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Cuba's Reform-Minded Party Congress

Interviewer: Aimee Rawlins
Interviewee: Julia E. Sweig, Nelson and David Rockefeller Senior Fellow for Latin America Studies and Director for Latin America Studies
April 15, 2011

The Cuban government will hold its first Communist Party Congress in fourteen years from April 16-19. President and party leader Raul Castro recently began a series of economic reforms, says CFR expert Julia Sweig, and this Congress will serve to clarify many of these changes. "We're really talking about economic reforms that in their sum total equal a pretty significant political reform," says Sweig, who authored Cuba: What Everyone Needs to Know. "But they're not political reforms, strictly speaking." While U.S.-Cuba relations have improved under President Obama, the 2009 arrest and March 2011 sentencing of USAID contractor Alan Gross, who was part of what she calls U.S.-sponsored "regime change program," has become a distraction and highlights problematic and outdated U.S. policies toward Cuba. Sweig says the United States should acknowledge Cuba's evolution and change a number of its policies--including the travel ban, third-party embargos, and  government-sponsored programs to destabilize the Cuban regime.

Why is the Party Congress being held now after so many years?

A bit of background: Fidel Castro steps down because of significant illness in 2006; he almost dies; he hands over provisional power to his younger brother Raul in the summer of 2006. In early 2008, Raul is formally endorsed by the National Assembly to become the new president. When Fidel starts to recover, Raul begins to take the pulse of the country to get a sense of the reform agenda, scope, what will be supported, where the key sticking points will be--whether in the military, the bureaucracy, the Communist Party itself, and in Cuban public opinion.

So in the two years since he took office, he's pushed for economic reforms that in their sum total equal pretty significant political reform. But they're not political reforms strictly speaking. In the summer and toward the end of 2010, he gave a series of pretty stark speeches on the necessity of ending a system in which the state pays for everything and nobody works. He introduced concepts like productivity and efficiency and argued that equality doesn't mean everybody should get the same thing but rather an equality of opportunity. He has put a lot of effort in penetrating and reforming the interest groups on the state payroll who benefit from the status quo by stealing from a government that controls 85 percent of the legal economy. The black market costs a huge amount to sustain because Cuba is such a giant welfare state--cradle-to-grave education, health, pension, housing, utilities. The fact that the state pays for everything, without a strong productive base, was making the country insolvent.

What is the significance in scheduling the Congress to coincide with the fiftieth anniversary of the Bay of Pigs?

Raul Castro laid out the necessity to end a system in which the state pays for everything and nobody works. [He] introduced concepts like productivity and efficiency and argued that equality doesn't mean everybody should get the same thing but rather an equality of opportunity.

Once it became clear late last summer that the outline of the reforms intended to be put forward at the Congress had been clarified, the selection of the date coinciding with the fiftieth anniversary of the Bay of Pigs was highly symbolic. The Bay of Pigs invasion failed. It was an attempt by the United States to overthrow Castro, and it was the moment when Castro's domestic political success coincided with an international success. Defeating the imperial invaders wouldn't have been possible without the massive domestic political support that he had. As the revolution begins a very significant transformation, the message is: "Just because we're changing doesn't mean that we're casting off our nationalism and our revolutionary ethos. Economic reform does not mean a concession to the United States, but a necessity to preserve the gains of the last fifty years in spite of American efforts to thwart us."

With economic reforms already in motion, will anything new come out of the Congress, or will it just solidify what's already in existence?

There is a certain amount of mystery. In the fall, they released a document called lineamientos--basically a Communist Party platform. This lineamientos is a reflection of public and private consultations that went on across the country. The thrust of it is to reform the economy, shrink the size of the state, move people off the state payrolls, and create space for private economic activity: to retain the country's socialist ethos but remove the taboo from private economic activity. So there is the monetary policy, eliminating the dual currency system; there's fiscal policy, cutting spending; and there's the overhaul of the political culture in which some in the Communist Party have become an obstacle to what might be understood as good governance. Efficiency of state institutions and removing ideology from policy decision-making as much as possible, and productivity: these are the deep issues the lineamientos laid out and that the outcome of the Congress will clarify.

Is Raul Castro a real reformer?

Raul has been a real institution builder for the last fifty years. He built the Cuban armed forces. Even when he was in the mountains in the 1950s, the structure and management of the forces he commanded were meticulously organized. In the 1980s, he was on the forefront--even before the Soviet Bloc collapsed--of arguing that private economic activity was not anathema to socialism and that capitalism, money, the market could actually be a tool for the country. So he sent his people from the military abroad to business school to look at potential models for the Cuban economy. He was on the forefront of arguing, and persuading his reluctant brother, that the country should have private farmers' markets, should legalize the dollar, should allow self-employment. Today, he's the strongest advocate I know of inside the government for taking steps to make Cuba a more open society, and not just on the economic front.

Are we going to see changes in Cuba's human rights record and treatment of dissidents?

We've already seen some significant changes on that front. In 2010, he launched--in conjunction with the Catholic Church and in consultation with the EU--a process that has just now been completed of releasing all the political prisoners who were jailed in 2003 [known as the "Black Spring" crackdown, seventy-five dissidents were jailed]. My sense is he viewed the issue of political prisoners as a ball and chain that he didn't want to carry around while having to gain domestic support for the economic reforms. But that doesn't mean there's no longer close watch on people who associate themselves with the United States or its policies and organize as dissidents.

Having said that, there's a lot more space for disagreement, and in public. He's opened up some access to the Internet, computers, cell phones, and blogging. Opponents of the government are tweeting all the time. Part of that has to do with a clear sense--not just by him but by many people in Cuba--that Cuba needs to compete globally and they can't continue to isolate themselves. This doesn't mean they won't try to have an Internet and telecommunications policy that threads the needle between protection of state sovereignty and the perceived chaos of free expression and widespread access to social media.

How does the situation with Alan Gross complicate the U.S.-Cuba relationship?

Despite opposition within the Communist party and the fear over the unknown consequences of a radical new relationship he is proposing between the individual and the state, Raul Castro has undertaken some significant economic reforms in a relatively short period of time. It seems like the United States is still not willing to recognize that he is dead-set on transforming Cuba so that when he and his brother leave the stage, there will be some legacy of a functioning, self-respecting society capable of an independent foreign policy and an identity independent from the United States.

It seems like the United States is still not willing to recognize that he is dead-set on transforming Cuba so that when he and his brother leave the stage, there will be some legacy of a functioning, self-respecting society capable of an independent foreign policy and an identity independent from the United States.

Obama lifted all travel restrictions for Cuban-Americans as well as restrictions on their sending remittances to the island. He has also started opening up travel for American educational and religious institutions. The diplomacy between the two countries has become much more civilized under Obama. But since Helms-Burton passed in 1996, there's been a set of programs under Section 109, which are known as "democracy promotion programs" or "regime change programs." I see them as the latter. In the last few years of the Bush administration and still today, about $20 million per year has been allocated for government contractors in the private sector and some NGOs in the United States, Europe, and Latin America to try to compete with existing Cuban institutions. The model is similar to the sorts of programs the United States undertook in eastern and central Europe in the 1980s. The fundamental intent of the programs is to undermine the regime's capacity to govern, maybe not through invasion but certainly through destabilization.

Legitimate, legal connectivity between the two societies would flow from lifting the travel ban on Americans to Cuba, which is the only country in the world that the U.S. government bans its citizens from visiting. There is no guarantee that the end of the travel ban will mean multiparty democracy is born tomorrow in Cuba. But the moves on the table now--creating a small and medium-sized business culture, shrinking the state, opening public discourse to more and competing ideas--will naturally be reinforced by more contact with Americans. The regime-change programs under which Alan Gross wound up in Cuba, and now in Cuban jails, are a waste of money. They are also a sideshow to the economic sanctions that comprise the embargo.

What was Gross's involvement in these programs?

Gross had a $500,000 contract from a big USAID contractor, DAI, based in Maryland. He went down on a tourist visa but was distributing satellites. Cuban surveillance followed him for about a year and arrested him at the end of 2009. He was just sentenced to fifteen years in prison. Weirdly, we're at this moment where a radical restructuring of Cuba is beginning under Raul Castro; U.S. policy has begun to move in ways that would support those new small businesses by beginning a trickle of capital through family members and remittances and now through more Americans visiting under license. But you have this Gross case, which the Obama administration has become fixated on, but not fixated enough to do the right thing, which would be along the lines of freezing the programs or decontaminating them.

The main obstacle to smart policy from the United States is two-fold. One is domestic politics. Cuban-American public opinion is way ahead of Washington now, but the chairwoman of the House Foreign Relations Committee, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, and the most senior Hispanic Democrat in the U.S. Congress, Robert Menendez, can make a lot of noise the White House and the State Department seem unwilling to tune out. The second obstacle is that the stakes are too low: Cuba's succession and now its transformation have been remarkably stable, so there is no urgency inducing the administration toward a smarter policy toward the island.

What are the viable options to break this standstill for the United States?

Gross is going to appeal his sentence. I don't know how long that will take. There is a long list of things that the United States could do. They range from taking Cuba off the terrorist list, to the Obama administration loosening up on the prosecution of third-country companies for minor infractions of an embargo that is policed and enforced by the United States, and letting the soon-to-be paroled member of the "Cuban Five" [Cuban intelligence officers convicted in Miami of illegal activities in the United States] serve his parole in Cuba. The important thing is that at the end of the day, the Cuban government's main priority is domestic: job creation, productivity, education, infrastructure, and an overhaul of popular expectations of what the state can and can't deliver. Raul Castro has pointedly taken the focus off of the United States as the cause of Cuban problems or the source of solutions. The problem is that the very people in Cuba who might argue that liberalizing the economy is an open door to imperial domination are the very people who will cite the existence of these regime change programs ­­­to reinforce their arguments. Having the United States back off on these programs would create more space internally for reformers to make their case about the viability of a more open society going forward.

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