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.”
Of course, the Castro brothers have fooled plenty of reporters and political figures in the past. Last summer, for example, then Spanish foreign minister Miguel Angel Moratinos proclaimed the dawning of “a new era in Cuba,” citing the government’s announcement that it would release 52 jailed dissidents. Unfortunately, Moratinos, who helped broker the prisoner release, was confusing a PR stunt with real liberalization. The Castro regime has always used political prisoners as strategic pawns. Its 2010 announcement was aimed at convincing the European Union to adopt fully normalized relations with Cuba and persuading the U.S. Congress to lift its travel ban (if not the entire American trade embargo). As Havana began “liberating” the prisoners, it forced them to leave the island and accept exile in Spain. One dissident — Julio César Gálvez — told the Associated Press, “Our departure [from Cuba] should not be seen as a gesture of goodwill but rather as a desperate measure by a regime urgently seeking to gain any kind of credit.”
Likewise, the changes announced at this month’s Party Congress should not be seen as the start of “a new era in Cuba.” The Castros are desperate to secure financial assistance, fortify CCP control over the Cuban population, and bolster their historical legacy. They are not offering fundamental reforms to the post-1959 Communist system. Those reforms are still a long way off, judging by the ascension of Machado Ventura and Valdés. Cuban officials fervently want the world — and especially the United States — to believe that their country is changing. But the economy remains closed, government repression remains severe, democratic activists remain in jail, and the Communist Party remains in charge. Free elections are nowhere on the horizon, and journalists are still tightly censored. Meanwhile, the regime continues to hold USAID contractor Alan Gross, who has been languishing in a Cuban prison since December 2009. Last month, Gross was sentenced to 15 years behind bars. He committed no actual crime, other than attempting to help various Cuban Jewish groups with Internet communications.
His imprisonment is an ongoing travesty. It provides further evidence that, for all the naïve optimism of some foreign observers, Cuba hasn’t really changed.