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Cuba’s First Party Conference

Author: Julia E. Sweig, Nelson and David Rockefeller Senior Fellow for Latin America Studies and Director for Latin America Studies
January 31, 2012
Folha de Sao Paulo

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First published in Portuguese in Folha de Sao Paulo.

Last April, the Cuban Communist Party Congress approved hundreds of "lineamientos" intended to guide the transformation of Cuba's social contract. Closing the Congress, Raul Castro pointed out that the membership of the politburo—largely white and male and over 65 years old—had yet to appropriately reflect the demographics of the country. He likewise acknowledged as a model for others his brother Fidel's act, at the time, of formally asking not to be re-nominated for membership in the Central Committee or the politburo. Some observers took this to suggest that the conference would see more retirements. Others, more inexplicably, speculated that the conference would ring in the beginning of multiparty democracy for Cuba. Neither occurred.

Since he took office in 2008, I have noticed the absence of strident rhetoric, in general, and related to the United States. Yes, the embargo does economic damage and is an affront to Cuba's sovereignty, Raul reminds his audiences, but our problems are our own to solve and can't be blamed on the Americans. Yet at this gathering of the faithful, which integrated the positive themes of racial, religious, gender and sexual diversity, the tone of Raul's closing comments appeared decidedly negative. He revealed a lot about the immensely frustrating process of transformation–"sin prisa, sin pausa" in his words–that Dilma will hopefully sense during her visit.

The 80-year old president hit four interrelated notes: democracy, speech, corruption and generational leadership. First, invoking Jose Marti, he defended the "partido unico Cubano" as the country's still best and necessary defense against the "demagogia y mercantalizacion" of representative democracy—a model that "concentrates political power in the hegemonic class" where the "majorities don't matter and are brutally silenced and repressed." With the U.S. embargo and other programs still in place to destabilize the country, particularly at the moment of flux and change, multiparty democracy, he warned, would bring about the "undoing" of the Revolution. Even as he blasted the international media's complicity, Raul's second theme focused on the need for Cuba's own press to become professional and objective, and to avoid "useless secrecy," "false unanimity and formalism." He likewise implored party militants and the press to tell the truth—to one another and to the public—a call for objectivity and transparency that Cuba will need so that his generation doesn't lose its "last opportunity" to address the biggest threat to their legacy—corruption. Raul revealed that the Comptroller General, Attorney General, and Ministry of Interior and undertaken numerous corruption investigations involving party militants and others. "Corruption," he lamented, is "one of the principal enemies of the revolution, much more damaging than the multimillion dollar subversive and interventionist programs of the United States and its allies inside and outside of Cuba." Allowing it to fester would ultimately prevent the revolution from passing on its legacy to the next generation of leaders. Castro's fourth theme, then, attempted to explain the balancing act between new term limits—two consecutive five year terms for senior officials—with the absence of a solid bench of experienced next generation leaders ready to take the reigns.

Embedded in a rather negative speech were ideas like tolerance, fearlessness, confidence, sincerity, truth-telling, and objectivity as the only way to carry forward a more democratic revolution. A very tall order: sounds conservative, but in Cuban terms, one of downright radical potential.

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