Raúl Castro is slated to step down from the Communist Party. Is Cuba in for a change?
For the first time in over five decades, a leader with no surname Castro is expected to take over the helm of Cuba's ruling party as officials attempt to usher in a generational change amid an oppressive economic crisis.
Raul Castro is expected to step down as the first general secretary of the Communist Party, believed to be the most powerful political position on the island, during the organization's eighth congress, due to begin Friday.
The transition comes at Cuba's most difficult moment in years. The island is in the throes of its worst economic contraction since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Painful economic reforms have driven inflation higher. Long lines for food have become common again. Trump-era sanctions have restricted access to vital economic lifelines such as remittances. And an emerging but increasingly vocal social movement is channeling growing frustration.
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Despite being referred to as the "Congress of Continuity," the Communist Party will be under pressure to accelerate the pace of economic reforms that began a decade ago.
"It's not just about getting a younger person into this position, it's about fundamentally changing the system. Some factions are under pressure, but there is also a lot of resistance," said Michael Shifter, President of the Inter-American Dialogue, one in Washington resident think tank. "It will be an extremely interesting conference as it takes place in the context of the worst economic situation in 30 years."
Long lines to buy groceries are commonplace in Cuba as the island's economy has deteriorated at the worst moment in nearly 30 years, falling 11% in 2020. This is the biggest drop since 1993. This week's Communist Party Congress will be under pressure to open up the economy to more private investment, among other things.
The Communist Party's official agenda for Congress includes three key items: Castro's replacement, which could include a broader change of guard among the front runners after Castro himself said at the 2016 conference that Cuba's leaders were "too old" and their terms should be limited ; a review of the economic policies and objectives announced at the 2011 Congress; and an analysis of the party's political work.
The 2011 Congress was seen as a milestone with the announcement of over 300 economic reforms, including measures to encourage stronger private initiative and expand private property. The reforms were considered the biggest shock to the island's state socialist economy in decades.
But a decade later, many of the ideas introduced barely get off the ground.
In January, the government lifted a confusing dual currency system, eliminated an artificial hard currency called the CUC, or Cuban convertible peso, and set the official exchange rate at 24 pesos to the dollar - a 2,400% devaluation. The changes triggered an increase in inflation, with some prices for electricity, for example, rising by up to 500%.
The salaries of government employees and retirees, as well as the minimum wage, were raised to offset the changes, but the prices of food, medicines, and other goods rose much faster. And pay for part of the workforce and in the informal economy has not increased.
In this 2013 photo, a Cuban is holding Cuban pesos in one hand and convertible pesos in the other. The government began abolishing the dual currency system in January.
It is much desired among Cuban observers that this congress could be less a ritual demonstration of support for the principles of the revolution and more a discussion of the need for reform, perhaps even with a more pragmatic approach given the circumstances, said Gregory Biniowsky, a Canadian Lawyer and consultant who has lived in Cuba for three decades.
But don't expect a radical change, he said.
"It could be a game changer," he said. "It won't be overnight, but it will be a profound change, a profound change, but it won't happen from one day to the next."
He said the expectations on the street in various groups, from government officials to Cubans who believe in the socialist system but want change to improve the economy, are that the generation change can strengthen the country and reduce the risk of collapse .
But he also said the frustration is at the highest level he has ever seen, especially among younger generations, who for the most part only know about life in Cuba after the Soviet Union. That's more than half of the island's 11 million or so people, and they will only pay close attention to the announcements made by Congress if they have a direct impact on their daily lives.
"The angry young man on the street will say, 'Oh, they're all the same, Congress or the change in leadership won't make a difference," he said. "But if you talk to some people in government who want change without To collapse, there is, in my opinion, the open expectation that a new composition within the Politburo will usher in this. "
The Communist Party of Cuba, founded in 1965, is the only party allowed on the island. She has tried to diversify her ranks and include younger people, more women and minorities in order to stay relevant. According to state media, the average age of the organization's skilled workers is 42.5 years and more than half of the party cadre are women. The top two positions - the first and the second secretary - will be occupied by Castro (89) and José Ramón Machado Ventura (90).
"This will be the Congress of Continuity," announced the official convocation of the event, "expressed in the gradual and orderly transition of the main responsibility of the country to new generations."
Delegates from all over Cuba are scheduled to gather in Havana for the Communist Party Congress from April 16-19 to take stock of the economy and set goals for the next decade. The congress takes place every five years.
Many Cubans are not optimistic that a younger leader like current President Miguel Diáz-Canel, who is widely expected to become the new party leader, will bring much change.
Eloy Calunga, a 30-year-old from Santiago de Cuba, the island's second largest city, said Congress had no contact with most in the country. He accused Cuba's leaders of turning their backs on the people and just working to create wealth for themselves.
“There is no medicine, no food. The police are abusing everything every day, ”he said. “Earlier this year I could have lunch for 10 pesos and now I need 50 or more. Most of the products are inaccessible to the majority of Cubans without access to dollars. "
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Many will observe whether Diáz-Canel, the 60-year-old civil president whom Castro selected as his successor three years ago, goes his own way as party leader without members of the old guard ruling him. As a loyal technocrat, he adhered closely to the basic socialist principles of the revolution and often used the hashtag #SomosContinuidad or #WeAreContinuity in his statements on social media.
For Alejandro Gómez, a graphic designer from Havana, the Castro legacy will continue to have a powerful influence on the government of both brothers.
"There is a well-structured mechanism that allows the Castro family to continue to rule the country," he said. For him, Congress is a "show where the ruling class comes together and wastes tons of paper on surreal plans and unreachable policies."
He said his life has deteriorated "very quickly" since January and has found it difficult to make a living selling posters to companies.
Even if Castro leaves public life, he is likely to continue to play an oversized role in party leadership and in supporting Diáz-Canel during what is likely to be a painful time of necessary reforms, experts say. The party's conclave, scheduled for April 16-19 in Havana, will likely shed light on how and how much Castro will participate in the transition that is intended to give Diáz-Canel more leeway in influencing investment and monetary policy. Although Castro was no longer the first secretary, he was able to keep a role as a member of the Politburo.
Miguel Diáz-Canel is expected to be named First Secretary of the Communist Party of Cuba at his congress this week after current leader Raúl Castro said the island's leadership needed new blood.
Measures to control inflation following a painful currency reform passed a decade ago but only recently implemented are likely to be discussed at Congress. The currency reform aims, among other things, to weaken the peso and make exports more attractive, but it has had an impact on the average Cuban.
"You will evaluate the economy in 2016-2020, and there is nothing special to say at that time," said economist Omar Everleny Pérez. "Cuba has had very little growth or decline, declining exports and weaker agricultural production."
He said Congress should announce "bold action" and prioritize projects that can realistically be approved, such as expanding internet access, using new financial instruments to refine monetary policy, and investing in more renewable energies.
Under Castro, the government allowed people to buy and sell their cars and houses for the first time in decades, and allowed more foreign ownership to local businesses. Internet access and cell phones were allowed. However, the gradual expansion of the Cuban private sector has been plagued by the island's stifling bureaucracy.
"The revolution created this massive bureaucracy and it doesn't work for short-term measures," said Biniowsky. "So you can have a reformist leader and a list of great initiatives, but the bureaucracy won't let them through."
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The government recently announced an expansion of private business activities, but kept the country's most strategic and lucrative sectors under state power, including healthcare, education, media and engineering.
The new list seems to open up huge new space for manufacturing. For example, Cubans can now apply for licenses to open cheese, paint and toy factories, even though the government has not yet determined the size of such companies.
Cuba has been able to control the spread of the coronavirus, but the slump in tourism has cut a major source of hard currency and plunged the island into severe food shortages.
And there is talk of Cuba changing its laws to allow "personas juridicas" or companies and corporations that sell and can be bought and sold stocks. The Cuban private sector is essentially made up of co-operatives or licenses held by individuals.
Many on the island are concerned about more determined action, and protests against the regime have increased in recent months, driven by growing access to social media. The San Isidro movement, a group of artists and intellectuals calling for more freedom of expression, and the recent music video "Patria y Vida", which went viral for suggesting a contradiction to Fidel's mantra "Patria o Muerte", are increasing the pressure Castro and Diáz-Canel should improve the protection of human rights and hurry with reforms that can help put the vast majority of food on the table.
And while the US remains in its policy towards Cuba for the time being, the Biden administration could take some humanitarian steps if the congress pledges to efforts to improve the lives of its citizens, said Jorge Duany, director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University.
"There is no urgency in the Biden government to take decisive action against Cuba," he said, "because it is not really politically significant at the moment."
El Nuevo Herald employee Mario J. Penton contributed to this report.
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