Restructuring the Revolution

Summer 2011

Steve Ludlam looks at the decisions taken at the historic Communist Party Congress in April 2011 and the role of Cuban people in shaping the new economic changes

In April 2011, the Cuban Communist Party held its long-overdue 6th Congress, pausing to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Bay of Pigs victory. If anti-imperialist resistance set the context, the content was more mundane: how to rescue Cuba’s socialist economy, guarantee the national sovereignty that the revolution secured, and sustain the Revolution’s social achievements.

The urgency has two sources. Cuba’s blockaded economy recovered its pre-Soviet collapse GNP by 2005, but remains inefficient, with inadequate salaries, and gross inequalities arising from unequal access to hard currency. Then, after the 2008 hurricanes and the world crisis, Cuba was pushed into a serious balance of payments deficit. These factors prompted the restructuring effort: the ongoing mass redeployment of state workers (see Cuba Si, Autumn 2010), followed by the Party’s ‘Political Economy Guidelines’ for the Congress.

‘The heart of these Guidelines,’ Raúl Castro told the country, ‘is ... produce what we can export, save imports, and invest in work that can recover its costs most rapidly, and, further, raise the level of efficiency of the economy’.

Of course, the guarantees of equal and free education, health care, and social services, and promotion of sport and culture, were restated. But most attention abroad has been on elements signalling a retreat from direct state economic control. This is not just about greater self-employment, but also a wider role for workers’ cooperatives, and the development of bank loans and a wholesale sector to serve the non-state sector. A critical objective for the non-state sector is to end Cuba’s debilitating status as a net food importer.

The expansion of a properly-taxed, non-state sector is intended to permit the state, as Raúl Castro’s introductory Congress speech put it, ‘to concentrate on raising the efficiency of the fundamental means of production’. This includes renewed industrialisation, for domestic development and for export; and the decentralization of state-owned enterprises, generating their own investment and profits, and liable to bankruptcy. Aspects of state services may pass to state enterprises, and the education system is to be more responsive to economic development. The Congress restated the intention to end the dual currency situation, and reaffirmed general state control of prices. But two vital political dimensions have received less attention: Raúl Castro’s interventions; and the public consultation.

The fierceness of the Raúl’s criticisms, in the National Assembly in December 2010 and in the Congress, were striking. The Guidelines may have been largely about economic policy, but Raúl bluntly attacked political culture in Cuba. He demanded rejection of past ‘dogmas’ and ‘failed schemas’. He targeted ‘excessive, idealistic and egalitarian paternalism’, notably in expectations about social justice. The Revolution had confused socialism with handouts and subsidies and the view that the rationbook was for ever. Originally providing equality amidst shortages and preventing profiteering, the rationbook had become an ‘insupportable burden’, a disincentive to work and a source of illegal behaviour. It contradicted the socialist principle of distribution linking personal consumption to work performed. Nevertheless abolition was conditional on adequate supplies of affordable goods, raising salaries, and ending the dual currency system. Cuba, he promised, would not opt for ‘shock therapy’ or abandon any of its citizens, but would support individuals in need had to replace indiscriminate subsidies on commodities.

He laid into Cuba’s political and managerial elites, whose ‘violations’ and ‘mistakes’ had not been confronted. ‘Lies’ and ‘deceptions’ routinely displaced honest accounts of non-fulfilment of tasks, aided by an unacceptable culture of secrecy, which he attacked. Excessive centralization had stifled initiative, and too many cadres were accustomed to everything being decided ‘arriba’ (from above), and neglected their own responsibilities.

Announcing the sacking of three ministers, whom he counted as friends, he warned that no-one was immune if they weren’t up to the job. Contracts undertaken by enterprises and state authorities had to be honoured in future.

‘We applaud the speeches, shout long live the Revolution, and then things carry on just the same!’, he lamented. If the Revolution was to be saved, Cuba could not afford to repeat past errors And, for good measure, he attacked the state media’s habits of ‘triumphalism, stridency and formalism’ and for broadcasting ‘boring, improvised and superficial material’.

To streamline effective government regulation, strengthen ‘institutionalisation’, and remove ‘irrational prohibitions’ that encourage corruption, he called for a simplification of Cuba’s legislation. The state should not be interfering in relations between individuals, he suggested, with the private sale of accommodation and cars in mind. In terms of governance, a new Permanent Commission for Implementation and Development, under the Council of State and the Council of Ministers, would be responsible for seeing the Guidelines implemented. And this Commission would have a sub-group to coordinate any new laws or constitutional reforms needed.

The Party should abandon ‘pomposity’ and ‘empty slogans’, and would hold a National Conference in 2012 to reform its ‘methods and style’. It had to revert to its proper role as Cuba’s ‘higher leading force’.

The Party’s ‘moral authority’ should not be confused with the ‘material authority’ of the state. Both Party and state, he suggested, had suffered from this confusion. The state should stop interfering in enterprises, and the Party should stop interfering in both, stick to monitoring, and divest itself ‘once and for all’ of direct social and economic management functions.

The Party should ‘reduce substantially’ its opaque powers of ‘nomenclatura’, its right to name candidates for leadership positions and remove them. These powers should belong to ministry and enterprise managements. The Party needed to behave more democratically and collectively, and address the problems of the quality of its cadres, including some promoted on the basis of ‘pretence and opportunism’.

In particular, the Party had to promote more women, black and mixed race, and young Cubans into positions of responsibility. The failure to achieve this after fifty years, he told the Congress, was ‘truly shameful’. Announcing a two-term limit on senior leadership roles, he also warned Central Committee members that their position was not a passive reward for long service, but an active leadership commitment.

The other overlooked political dimension is the mass consultation on the Guidelines. Two aspects stand out.

Firstly, the scale. Three months of national debate included 163,079 meetings in workplaces, communities, mass organisations, Communist Party branches, with 8,913,838 participants. No doubt many attended several meetings, but this is a tremendous percentage of Cuba’s adult (voting) 10.5m population. 3,019,471 individual contributions produced 579,911 individual ‘opinions’ on the Guidelines’ contents.

Only 32% of the original 291 Guidelines survived unchanged, and 36 new ones were added. After the Congress the Guidelines were republished showing the original and revised contents, and explaining every change and how many opinions had informed it.

This post-Congress version reveals a second aspect that stands out: the content of the most popular changes.

Most changes were advocated by just a few hundred Cubans’ ‘opinions’, but a ‘top fifteen’ can be extracted that were supported by over 6000. These bear witness to the debate’s genuine nature and political character. They certainly appear to signal the influence of Cuban women, still overwhelmingly responsible for household management.

The 1st ranked item (54,979 opinions) added the crucial word ‘gradual’ to the proposal to abolish the rationbook that puts food on Cuban tables at subsidised prices. The 2nd item (32,171 opinions) added a new Guideline demanding price stability of basic necessities in the non-state sector, which mainly means food in the ‘supply and demand’ priced markets . The 3rd ranked change (22,599), another new Guideline, called for retail selling of cooking fuels, giving households a choice. With rising electricity prices, the ‘Energy Revolution’ electrical cookers distributed to households to save national costs are not now everyone’s first choice of fuel (many had bottled gas supplies stopped after this distribution). The 14th item (7123), requires improvement in repair services for these electrical appliances (people have faced delays and been unable to cook).

Other popular frustrations emerged. A new Guideline, ranked 4th (16,875), prioritized passenger transportation. The 6th (13,816) produced another new Guideline permitting the private sale of cars. And the 9th (12,247) amended the Guideline that called for the ‘reorganisation’ of transport, inserting instead ‘reordering’, which apparently means a reprioritizing rather than wholesale restructuring of resources. The 10th (11,195) called for a new policy to permit Cubans to holiday abroad. And the 11th (10,942) proposed more accessible permits for home improvement.

These interventions represent everyday concerns, and demonstrate that the consultation process was genuine. Other items, though, are interesting because they represent a collective socialist voice that has modified the economic efficiency focus of the Guidelines. For example, the key Guidelines on health, and on education and teacher training, were amended by the 5th (16,600) and 7th (13,126) items, which added attention to the treatment of workers in these sectors. On health, the ‘satisfaction of the people’ was made an explicit objective, together with working conditions. The 12th ranked item (10,665) amended the Guideline on health technology, to include the quality of emergency treatment and ambulance services. One original Guideline proposed that salary increases should be prioritized in favour of sectors earning or saving hard currency. Recent policy has been prioritising workers in education and health, normally unable to earn productivity bonuses or access hard currency at work. So the 13th most popular amendment (7276) added increases to those whose work brings ‘particular social benefits’. The spirit of solidarity also emerged in the 8th most popular item (13,012), that amended the Guideline on retail sale of building materials at unsubsidized prices, adding subsidies for people in need. And in the 15th ranked (6670), the drive to link salaries to effort and productivity was amended with an explicit requirement that salaries must reflect the costs of the basic necessities for workers and their families.

In the medium term Cuba is looking forward to serious economic development, with a range of partners. It is developing its promising offshore oil reserves, and major harbour, oil and industrial centres on its north and south coasts, with major investments from Brazil, Venezuela, China and Spain. For now it needs to move quickly to raise its economic efficiency, the focus of this historic Congress.

The Congress showed again the depth of political participation in Cuba, and its leaders’ capacity for confronting reality, however uncomfortable. And we should always remind ourselves that in Cuba economic efficiency is not an end in itself or a source of private profit. It is a means to social ends.

In Cuba, social solidarity and social justice are not empty slogans proclaimed by career politicians chasing votes, fame and fortune. They are the explicit ethical principles of the constitution of the Republic, and they remain firm habits of everyday social life even after two decades of economic dislocation. So it is not a surprise that the Congress debates reflected precisely that social ethos. As Raúl reminded the Congress,

‘It is the state’s role to defend national sovereignty and independence, values of which Cubans are proud and which continue to guarantee the public order and the security of citizens which distinguish Cuba as one of the most secure and tranquil countries in the world, with neither drug trafficking nor organised crime, without adult or child beggars, without child labour, without cavalry charges against workers, students and other sectors of the population, without extrajudicial executions, clandestine prisons or torture centres, in spite of the baseless campaigns constantly orchestrated against us, deliberately ignoring that all these realities are, primarily, fundamental human rights to which the majority of inhabitants of the planet still cannot aspire.’

The efforts of the Cuba Solidarity Campaign to end the US blockade, and defend the Cuban people’s right to develop their unique society as they see fit, remain as necessary after this historic Congress as they did in the depths of the post-Soviet crisis.

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