The 7th Party Congress: Marking progress and facing challenges

Summer 2016

Dr Steve Ludlam gives a detailed analysis of discussions at the most recent Communist Party Congress which are now subject to a mass consultation period throughout the island

In April 2016, the Cuban Communist Party held its 7th Party Congress. The Party carries the constitutional duty to be the ‘highest leading force of society and of the state, which organises and guides the common effort toward the goals of the construction of socialism and the progress toward a communist society.’ Its debates and decisions, as in 2011 over the Economic and Social Policy Guidelines of the Party and the Revolution, are what drive the changes underway in Cuba. CubaSí readers will remember that those Guidelines were the subject of a mass public consultation that amended two-thirds of the content and added crucial popular policies. 

The four draft documents presented to the 7th Congress were: The Conceptualisation of the Cuban Economic and Social Model of Socialist Development; The National Economic and Social Plan to 2030: Proposed Vision of the Nation, Strategic Themes and Sectors; Results of the Economic and Social Policy Guidelines of the Party and the Revolution adopted at the 6th Congress and its Updating for the Period 2016-2021 and the Resolution on the Progress of the Working Objectives of the Party Adopted at its First National Conference in 2012, which dealt with reorienting the party’s work to implement the updating of the Cuban Model. This year, the first two of these, the new strategy documents drafted after extensive debates among thousands of party and state leaders, academics, specialists, and the National Assembly deputies, are now out for three months of mass consultation.

Updating and Diversifying

The Congress was evidence of the continuity of the updating of the Cuban Model. Progress on the 2011 Guidelines was reported: 21 per cent had been fully applied, 77 per cent were being implemented, leaving 2 per cent not yet initiated. In the 2016 Results document, nearly 200 of the 2011 guidelines had now been modified and 44 added. The opening Central Report to the Congress, delivered by Raúl Castro, identified delaying factors including:  the pace of assimilation of the new laws, the choice to avoid neoliberal-style shock therapy and the effects of the world crisis and the blockade. 

Annual growth 2010-15 had averaged 2.8 per cent: insufficient, said Raúl, to meet national development and personal consumption needs. However, the recent rescheduling of historic debts opens the way for new foreign investment, as does the updated Foreign Investment Law. Medical service exports now earned, together with tourism, more than half of Cuba’s hard currency earnings. A record 3.5 million tourists had visited the island in 2015.

Reaffirming Social Ownership

The Report outlined progress in rationalising and improving social services. 152,000 jobs had been cut in the health sector, Raúl said, contributing to a two billion Peso annual saving. However, he insisted, “Neoliberal policies which encourage the accelerated privatisation of state property and social services, such as health, education and social security, will never be applied under Cuba’s socialist model.”

The restructuring of the economy has proceeded. A big increase in the share of investment going into manufacturing and infrastructure was reported: up from 45 to 70 per cent in the previous five years. State employment over the same period was down from 81 to 70.8 per cent of the total, with over half a million now working in the private sector. Any notion that Cuba was converting to capitalism, though, was bluntly denied by Raúl: “We reaffirm the socialist principle of the predominance of the ownership of the people over the basic means of production, as well as the need to relieve the State of other activities not decisive to the development of the nation.”

While self-employment has tripled since the 2010 reforms, growth in non-agricultural co-operatives (to around 20,000 workers in 400 co-ops) was described as ‘gradual’. The Central Report mentioned problems of education and monitoring. It might be noted that Cuba has acted firmly in legislation to prevent co-ops being used to exploit contract labourers.

Again, on the question of regulating market forces in this more decentralised and diversified economy, the Report defends Cuba’s reforms, stating that: “The introduction of the rules of supply and demand is not at odds with the principle of planning. Both concepts can coexist and complement each other for the benefit of the country, as has been successfully shown by China’s reform process and the renovation process in Vietnam, as they call it. We have used the term updating to describe our process as we are not changing the fundamental objectives of the Revolution.”

Rights and anti-discrimination

The Report also strongly defended Cuba’s delivery of human rights, asking in how many countries of the world did the people enjoy free medical care and free education? And it defended the continuity of Cuba’s political system as the guarantee of national sovereignty and social justice. Raúl joked that when he told North Americans that they too only had one party, they would say no, two, Democrats and Republicans, and he would reply yes we’d be the same if we had two parties, Fidel would lead one and I’d lead the other. “Fidel would say: ‘I want to lead the Communist one,’ I would say, ‘Well, I will lead the other, no matter the name.’”

Another significant continuing development was apparent when the two key documents were published. When, in 2014, the National Assembly added sexual orientation to the list of anti-discrimination items in the draft Labour Code, it was known that some had also wanted to add gender orientation. Gender orientation is now included in the Conceptualisation and The National Economic and Social Plan to 2030. The glossary of terms issued with these documents includes an excellent definition of gender identity. 

Frustrations at home and abroad 

The Congress was also an arena for registering political and policy frustrations. The biggest was the failure of Obama to do more to end the blockade, discuss the occupation of Guantánamo Bay, or end attempts at internal subversion. 

The Congress also heard harsh words on obstruction of the new Model, which Raúl said was being held back by, “obsolete mentality … inertia and lack of confidence in the future.” In particular the Report laments the continuing struggle against arriba (above), the tendency to avoid decision-making until the ‘higher-ups’ give approval, when the new Model demands more autonomy and initiative in the state sector. Prejudice against foreign investment was decried, as was, in Raúl’s words, “nostalgia for the less difficult times in the revolutionary process, when the Soviet Union and socialist camp existed. At the other extreme there have existed veiled ambitions to restore capitalism as a solution to our problems.”

The cautious programme to unify the two Cuban currencies and their different exchange rates in the business and retail sectors, remains crucial to Cuba’s general economic development. The Congress was also clear that this is essential to addressing the ‘inverted pyramid’ of incomes that rewards less skilled work in hard-currency tourism, while the most qualified earn far less in the national currency state sector. 

Prices and incomes

Agricultural production remains a massive concern. Cuba is still spending US$2 billion dollars a year on food imports of which half could be produced on the island. Inflation of food prices has become a major issue for Cubans in recent years, and a major pressure on the purchasing power of salaries. “In the circumstances,” Raúl acknowledged, “wages and pensions are still unable to satisfy the basic needs of Cuban families”. Average income from salaries had risen by 43 per cent since 2010. But most of this was due to the major increases in the health sector and decentralisation of bonus pay systems in state enterprises. The economy was still unable to pay adequate salaries across the board of state budget-funded employment, and the national implementation of individual performance-related pay remained uneven. The stated core objective of restoring the “socialist principle of distribution”, linking salary income to the contribution made by the individual, remains a future aspiration. 

It should be added here that since the Congress, the government has announced roughly 20 per cent cuts in prices of food items in the hard currency shops, and very extensive price caps on food items across the state and non-state sectors (except for the supply-and-demand priced food markets and self-employed food vendors). 

Transferring power

In his closing speech, Raúl reiterated that this Congress was the last that would be led by the historic generation who made the Revolution. The next five years would see the definitive transfer of all the main responsibilities to new generations. Concerns were expressed over rejuvenating and reorientating the Party, with membership reported as falling continuously since 2006, notably in tourism. A strong passage in the Central Report addressed the ideological challenge of the new US regime-change strategy aimed at Cuban youth, intellectuals, and the self-employed. The Party had to confront, “petit bourgeois ideology characterised by individualism, selfishness, the pursuit of profit, banality, and the intensifying of consumerism.”

And this was happening in a context of greater diversity in the economy and in incomes. Hence, the Report said, “It must be fully taken into account that to the extent that the implementation of the new Model advances, a different scenario for Party organisation will take shape, characterised by the increasing heterogeneity of sectors and groups in our society, originating from differences in their income. All this poses the challenge of preserving and strengthening national unity in different circumstances to those that we became accustomed to in earlier stages.”

Engaging youth

There was a great deal of reference to engaging young people. Not just through social media, as delegates pointed out, but also through direct contact with those with no access to such media. A systematic rejuvenation of the Party leadership was necessary and in addition to the rule, adopted in 2012, limiting high office to two five-year terms, Raúl announced a proposal to cap new entrants to the Central Committee at age 60, and to very high offices at age 70. He proposed that this should also apply to leadership roles in state and mass organisations. There was some opposition to this proposal in the debate, including from Mariela Castro. It is not clear yet how this proposal could be reconciled with the prohibition on age discrimination proposed in the Conceptualization and The National Economic and Social Plan to 2030. 

Some international attention was attracted by Raúl’s remarks on the increasing, but still unsatisfactory promotion inside the Party of women, young, and black and mixed race Cubans. In the latter case he called for a fight against “any trace of racism”.But the comment that attracted most attention was his avowal, “based on my experience in many years of Revolution, that women, generally, are more mature and better managers than men.”

Limiting private property

The Central Report acknowledged that there had been much concern in the discussions of the drafts of the Conceptualisation document about the concept of property, particularly the recognition of the “complementary role” of private ownership of some means of production. This, insisted Raúl, was nothing to do with restoring capitalism. But, he said, the Party had to confront the reality that the increase in self-employment “and the authorisation to contract a workforce” (referring to private sector employees), has led to the growth of small, medium and micro-enterprises that lack a proper legal framework because the existing laws were designed for individual self-employment. 

Private companies will in future have to operate within well-defined legal regulations. In this respect there has also been a significant addition to the 2011 Guidelines prohibition on the private concentration of property. The new documents add “concentration of wealth” and refer to the regulation of wealth, most obviously the role of taxation in regulating what the Conceptualisation document refers to as private sector profits arising from the “private appropriation of the results of alienated labour”.

In the debates, Ricardo Alarcón, former National Assembly President, highlighted the changing role of the trade unions in an increasingly heterogeneous society, and the more complex task of securing a culture of workers feeling that they are indeed the owners of the means of production. The Congress was very clear about the ongoing US strategy of regime-change and its new concentration on Cuban private enterprise. Obama, in his Havana visit, had focused repeatedly on this sector, the representative of corporate capital, as one delegate put it, posing as the friend of shoe-shiners. As Raúl put it, “We are not naïve, nor do we ignore the aspirations of powerful external forces that are committed to what they call the ‘empowerment’ of non-state forms of management, in order to create agents of change in the hope of putting an end to the Revolution and socialism in Cuba by other means.”

Celebrating the Five 

Whilst the Congress spent much time analysing difficult policy and political challenges, there was plenty to celebrate. Cuba’s victory in forcing the shift, albeit limited, in US policy was registered, and personified by the presence and interventions of the Five. One delegate welcomed their presence as “part of our fortifications and our resistance”. 

René González intervened in debates on leisure provision, emphasising the need for this to be educative, and tailored to recognise differing income levels. He also referred to Obama as coming to Cuba as the “Pied Piper of Hamelin” playing to Cuba’s youngsters, so it was essential that the Central Report reached out to them too. In the debate on concentration of wealth, Fernando González pointed to the potential of progressive taxation. In a discussion of the Central Report, he argued that not only should it be discussed by the party rank-and-file, workplaces and neighbourhood committees, but also be used to engage sometimes apathetic youths using appropriate methods of communication. In the debate on the  Party’s activities, Antonio Guerrero also strongly advocated the need for the Party to connect to every young person, and every Cuban. Ramón Labañino intervened in the discussion of national defence to stress the need to maintain cybersecurity as changed relations with the US made possible new “siren songs” undermining Cuba’s vigilance. And he called in another debate for the culture of inertia to be broken, for learning from leaders how to make decisions, not wait for instruction from above (arriba). 

And Fidel

And, of course, delegates celebrated what Fidel Castro, nearly 90, said might be his last words to a Party Congress. In a short speech he spoke of his discovery of socialism and confidence in the USSR, about whose collapse he exclaimed, “What a historical lesson!”. He expressed the wish that humanity would see another such revolution that had signified, “an enormous step in the struggle against colonialism and its inseparable companion, imperialism”. Referring to his mortality, he said his turn would come, “but the ideas of Cuban communists will remain as proof that if you work with fervour and dignity, we can produce the material and cultural goods that human beings need, and we have to struggle relentlessly to achieve that!”

Changing international contexts

The Congress was able to mark the ending of the hostile EU Common Position and the opening of normal relations with the EU including debt cancellation and rescheduling with the Paris Club and several European states (ten days later the British Foreign Secretary signed a rescheduling deal). But it also noted the “strong and articulated counteroffensive on the part of imperialism and oligarchies” in the region, pursuing a “new doctrine of unconventional war ...without ruling out destabilisation and coup”. The response, Raúl said, must be “more unity and increased articulation of revolutionary action.”

Participation and debate

Since the Congress, the two key documents, The Conceptualisation of the Cuban economic and social model of socialist development and The National Economic and Social Plan to 2030: Proposed Vision of the Nation, Strategic Themes and Sectors, have been published in a cheap tabloid edition, and online. They are now out for mass consultation with National Assembly deputies, Party members, mass organisations, and civil society groups and Cuba’s many institutions. The Central Committee will then draft revised versions for submission to the National Assembly at the end of this year. The Conceptualisation document, Raúl pointed out, was the first time a Party Congress had ever been presented with such a theoretical statement. Its publication and debate is part of a sustained attempt to secure the broadest possible consensus in Cuba for the structural transformations of the economy underway, and for the defence of the Revolution and its achievements as the ‘historic generation’ prepares to hand over its leadership responsibilities to a new cohort of Cuban leaders. The constitutional reform process will bring another major public debate on Cuba’s future. It is intended to reflect the changing economic and international contexts, the introduction of term and age limits in leading positions and probably also some updating of the Popular Power system of government and representation. 

Our role

Cuba, then, continues to reform its Model and consider its future, in a political system that prioritises human development and internationalism, and works, despite all the external pressures, by combining a determined leadership with mass participation. Our primary obligation remains to defend Cuba’s sovereignty and self-determination in today’s more complicated circumstances, in which many think the struggle is over, or, conversely, that Cuba is in transition towards capitalism. To them, we have to stress that CSC’s primary stance is anti-imperialist, and Cuba’s right to self-determination is the object of a continuing imperialist blockade, territorial occupation, and subversive interventions, despite the diplomatic breakthrough in 2014. We have to point to Cuba’s commitment to social ownership of basic means of production, to its own political system and to the unchanging aspirations of the Revolution for social justice and equality, anti-imperialism and internationalism. And we have to insist that that self-determination includes the right to update their Model of a state that is, as the documents put it, ‘sovereign, independent, socialist, democratic, prosperous and sustainable’: the focus of this Congress and the mass public debates now underway.

‘Decisions made with regard to the Cuban economy will never, under any circumstance, mean a break with the ideals of equality and social justice of the Revolution and much less rupture the strong union between the majority of the people and the Party. Neither will we allow such measures to generate instability or uncertainty within the population.’ 

‘We are grateful for the support we have received over many years from the international community, political parties and movements, social organizations, intellectuals, academics, the religious, artists, trade union leaders, farmers and students, friends in solidarity groups, who from all parts of the world have accompanied us in our struggle. We know we can continue to count on them in the battle to construct a better world. To all, we reaffirm that you will always have the unconditional support and solidarity of an eternally revolutionary and internationalist Cuba.’

‘Given the complex circumstances in our region and the world, the Cuban Revolution’s foreign policy will remain faithful to its original principles which we have defended in more difficult times, and in the face of more serious threats and challenges.’

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