Cuba’s Sixth Communist Party Congress, which took place in Havana from April 16-20, was supposed to be a watershed event. A “new generation” of leaders would be elevated. Major political and economic changes would be announced. Cubans would gain significant new freedoms. The era of liberalization would commence.
Alas, anyone expecting ambitious reforms was left disappointed. Cuba will remain a totalitarian police state — Raúl Castro left no doubt about that. The younger Castro brother, now nearly 80 years old, has been serving as Cuban “president” since February 2008, and he has now formally replaced the sickly Fidel, 84, as first secretary of the Cuban Communist Party (CCP). Raúl’s main political “concession” was a declaration that all government officials should be limited to ten years (two five-year terms) in office. Of course, the CCP will continue picking Cuba’s leaders, and it has tapped a pair of hardline Communist dinosaurs — José Machado Ventura, 80, and Ramiro Valdés, who turns 79 this week — for the number-two and number-three posts in the party hierarchy. Machado Ventura and Valdés epitomize the old guard — the very old guard. Their promotions at the CCP Congress — which, by the way, began with a massive military parade — indicate that Cuba’s political structure will not be changing in any meaningful way.
On the economic front, the party confirmed that Havana is firing 500,000 state workers to help improve its dreadful public finances. It also modestly expanded the number of legally permissible self-employment activities and promised to let Cuban “sell” their homes — even though those homes are officially government property under the current constitution.
Giving slightly more freedom to Cuban entrepreneurs is certainly a step in the right direction, but it is not serious reform. Raúl is anxiously trying to solve a dire economic crisis and preserve the existing system. He is not proposing that Cuba become China. Perhaps Raúl will become bolder when Fidel finally dies (assuming he outlives him). But for now, the “new Cuba” is basically the same as the old Cuba. Journalists and policymakers should not pretend that Raúl has inaugurated a dramatic political or economic transformation.
Here’s how Yale historian Carlos Eire — whose 2003 Cuba book, Waiting for Snow in Havana, won a National Book Award — described Raúl’s new “reforms” in the London Guardian: “What the government-controlled Cuban press won’t say, and what most foreign correspondents on Cuban soil don’t dare say (lest they be expelled, as happened last week to Spanish journalist Carlos Hernando) is that these so-called reforms are illusory, and a desperate, ridiculous attempt to camouflage repression and maintain the current status quo.”