The VI Cuban Communist Party Congress: The Time to Engage is Now.

Barack Obama-Raul Castro

Giving Hugo Chavez the second copy of the proposal of a new economic model for Cuba (The first was given to Fidel Castro); President Raul Castro announced two important events that will make history in Cuba during 2011. First, Raul called the VI Congress of the Cuban Communist Party (PCC) in April 2011 to discuss a new economic and social model; second, he announced the plan to have a National Conference of the PCC by the end of the next year to discuss internal party issues and the renewal of its leadership.

These two events would most likely conclude the long succession from Fidel Castro to his brother that began in 2006 after the older Castro got sick. The call of the two meetings as parallel tracks makes sense from the view of the Cuban Communist leaders. In the first case, there is a consensus on the need to introduce major economic reforms in Cuba. The PCC is facing the challenge of the end of Fidel Castro’s charisma as one of the pillars of its rule. As result, it is trying to build up its legitimacy through economic liberalization, increased openness and growth.

Raul Castro defined the Congress as “of all the members and all the people which will participate in the main decisions of the revolution”. But this debate is about “one unique issue”: the “updating” of the Cuban socialist model, the solution of the economic problems, “the economic battle” from which the “revolution’s preservation depends”. All these code words confirm one thing, the population would have the chance to participate actively and change the margins and shape of the economic and social model.

In contrast, the PCC has no intention to open the political system to the catharsis and questioning of anybody. The decisions about political rule and renewal of the leadership will be discussed in the National Conference, at the end of the year. In the Conference, the members of the upper echelon would select the leaders of the country. They will not argue about how to change their one party rule but how to keep it going under the new conditions.

In line with this logic, the party has called the population for a discussion of a 32 page Congress document on the economic and social policy for the future. Although the document is more general than specific, it has ideas that have no precedent in the Cuban debate. It proposes an economic system closer to the one in Vietnam and China than to the current command economy Cuba has. After making clear the ideological goal of preserving planning as the primordial characteristic of the economy, the document repeatedly offers space and incentives to what it refers to as “non state activities”, meaning small private business and farms, cooperatives, and foreign investments.

To begin, the proposal suggests the end of the supreme symbol of the old socialist egalitarianism: the food ration card.  The party-government will control public sector companies through taxes and regulation not by administering them. From merely accepting with reticence the private initiative, the party shift to a strategy of promoting private, and other “non state sector”, companies. The new policy announces the creation of a wholesale market and mechanisms of lending to small private business. Hiring labor by the new private sector will be regulated not prohibited.

The document calls for the development of “special economic zones to promote development” and launch a drive to attract foreign investors in almost every sector of the economy. Equally important, the documents discuss the need to put Cuba’s financial house in order and legislate bankruptcy procedures that make possible a commitment not to bail out all inefficient companies.

There are calls to decentralize economic activities to the provinces and municipalities whenever possible. In the new design, municipalities are called on to be self sufficient in food production, small scale industries and services. The document calls local authorities to participate directly in investment decisions and propose that state businesses pay a new local tax to the governments where they are located. There are indications that a real estate market will be open for Cubans who will be able to buy and sell houses.

A challenge to U.S Policy:

These moves are evidences that Raul Castro is not only completely in charge in Havana but he is also attempting to reform the economy and the party in the face of increased demands for participation and socioeconomic development from all segments of society, especially the youth.

This situation makes a properly designed policy of U.S. engagement with the Cuban people and the elite more appealing than ever since 1959. When the VI Communist Party Congress finally meets in April, Cuban leaders will make strategic decisions for the next decade. As happened when Mao died in China, the US has the opportunity to strengthen the hands of those who advocate for a strong marketization program and greater civil and political liberties. The best way for the United States to facilitate Cuban democracy is to act ahead of the curve by opening Cuba up to more contact with ordinary US citizens and to greater US educational and cultural influence.

The Communist Party is making plans for what will be a truly post-Fidel government. There is little time to lose if the U.S. hopes to have any influence in the outcomes of these internal debates.  Clear and decisive acts of engagement, such as opening American travel to the island would be more effective and consequential now than in two or three years when the scope and design of the reforms will have been determined.