Thursday, April 21, 2011

The start of a long, slow goodbye

Cuba's communist congress

The start of a long, slow goodbye
Age has at last caught up with the Castros and their revolution. New
ideas are emerging slightly faster than new leaders
Apr 20th 2011 | HAVANA

WHEN serious illness forced him to hand over power in 2006, Fidel Castro
had been running things for almost half a century. This included an
incident when, needing a knee operation, he contrived to have an
epidural so that he could remain conscious and therefore in charge.
Under Fidel, term-limits seemed less likely in the Plaza de la
Revolución than in, say, Buckingham Palace.

But on April 16th Raúl Castro, who formally took over as president from
his older brother in 2008, broke with tradition. Speaking at the opening
of a four-day Congress of the ruling Communist Party, he declared that
senior officials, including himself, should be limited to two
consecutive five-year terms in office. "It's really embarrassing that we
have not solved this problem in more than half a century," Raúl, who is
aged 79, said. As the generation that led the revolution of 1959 has
grown old in office, Cuba has lacked "a reserve of well-trained
replacements with sufficient experience and maturity," he admitted.

But the Congress largely failed to put Mr Castro's words into practice.
He was duly elected as party first secretary, replacing Fidel. José
Ramon Machado, an 80-year-old Stalinist, will remain his number two, and
Ramiro Valdés, aged 78, number three. The 15-member politbureau contains
only three new faces. Fidel himself made a surprise appearance at Raúl's
side at the end of the Congress (see picture). The message seemed to be
that change can only happen if the old guard approve.
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Term limits will be discussed at a party meeting in January. It is hard
not to imagine that the recent Arab uprisings against dynastic
dictatorships influenced this attempt to curb the power of future
leaders. And some will see the announcement as a snub to Venezuela's
president, Hugo Chávez, the Castros' closest ally and chief benefactor,
who has been in office since 1999 and is preparing to run for another
six-year term in 2012.

Raúl is quietly discarding many of the revolution's founding ideas, if
not yet its veteran leaders. The Congress formally approved measures
announced last September designed to rescue an economy that can no
longer feed Cuba's 11m people in the face of low productivity at home
and a chronic shortage of foreign exchange (only partly attributable to
the American economic embargo).

Raúl again stressed that the "updating of the model" is to perfect
socialism, not scrap it. State planning will remain paramount. But the
market will play a much bigger role. About 1m workers are to leave
public jobs and set up small businesses. The libreta, the ration card
that has guaranteed a (dwindling) monthly food supply to every Cuban for
half a century, has become "an unbearable burden for the economy and a
disincentive to work," Raúl said. It will now go only to the neediest.

In small ways the Congress amplified the reforms (though that is a
banned word). It approved a change allowing Cubans to buy and sell their
homes, a move on which there had been some foot-dragging, and called for
taxes on the new businesses to be reviewed periodically to ensure they
were not too burdensome. And the delegates discussed boosting the
tourist industry by allowing more foreign investment in golf courses and

In practice change is moving slowly. Less than a fifth of the planned
half a million workers are reported to have been laid off by the end of
March. Many fear loss of perks, and have resorted to a cumbersome
appeals procedure. Of the 200,000 new small-business licences issued,
some two-thirds are thought to have gone to existing, but previously
clandestine, outfits. Promised credit is not yet available.

Even so, stalls selling drinks, flowers and pirate DVDs do brisk
business. In the hallway of his home in Havana's crumbling old town,
Evys Díaz repairs shoes, while his brother Héctor cuts hair. A neighbour
runs a café out of an open window. Mr Díaz, a Brontë enthusiast who
rushes upstairs to fetch a postcard of Haworth, admits that he has
worked privately for several years. But taxi drivers grumble that they
face more competition; some Cubans say there is less bread in the shops
since private pizza-makers started buying up flour.

Though Cuba remains a communist country of one-party rule and a state
media monopoly, in some ways debate is becoming freer. Under Raúl,
Cubans have been allowed to buy mobile phones and computers (though they
remain expensive). It is a bit easier to get access to the internet.
More than 90 political prisoners have been freed since last summer.

But there are narrow limits to the relaxation. A student reports being
hauled off to a police station after attending a free internet session
at the United States' consular office. At a march on April 16th to
celebrate the 50th anniversary of the rout of the CIA-backed invasion at
the Bay of Pigs, several people reported being ordered by their bosses
to attend.

The Castros are still revered by many older Cubans. Salvador Renova
Mejías, a sprightly retired history teacher, fought "like an ant against
an elephant" at the Bay of Pigs. "I knew Cuba before the triumph of the
revolution. I would rather have died a thousand times than return to the
past," he says. But there are many signs that younger Cubans are more

If the youth are awkward politically, the elderly are an economic
problem. The government has raised the retirement age for men to 65.
From 2020, more people will leave the workforce each year than enter
it, placing even more strain on the creaking economy. Age is creeping up
on the Castros in more ways than one.

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