Back in with the old in Cuba

The Seventh Congress of the Cuban Communist Party concluded this week with the re-election of Raúl Castro, 84, as First Secretary. In another coup for the old guard, founding member of the CCP and ideological conservative José Ramón Machado Ventura, 85, was returned as Second Secretary.

If there were any lingering hopes that the visit of US President Barack Obama last month might help usher in an era of rapid political reform in Cuba, the outcome of the Congress lays them to rest. The vice-like grip of the Castro regime’s octogenarian stalwarts on Cuban politics means that, for the foreseeable future at least, economic and political change will be incremental at best.

Fresh from his wholly-predictable victory, Raúl Castro’s closing speech to the congress did strike a modernizing note, particularly on the subject of economic reform:

We all know that there are venerated comrades who still feel nostalgia for former times… However, we must overcome old habits and the psychological barriers associated with them…

Critics will inevitably point to the yawning chasm between the rhetoric of the Castro regime and its actions – before his re-election, Mr Castro had suggested that Cuban leaders should retire at 70 – but there does appear to be a growing sense in Havana of the need to wean the Cuban people off the state and encourage much-needed investment from abroad. Mr Castro’s speech made direct reference to submitting planned amendments to the Law on Foreign Investment to the National Assembly in March 2017, whilst also talking up the Mariel Special Development Zone, a port project on Cuba’s north coast focussing on sustainable economic development.

Though, as Comrade Castro was quick to stress, old habits do indeed die hard. Warning of the perils of “galloping inflation”, his speech counselled against a widely-desired rise in state sector salaries and freer labour laws.

And on foreign policy, the unifying rhetoric of the Obama visit was dispensed with, replaced by a homily on the evils of American imperialism, pointing to the supposed instigation of recent unrest in Venezuela and interventions in Ukraine, Syria and Libya. In a bizarre aside, Mr Castro referred to an “Unconventional Warfare” manual developed for US Special Forces in November 2010 – conveniently available on Amazon for any aspiring Fifth Columnists – as evidence of continued American aggression.

The link may be tenuous but the message is clear: In Havana’s eyes, Washington’s rhetoric may have moved on, but its objective of regime-change is as current as ever.

For all the Cold War sabre-rattling and glacial pace of reforms, the hand of the Cuban Communist Party could soon be forced by age, a fact surprisingly acknowledged by Father of the Revolution, Fidel Castro. In a valedictory speech to 1300 assembled congress-goers, the 89 year old former President admitted that this could be his last Congress, stressing however that “the ideals of Communism will endure”.

Yet so integral are the Castros to the political status quo in Cuba that it is difficult to see how their departure from the political arena would not be the catalyst for a governmental transformation.

Younger brother Raúl – himself no spring chicken – has pledged to step down as President in 2018 but still intends to see out his full term as First Secretary until 2021, should his health allow.

Now, working to this 5-year timeframe, appearances suggest that foundations are being laid for a gradual political reformation in Cuba. Of the 5 new members appointed to the Politburo during the recent Congress, 3 come from the telecoms and healthcare sectors, the outward-facing industries the communist state is leveraging in its early efforts to open up to international investment.

Likewise, Miguel Díaz-Canel, the current Vice-President – regarded as something of a modernizer if only by dint of not being called Castro and being born after the 1959 revolution – is widely tipped to take over the Presidency from the younger Castro in 2018. With over 30 years’ experience in the engine room of the CCP and a close personal relationship with the Castros, Mr Díaz-Canel is unlikely to be the embodiment of reformist zeal. Yet after more than half a century of semi-autocratic rule in Cuba, anything that isn’t Castro represents change.

The gradual pace of these changes is unlikely to appease those calling for reform, even less Republicans in the US Congress upholding the decades-long blockade on Cuba.

But even though the CCP Congress this week reaffirmed the existing political order, those with an appetite for modernization can comfortably wait in the wings while the timer inevitably ticks down on the Castros’ Cuba.

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