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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Cuba à l’heure de la relève

by Jean Ortiz

Cuba: A Changing Of The Guard

Translated Monday 14 December 2009, by Kieran O’Meara

Does the Cuban Revolution still possess any forward momentum after fifty years of arm-wrestling with "the Empire"? No other country in the world has had to face fifty years of imperialist aggression as Cuba has had to; resistance at the cost of 3,478 human lives, material deprivation and myriad hardships... and with great dignity. Undoubtedly, even though most of the key positions are still held by the "historical generation", a historical cycle is nearing its end, amid great tension and uncertainty. Since the end of July 2006, Fidel Castro (83), has given up his state and governmental responsibilities for health reasons. Is he out of the game for all that? Has the hour of a generational changing of the guard arrived? He will remain First Secretary of the Cuban Communist Party until its next congress, which was initially planned to take place at the end of 2009 (and has since been postponed). Fidel has become "comrade Fidel", simply "the soldier of ideas", who airs his views regularly in the daily newspaper Granma. Even if he no longer plays the role he once did, his stature remains undiminished.

Raul Castro (78), named as head of state and head of the government in February 2008 by the National Assembly, had the Assembly affirm his right to consult his older brother on "strategic questions". Raul Castro has taken on a weighty and almost impossible succession: he must govern in such a way that he develops reform and finds his own style of governing while preserving his brother’s legacy. He does not possess his older brother’s charisma. Is it, moreover, desirable that he will operate in the same way as Fidel? He cannot and would not wish to do so. Second in command from the beginning of the epic that is the Cuban Revolution, he has announced his wish to govern collectively. Raul Castro has been handed a position rife with potential pitfalls, where there are social and democratic aspirations which he must satisfy, along with hopes of renewal. Does he have room for manoeuvre? The Western media, contemptuous and dishonest when emancipatory processes are involved, have developed the theme of a Raul under "close supervision", anxious to make changes... which his brother will override. Undoubtedly, Raul is in control politically if less so morally. The monumental figure of Fidel still counts for much and will do so for a long time. Compelled to take over the reins in 2007, he announced "conceptual reforms" and "structural changes". This admission of a need for a change of course was accompanied by a great national debate and reforms began to be put in place:

▪ a (non-capitalist) de-collectivization of agriculture by the distribution of land in usufruct to farmers and co-operatives. Fifty per cent of state land was uncultivated at the time. 690,000 hectares of "idle land" (i.e. 39% of the total) have now been redistributed. A third of this has begun to be cultivated;

▪ a new, less egalitarian, wages policy along with a lifting of ceilings on earnings to encourage people to work more (and consequently earn more). In a society which had achieved a high level of social egalitarianism, eroded by the market reforms of the 1990s, this could contribute to a rise in the weak levels of productivity, but could also worsen inequalities;

▪ Raul Castro has liberalized access to tourist hotels, "hard currency shops’’, and new technologies, as well as making it possible to sell one’s apartment, one’s car etc.

The new head of state came up against a drastic worsening of the situation, however:

▪ in 2008, three hurricanes devastated the island, causing more than $10 billion worth of damage (20% of the GDP);

▪ the world financial crisis;

▪ a sky-rocketing in the price of agricultural raw materials, processed food products and energy costs. Paradoxically, Cuba has to import 80% of the foodstuffs it consumes;

▪ a fall in the economic growth rate (from 6% to below 2%);

▪ the maintenance of the dual currency system (a strong currency- the CUC, along with the weaker Cuban peso).

The crisis continues to eat away at social homogeneity and equality. The government is trying to preserve the basic, historical bed-rock of social achievements, particularly in relation to health and education, but it intends to call into questions some "excesses of free provision". The authorities are focusing on the absolute necessity to improve the lagging output and inefficiencies of the economy and to encourage greater productivity among the workers, without opening the door too wide to the private sector, or undermining the political system. On July 26, Raul Castro, speaking at Holguin, set out a crisis report. "We have the land (...) we will see whether or not we are capable of working it." This has become a "strategic priority". How can farmers and waged workers be persuaded to change the nature of their work, in a system which offers a high (or excessive?) level of social protection, where one can often live better by living on one’s wits than by working an eight-hour day? The younger generation is impatient, they do not have the same reference points as their elders. Highly educated, they do not always find careers suited to their abilities. They judge the system to be overly statist, centralized and bureaucratic. Behind a facade of unanimity, lively debates have taken place in the cultural sphere, within the CCP and the UJC (the youth wing of the Communist Party). These are unprecedented debates which rarely, however, show up in the mass media. It is a generation which wants to see a more participatory form of socialism; to ignore them could be to put socialism itself at risk. The daily newspaper of the UJC (Juventud Rebelde), called on August 30, 2009 for openness instead of "the pathological obsession with censorship". They wrote,"Our socialism needs to be examined systematically, without reference to any idyllic images one might have of it, or to the false notion that it is the best system in the world (...) Such blindness can only encourage opportunists and the lazy, whether or not they are in a position of responsibility, and risks fueling the notion that all is well." On May 16, 2009, Mariela Castro, daughter of Raul, marched at the head of the first procession against homophobia to take place in Cuba. Mariela called for "a socialist participatory democracy" through "the creation of mechanisms in social practice (...). It is this which will enable us to safeguard socialism as an historical option, and it is the only way the youth can feel part of the socialist project." The daughter of the head of State insists on the need to "perfect the mechanisms of socialist democracy" and on the need for a "more sustainable, inclusive and dialectical form of socialism".

Passing on the baton?

The handing over of power to a new generation cannot wait - but to whom should it be handed and in what direction should they head? - when the future is largely uncertain despite the reinsertion of the island in the alliance of Latin American states and its inclusion in ALBA. On July 29, a plenary meeting of the central committee of the CCP decided to postpone sine die a congress which had been announced for the end of the year (it would have been the first congress to take place since 1997). According to the heads of the party, the congress "needs more preparation in order to determine what needs to be improved, or indeed to be got rid of". Raul Castro has insisted on the need to take "difficult and unwelcome measures" faced with the consequences of the global crisis and "our own inadequacies". He added, furthermore: " It is most likely that, given the laws of biology, this will be the last congress led by the historical leaders of the revolution." The economic situation, which has made a necessity of governing with regard to the short term, and the "crisis of succession" no doubt justify the postponement of the congress. The two main candidates to take over the reins Carlos Lage (57), former deputy chairman of the Council of State, and Felipe Perez Roque (44), former Minister for Foreign Affairs, were recently sacked in the "Spanish espionage" affair. The two men, close associates of Fidel, well-regarded both in Cuba and abroad, fell from grace due to recorded conversations with their friend, the industrialist Conrado Hernandez, the representative of the Basque Development Agency in Cuba. The industrialist, working for the Spanish foreign intelligence services (CNI), had claimed he was there to reassure Madrid with regards to the "Cuban transition". He was arrested in possession of recordings in which the two leaders made some jokes, notably at the expense of the Old Guard. Accused of "disloyalty", "abuse of power" and "leaking of confidential information", Carlos Lage and Felipe Perez Roque were quickly fired. A day after their dismissal, Fidel Castro commented in Granma on their "undignified behaviour", brought on, in his view, by "the honey of power and ambition". Fidel reproached them further for letting themselves be taken advantage of by the foreigner. The main officials in charge of the economy were also fired. This political earthquake took place with a minimum of public explanations, and it is difficult to truly decipher the meaning of this event. One would be advised not to hold one’s breath for the announcement of "Chinese-" or "Vietnamese-style" changes, or for perestroika, or sudden wide-ranging political changes, but rather to expect gradual change to take place.

The election of Obama seems to have begun a new era. He has announced "a new approach towards Cuba". An official report, released on February 23, concluded for the first time that the embargo against Cuba was ineffective. Obama promised to loosen sanctions as well as the trade embargo imposed on October 19, 1960. While the tone might have changed, the new administration has not yet made any real gestures towards Cuba. At the 4th Summit of The Americas (Trinidad and Tobago, April 2009), Obama offered no real response to the Latin-American countries which condemned the political ostracism of Cuba. If American foreign policy towards Cuba "had failed", why maintain a cruel and anachronistic blockade which the American president ratified on September 11 for a further year. Why continue to include Cuba in the list of "State sponsors of terrorism"? Why refuse to release the five Cubans arrested on September 12, 1998 for infiltrating anti-Cuban terrorist groups? Why demand "concessions" from Cuba when the blockade is unilateral? Raul Castro has stated publicly that he is ready to discuss all topics on a basis of equality and non-interference. The times call for a normalization of relations. Cuba continues to make headway in Latin America: on June 3, 2009, a meeting of the Organization of American States (OAS) cancelled the resolution from 1962 which expelled Cuba from the OAS, with the unanimous agreement of its 34 member-states. An "historic success" for the island... despite Washington’s opposition.

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