
another direction. For the first time, the top leadership will be
limited to two consecutive terms. True, it would have been earthshaking
if term limits had been instituted a decade ago when the quintessential
histórico still held the reins but was in declining health. All the
same, recognizing that at least the highest offices should not be held
forever is salutary.

The central committee — the party's second-tier leaders — slimmed down,
from 150 to 115. Women now constitute almost 42 percent, more than
tripling their previous share. Blacks and mulattos increased modestly to
just more than 31 percent. Given their respective shares of the
population, both — especially blacks and mulattos — still fall short.

An almost apologetic Raúl Castro noted that históricos retained a place
in the leadership, a result of their own failure to groom younger Cubans
as their successors. Carlos Lage, Roberto Robaina and Felipe Pérez Roque
come to mind: the first a one-time economic czar, the other two former
foreign ministers. Raúl's rather damning admission is rare for Cuban

In his closing speech, Raúl shed some light on the leadership's decision
making. The central committee meets at least twice a year.
Representatives from the politburo and the council of ministers come
together on a weekly basis. Ministers invite observers from the party,
the National Assembly, the trade unions, the Communist Youth and
provincial governments to their monthly meetings.

If neither exciting nor democratic, this process would never have been
spelled out by the elder Castro. On his watch, after all, the party went
14 years without holding a congress, a record in the annals of communism.

Under Raúl, the decision to "update" Cuba's economic model emerged
institutionally. If the leadership decides to accelerate or cut back the
reforms, the same process would be followed. Never again will the nation
endure abrupt changes at the whim of one man.

The proposed economic update only scratches the surface. Yet, if we read
between the lines, it is an indictment of the past 50 years. Almost
nothing is new: the problems have been around for decades. Why the
leadership is tackling them now and not in the early 1990s, for example,
is for another time.

In the past, Raúl himself spoke harshly of la doble moral — saying one
thing in public while thinking another — and the practice of saying
little in meetings while talking effusively in the hallways. The
congress was silent on the matter. So, I suspect, will be the party
conference on Jan. 28, 2012, Martí's birth date, set to "update" the
party's governance.

To make a real difference, the históricos would have to follow Martí's
admonition about leading the nation. I'm not holding my breath but
thought it opportune to remind all that politics means civilian
leadership and civil liberties. Without either, doublespeak will always
be with us.

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