The Sixth Congress of the Cuban Communist Party (PCC), held April 17-21, coincided with the 50th anniversary of Cuba’s historic defeat of the US-backed invasion at the Bay of Pigs and Fidel Castro’s proclamation of the socialist character of the Cuban Revolution.
When Fidel, 85, made a surprise appearance at the Congress closing session, many of the thousand delegates were overcome with emotion as aides helped him to his seat next to President Raul Castro.
Fidel, who retired from the presidency in 2006, makes very few public appearances. His participation symbolised the continuity of Cuba’s socialist project.
“Cuba is changing,” respected Cuban journalist Luis Sexto observed in August 2009, “and it changes so that it may remain socialist”.
He added: “Cuba, rigid for many years, shakes off the starch that immobilised it to change what is obsolete ... without compromising the solidity of the Revolution’s power.”
Political scientist and editor of Cuba’s Temas magazine, Rafael Hernandez, told the London Financial Times: “[The Congress] endorsed for the first time a fundamental change in the political and economic model.”
The Congress approved a policy document, the Economic and Social Policy Guidelines. It was substantially modified on the basis of an unprecedented popular debate, involving PCC members and non-members, in the lead-up to and during the Congress.
President Raul Castro told the Congress the debate had been “a truly extensive democratic exercise” in which “the people freely stated their views”.
The Guidelines were endorsed by Cuba’s National Assembly of People’s Power in August, which established a special commission to oversee its implementation and to draft, in Raul’s words, “the integral theoretical conceptualisation of the Cuban socialist economy”.
Raul told the Congress that given the depth, scope and complexity of the projected changes, they would take “at least five years” to implement. This would be done “without pause but without haste”.
He had bluntly warned the National Assembly in December: “Either we rectify or our time of skirting the precipice will be over, and we will destroy ... the efforts of entire generations.”
Raul said Cuba must abandon “erroneous and unsustainable conceptions of socialism [i.e. the socialist-oriented society] that have been deeply rooted in broad sectors of the population over the years as a result of the excessively paternalistic, idealistic and egalitarian approach instituted by the Revolution in the interests of social justice.”
The Guidelines foreshadow a new Cuban model of socialist development. This is emerging, slowly but surely, as Cuba’s revolutionary leadership initiates reforms that make inroads into a patchwork of errors, obsolescence, crisis-driven improvisation, bureaucratic inertia and the legacy of the post-Soviet “Special Period”.
The Guidelines are prefaced with a quote by Fidel: “Revolution means having a sense of the historical moment; it is changing everything that must be changed.”
They also feature one by Raul: “The economic battle constitutes today, more than ever, the principle task and the main ideological work of the cadres, because the sustainability and preservation of our social system depend on it.”
In a departure from Soviet-inspired orthodoxy — ossified into dogma in the minds of many Cuban revolutionaries— and a return to classical Marxism’s conception of the transition from capitalism to socialism, the Guidelines project a mixed economy with an expanded role for self-employment, small businesses and cooperatives.
There would be greater scope for market mechanisms, subordinated to the dominant state enterprise sector and central planning.
Planning and the market
Cuba’s post-capitalist economy underpins its sovereignty and social justice. Were Cuba to renounce central planning, it would mean handing over the country to the Cuban bourgeoisie based in Miami.
Cuba would revert to a US neo-colony with levels of poverty and social inequality comparable to Nicaragua or Honduras.
Were this tragedy to befall Cuba’s working people the vengeful counterrevolution would exact a terrible retribution, just as the colonial and imperialist powers have punished neighbouring Haiti for centuries for the “Black Jacobin” Revolution of 1791.
The challenge is to harmoniously combine the advantages of central planning with those of small-scale private and cooperative initiative, without resorting to the privatisation of social property and its inevitable sequel — a far deeper social divide than the one based on access to convertible currency, corruption and the black market that has emerged during the Special Period.
To prevent the emergence of a Cuban capitalist class that would conspire with its counterparts in Miami and Washington to restore capitalism, Guideline No. 1 states: “The socialist planning system will continue to be the principal means to direct the national economy.”
Guideline No. 3 affirms that “in the forms of non-state management [of social property] the concentration of property by juridical or natural persons shall not be permitted”.
The emphasis on small-scale private and cooperative enterprise is a necessary, and long overdue, correction to the near-absolute dominance of socialist state ownership and management of the economy — and the hyper-centralisation of decision-making that stifles individual and collective initiative.
Centralised management of such things as local bakeries, and well-intentioned but counterproductive bans on such things as people buying and selling their own homes, have necessitated a vast, unproductive administrative apparatus with a strong tendency to corruption amid the hardships of the Special Period.
Cuba is not ruled by a totalitarian bureaucracy — the revolutionaries have the upper hand in the Communist Party and the state — but it bears the imprint of its former Soviet benefactor, which still casts a long shadow over Cuba.
Its malign legacy, above all a substantial layer of corrupt administrators with capitalist aspirations, is a formidable obstacle to Cuba’s socialist renewal. In November 2005, Fidel warned that corruption could destroy the Revolution from within.
Raul is leading Cuba’s revolutionaries in the Revolution’s life-and-death struggle to overcome administrative resistance to the implementation of the Guidelines and to dismantle, or reduce to the unavoidable minimum, “the bureaucracy”.
“I warn you,” Raul said in August, “that bureaucratic resistance to the strict fulfillment of the Congress decisions, which have the massive support of the people, is useless”.
The reforms aim to pull Cuba’s post-capitalist economy out of the deep structural crisis caused by the demise of Soviet bureaucratic “socialism” in the early 1990s.
The Soviet bloc had accounted for 85% of Cuba’s foreign trade. Its disintegration caused the Caribbean island’s economy to contract by 35%.
Cuba’s economic relations with the Soviet bloc were based on preferential terms that shielded Cuba from the capitalist world market’s systematic exploitation of the Third World.
During the 1970s and '80s, this underpinned the highest living standards in Latin America and the twin pillars of Cuba’s relative social equality: world-class free health care and education.
As the Soviet bloc reverted to capitalism, US imperialism intensified its economic blockade of Cuba in the hope that hunger and despair would lead to an uprising against the socialist government and US-backed “regime change”.
Not for the first time, the imperialists underestimated the Cuban Revolution. Thanks to the Cuban people’s political awareness and stoic resistance, it has weathered the storm with its social achievements battered but largely intact.
Above all, Cuba has preserved its sovereignty and the cardinal achievement of the 1959 revolution: political power in the hands of the working people.
The opening of the socialist revolution in Venezuela has broken Cuba’s isolation and delivered vital moral and material reinforcement. The relationship between Cuba and Venezuela is that of two sister socialist revolutions whose paths are converging, as Chavez’s revolutionary government builds up a socialist state sector through expropriations and Cuba reverses the 1968 “Revolutionary Offensive” that expropriated urban small businesses.
Yet this mutually beneficial relationship won’t by itself reinvigorate Cuba’s socialist project.
It has become obvious over the past decade that the configuration of concepts, structures, methods and mentalities that allowed the Revolution to weather the harshest years of the Special Period has become an obstacle to it exiting this crisis period — that is, to resuming the building of socialism.
[This is the first in a series of articles on the debates and changes in Cuba. Marce Cameron edits the blog Cuba's Socialist Renewal.]