This Is Not a Utopia

(New and old news around the National Conference of the Cuban Communist Party)

In April 2011, the Cuban Communist Party (PCC for its initials in Spanish) held its Sixth Congress – 14 years after the previous one. There the Party confirmed approval of a set of measures intended to, as President Raúl Castro phrased it, “update” the Cuban economic model. The Congress put off analysis of “political” issues until a PCC National Conference, something never held before, which took place on January 28, 2012.

Cuba’s 1976 Constitution assigns to the PCC the role of “directing the society and the state.” Proclaiming itself “Marxist-Leninist and Martí-ist,” it operates as the only party, and, as such, a “vanguard” one. Since 1992 it has also defined itself as the “party of the Cuban nation.” This complex of definitions gives it an unusual status for a political party. The Party has the moral obligation and the political need to measure up to its leadership role in relation to the society and to legitimize itself in society’s eyes through democratic relationships.

The subject of discussion at the National Conference was the internal workings of the Party. The document issued to prepare for the Conference was the target of many criticisms. Critics object to the focus on internal issues and the lack of statements about such basic topics as: national diversity, the breadth of demands to be dealt with, democratization of party and state practices, the urgent need for more effective, responsible, and transparent mechanisms of government, the need to standardize the protection of citizens’ rights, and, in sum, the demand to “update” the political model.

At the same time, the document has attracted little interest in the general population. The nation as a whole was not invited into the discussion, and the process leading up to the Conference received little coverage in the media. Nonetheless, this may be generating false signals about the “immobilism” of Cuban politics, and may be hiding the extent of changes now occurring on the island or the “reformist” character of these developments.

The new

The imagination behind the changes – which is distinct from what is set forth in the basic Conference document – proposes noteworthy innovations.

The relation between the state and the economy is being changed. The state has renounced an important part of its monopoly over the economy, employment, and control of personal income. With this change, the varieties of economic and institutional actors have multiplied, which signifies a renunciation, too, of the state monopoly over political action. A greater number of persons have become independent of the state, subject only to the discipline of paying taxes, something new to Cuban culture. New market mechanisms and private forms of economic organization are being introduced, new behavior based on “economic efficiency” is being promoted, and “socialism” is being defined in terms of the following dimensions: “the plan will prevail over the market,” “no one will be left unprotected,” and “concentration of property will be avoided.”

These changes can be shown by laying out the practices underway, measures announced, and decisions in the making. Together this produces an image that blends explicit government actions, demands and criticisms generated by members of society, and some tendencies that can yet barely be glimpsed.

The economy has been the major field of experimentation.

Usufruct tenure over almost 1.4 million hectares of land has been granted to 150,000 farmers, and an increase in the original limit on total acreage per farmer has been requested. Market mechanisms for distribution of farm products have been introduced, which signifies the beginning of the end of the system of centralized sale to the state. Incentives for local food production are being offered, and there have been demands for promoting sale of agricultural and industrial equipment to individual proprietors at reduced prices.

Self-employment (in the private sector) is being stimulated, and taxes on specific economic activities within this sector are being reduced, as is the cost of licenses to rent out means of transport or lodging in some situations. For the first time, hiring of paid workers by individual proprietors of small businesses has been allowed (a measure that, according to its critics, directly authorizes the capitalist form of economic organization), and payroll taxes based on the number of such workers are being lessened or eliminated. Private restaurants, which in the 1990s were allowed a maximum of 12 seats, now may offer 50. State-owned spaces will be rented to private proprietors or cooperatives, provision of loans to new small business entrepreneurs is underway, buying and selling of houses and used cars is now legal, and subsidies to allow low-income people to repair their homes have been authorized. The government has proposed that by 2015, 40% of the labor force should be working in the non-state sector, while twenty years ago 95% of employed persons were state workers.

There are demands to increase cooperative forms of production and to extend these from the countryside to the cities. There are expectations that the types of products such coops produce will expand to include services and light industry. The creation of second-level cooperatives (essentially cooperatives of existing cooperatives, but with different goals and legal status) has been approved.

Firms within the state system are to gain more authority to direct their own economic activity and control some portion of their earnings and their payroll decisions – implying a renunciation of the remaining traits of the Soviet economic model. These firms are to operate according to a regulated dynamic involving both state planning and the market. There are demands to clarify “how much” plan and “how much” market, while recognizing the “social function of economic growth.”

The long-time port of Mariel that gave its name to the great migration crisis of 1980 will become a Special Development Zone, with greatly expanded infrastructure and capacity for industrial plants and service provision. The length of time over which foreign investors may utilize state-owned land for real estate businesses was increased to ninety-nine years, thus allowing for projects including golf courses and luxury housing for foreigners. This measure has provoked criticism on both political and ecological grounds in relation to its social consequences and sustainability.

As part of this whole set of changes, the urban petty bourgeoisie has re-emerged, as have a sector linked to foreign investment and other new sectors as well, reshaping the ties and habits of the middle and upper classes. This development parallels increasing poverty, social inequality, and income polarization stemming from skin color, gender, and place of origin. (Almost a decade ago, the urban poverty rate was calculated as approaching 20%, with higher rates in the countryside.) In this context, the state “guarantees support for the neediest citizens, in spite of existing economic limitations,” but the state is “freeing itself” from obligations to provide basic necessities that it formerly subsidized, as can be seen in the proposed gradual disappearance of the ration book and the introduction of subsidies to individuals instead. This combination of factors makes it impossible to rebuild an essential piece of the revolutionary promise of 1959 – equality – an impossibility now being explained through a critique of “egalitarianism.”

From a strictly political point of view, there are also many novelties to be observed. These too are expressed as a combination of announcements, practices, and social demands.

The strategies being followed imply redistribution of power from the highest levels of the state to the society. They seek to generate practices of deconcentration and decentralization, state transparency and responsibility. They imply guarantees of pluralism.

Along these lines, the Sixth Congress of the CCP came out in favor of limiting the terms of top leaders to ten years, defended the possibility of individuals holding state offices without being Party members, and recognized the expression of differing opinions as a “right.” Raúl Castro criticized approval of decisions by “false unanimity,” stressed the importance of distinguishing between the state and the party and between the government and the system of state-owned businesses, and underlined the role that must be played by the press and by citizen participation.

In the new provinces of Artemisa and Mayabeque (created out of the former Havana Province), an experimental process is seeking to deconcentrate state power by separating the state from the government for the first time since 1959, and by favoring local decentralization. Provincial and municipal governments will control public enterprises in their areas that have, until now, been under centralized control.

Decision-making processes have been institutionalized. For example, the number of individuals and organizations attending meetings of the Council of Ministries has been increased, and meeting dates are announced and summaries of their results are published.

Greater institutional emphasis is being placed on detailed line-item budgets – which are now seen as “sacred” – as a way to protect decisions that have been made collectively and to monitor decision-makers.

The society is demanding a reform of migration regulations that would eliminate, among other obstacles, the permits required for Cubans to enter and leave the country, and that would protect the rights of emigrants. The government is working on such changes without offering information as to what they will be or how far they will reach. On another matter, there is now an explicit undertaking to combat forms of discrimination previously unacknowledged, or previously committed, by those in power (for example, state homophobia).

Raúl Castro has characterized corruption as the main enemy of the revolutionary process, and has acknowledged criticisms that point to the existence of groups who use their state positions to accumulate riches and to position themselves for the future. His campaign against such corruption has touched high-ranking officials and a significant number of enterprises, although the level of information about such charges and trials has been very limited.

Official discourse includes a previously unheard-of critical tone in personally identifying officials guilty of errors. It is also self-critical when it recognizes, for example, that positions adopted at previous PCC congresses have gone habitually unfulfilled, which is equivalent to recognizing that the existing institutional structure has not been the determinant channel for making and carrying out decisions.

A new political actor has appeared: the Catholic Church, which undertook an unprecedented mediation with the government culminating in the release of prisoners whose cases have political origins – an operation that also involved agreements with the Spanish administration of that moment (the Socialist Party); the church and government have also been carrying out a continuing dialogue.

The past five years have seen the emergence of a new “public sphere” in the form of exchanges of email messages which facilitate the diffusion of information and the expression of criticism, and the appearance of web sites, blogs, and magazines that serve as actors expressing opinions. Newspapers, although they do not cover most of this discussion, have added stable critical elements including critical reporting and letters to the editor. There have been harsh attacks on so-called “secretism,”1 an obstacle to the exercise of citizens’ right to information.

A new left has emerged, encompassing various approaches to socialism and democracy. The policy toward this trend has been one of ideological non-recognition (the leadership has historically believed there can be nothing to the left of itself) and of withholding institutional recognition from its forms of organization. This is something new in the political spectrum – the new left opposes the “dissidents” – and points to problems in representation of revolutionary diversity. In contrast with this trend has been the emergence of a new political opposition which sees itself as democratic liberalism, potentially capable of identifying itself with a segment of its contemporaries; this opposition lacks a social base but has international visibility and the support of foreign governments and other sources opposed to the Cuban political process.

In sum, Cuba is in motion. The path and the destination of that motion are what is under discussion in Cuban society. However, if there is indeed a national consensus to the effect that renovation of the system is indispensable, why is there no observable consensus that finds hope in the process of change? Why did the call to the National Conference not face the central political imperatives (listed in our final section) that flow from the new order of things? How can this refusal to fight for citizen enthusiasm be explained?

The limits and contradictions of the changes will determine their viability and, with it, the hopes that they can justify.

In 2008, the demand for “structural changes” began a process of transformations that has led to the economic “updating” and now to an analysis of the internal work of the Party. One idea has been repeated: in spite of the current or expected transformations, “we are not and will not be undertaking a reform.” This indicates loyalty, on the level of discourse, to the type of socialism under construction for decades, more than it indicates ideological suspicion of reform. But it also reveals a lack of internal coherence in the program of changes, as well as the difficulty of rebuilding a type of inclusive and inspiring politics that is able to propose horizons for the nation.

Failing to present change, in a responsible manner, as a reform (or to present it in other terms closer to the prevailing official discourse, such as a “revolution in the revolution”) implies a desire to resolve an enormous complex of problems through a process of “perfecting” – that is, trying to fix something while preserving its overall design, even if that overall design is the cause of the problem. In other words, one step forward, two steps back. Here may lie the principal obstacle to reviving hope: there are old problems to which only old solutions have been proposed, and there are now new problems for which the proposed solutions are also old.

The old

Problems cannot be solved by applying the same mentality that created them. It is likewise impossible to solve a problem through means that do not address and transform the structure underlying the problem, or through means that fall short of the scale of the dilemma they are supposed to address. Moreover, it is unsustainable to continue along the old path if the most “ecological” approach is to turn in the opposite direction.

The National Conference document called for “transforming” the way the Party attends to student organizations by means of “a more flexible character and new methods” and for “strengthening” the way the Party attends to mass organizations. That same commitment has been repeated for decades; the new call does not confront this history so as to propose new solutions. A revolutionary change would not involve “perfecting” the model of the relationship between Party and mass organizations but rather accepting a new imperative: that of granting autonomy to these organizations, of imbuing them with an internal obligation to function democratically while politically changing the way the Party exercises leadership over them, thus creating a combination of actors exercising actual power and opening multiple channels for representing the social sphere.

The same document called for “strengthening national unity around the Party and the Revolution… based on [the conception that] Fatherland, Revolution, and Socialism are inseparably fused.” It criticized “false unanimity.” These proclamations have been repeated for years. The call to the Fourth Congress of the CCP, held in 1991, also rebutted unanimity. Nonetheless, these documents continue to sustain a doctrine of the state that posits the existence of a single political will – that of the state – subsuming the political wills present in the society. Thus, unity becomes unanimity because it does not express a unified political will but rather a single one: popular sovereignty viewed in a unitary fashion. At the same time, there is an assumption of continuity between the current use of this concept and the meaning that “unity” had in 1959. However, in that era the unity platform emerged from independent organizations with identities characterized by their own memberships and communications media. Today’s call for unity does not begin from a recognition of substantive differences, and it leads to an ideology of unanimity because it demands a union based on parts that are seen as essentially identical. It would be preferable, by contrast, to affirm the value of diversity on the basis of which unitary alliances can be built. Simultaneously, it would be revolutionary to renounce an ideological definition of the nation (because such a definition is exclusive, essentialist, and politically intransigent) and to openly advocate the republican and democratic nationalism created in Cuba by José Martí (which includes a politics of tolerance). The formulation of a new project for the country requires learning to process disagreements without penalizing different views expressed through the exercise of a fundamental right. It requires viewing patriotism in a republican fashion: as a political passion that finds its fatherland in a place where all our rights are respected, and that demands our loyalty to the order that makes this possible.

In addition, an old problem persists: extraordinary goals are proclaimed but a set of ordinary measures is proposed as the means for reaching these.

The bureaucracy (declared to be the public enemy of the process of change) is told to set aside its power and surrender as a political actor. Rather than seeing the origin of political bureaucracy in a lack of social control, a limited culture of exercising rights, and sustained inequality in consumption, the implicit analysis views bureaucracy as an excess of administrative activity. What would be revolutionary would be to adopt some mechanisms out of the large toolkit available for impeding the bureaucracy’s reproduction as a political class. These include: frequent replacement of individuals in public positions, term limits for all officials, elections to determine the occupants of state positions that carry out public functions, conflict-of-interest prohibitions, separation of powers, channels for challenging decisions made by officials, means for fighting privileges, judicial means to challenge bad management or violation of rights and, above all, “external” control of the bureaucracy: stimulating social self-organization so the population can experience free forms of organization of personal, group, and social life, and promoting forms of negative power in the hands of citizens which would allow them to successfully contest state decisions.

The documents included a call to “change methods and styles of work” – a demand that has been made for several decades – but there is no political or theoretical dissemination of the critique of the legacy of “vanguard” parties in the twentieth century. Their history produced the party leadership’s expropriation of political life at the base levels of the parties, extreme bureaucratization of their internal functioning, interaction with the society on a coercive basis, alienation of “the masses,” sectarian and exclusive ideologization of power, and an essential difficulty in dealing with social diversity. The PCC has no constitutional obligation to relate democratically to the society. Rather, this is a political duty. But when the Party fails to carry out its duty, only its members can demand their rights. This difference between the rights of Party members and those of all citizens in relation to the actions of the “highest decision-making power in the society and the State” contradicts the constitutional principle of equality. Resolving that contradiction requires a revolutionary redesign of the functions and identities of the party and the state. The party should carry out a Gramscian “moral-political” function that is legitimized by egalitarian political interaction among empowered actors and should open effective channels of control over its activity on behalf of the citizenry. The state should follow an institutional definition of politics — it should be a public body that is not ideologized to a restrictive degree.

Corruption is being fought by way of regulations, inspections, and standards, but it would also be revolutionary to turn monitoring of the production process over to the workers so that they could democratically exercise control over their own enterprises in a decentralizing process that would empower the workers first and their administrators and bosses second.

There is an effort to “change the mentality” within the life of the Party on the basis of honest recognition that it is “tied to obsolete dogmas and judgments.” However, no mechanisms are being established to allow those who already have other work styles and other mentalities to occupy prominent positions in the political and state leadership of the country. There is a desire to “change the discourse,” but at the same time the Soviet version of Marxism, Marxism-Leninism, is perpetuated, while there is a failure to recognize the richness, complexity, and attractions of contemporary critical thought, whether Marxist or not.

Thus, it is important to take note of the survival of old ideas and practices that limit the process of change and that jeopardize citizen enthusiasm for promoting it. Einstein asserted that is was easier to split an atom than to break down a prejudice. Prejudices emerge from – and in turn justify – a material complex of interests and a specific distribution of power in society. To do away with prejudices and old habits requires breaking up this nuclear structure and taking on a redistribution of power within Cuban society. That redistribution must privilege actions that sustain politics as an open space for the intervention of the entire citizenry to affect the norms that regulate their fate. This is the only privileging that democracy can permit itself.

The future

Official discourse holds that the direction of the path to be traveled has now been determined (“updating” through the Guidelines approved at the Sixth Congress) and that the destination is not open to discussion (“socialism”). This assertion construes socialism as having only one meaning, grounded in the positive outcomes of public discussions around specific courses of action.

That approach, however, fails to recognize how many different “socialisms” profess to follow the same concept (including China, Venezuela, or North Korea, among others). It also ignores social debate within Cuba over what socialism is and should be. What’s more, it fails to grasp an additional problem: the official public process involved a limited discussion of means, not a discussion of goals. Seen in this light, those mechanisms are not the most effective for serious expansion of the content of the “social contract.”

Political democracy is the collective construction of meanings and of means to live by these. The meaning of “socialism” should be processed in confrontation with the images now prevailing on the island and with the social history lived there. This should be item number one in a discussion that is open to debating alternatives. Re-imagining the Cuban revolution surely requires a new “civil-izing” experience of the society in relation to itself. That means democratization of all realms of social life.

The current political orientation criticizes “deviations and errors” committed out of habit, but a system in which only the means are subject to debate is always debating a posteriori, after “the” policy has already been set. The ends, being predetermined, are already known, and the means are not discussed in the absence of a crisis. Thus there is no encouragement of a public sphere which allows for debate about the goals of the system so as to strengthen the citizens’ political life and autonomy to select their goals. But construction of democratic space requires, precisely, that the definition of politics – the meaning of “the political” – should be one that provides an umbrella to protect social struggle.

Cuban popular speech repeats the following phrases with great frequency: “it’s not easy” and “we’ll see.” Both express feelings ingrained in the national political culture: anything simple becomes difficult, anything difficult becomes impossible, and only seeing is believing.

“It’s not easy” to take on challenges of the size of the ones being discussed in Cuba. These include, among others: to defend difference, promote diversity, and combat inequality and discrimination; to transform the state system so as to make it more representative (the last Party Congress that addressed this issue met in 1991) and to guarantee effective forms of citizen participation and public decision-making; to democratize property ownership and management; to strengthen bottom-up political economy versus the political economy of capital; to establish democratic economic planning; to rigorously separate the state from party while strengthening the way each performs its respective function; to define the respective authorities and duties of elected and unelected bodies; to restore the role that institutions and social organizations play in national public life; to promote the government’s institutional development; to put forward a firm policy of developing the infrastructure for new information and communication technologies with widespread access; to face the need for generational political turnover; to reform migration regulations in a way that defends citizens’ rights while protecting national security; to stimulate both the state and non-state sectors to become socially and environmentally responsible; to organize non-commercial modes of culture and leisure; to decentralize political power in such a way that national policies emerge from local bases; to repair the fabric of the nation through a new relationship with the Cuban diaspora; to establish sovereign and independent – but also negotiated – relations with the United States government; and to overcome the US embargo while avoiding being overrun by commercial culture if the embargo is lifted.

“We’ll see” whether socialism can be democratically radicalized. The national skepticism embodied in this phrase can be overcome only through guarantees. “Seeing is believing.”

So far, there has been no retreat from the decisions approved by the Sixth Congress. They are taking on institutional form, which will impede a reversal by way of unilateral decisions.

Still and all, democracy is always a pedagogy. “Seeing” occurs through daily action, education, and experience. Democratic politics builds in guarantees and uses them to generate hope. Democracy constructs its strength and its rights from below. It inscribes the content of its power and rights into law. It develops its Constitution according to the changes in the conditions of the project, reforms it democratically, and requires its fulfillment. Democracy creates consensus around the challenges it faces. Perhaps here can be found a path that leads to a new place. This is not a utopia, but an ideal: being is believing.

Havana, January 2012

Translated by Dick Cluster

Edited by Jill Hamberg and Victor Wallis


1. Ed. Note: “Secretism” is used in various ways in Cuba. One refers to the strong resistance journalists encounter from government agencies in sharing information. But more broadly it also refers to the refusal or reluctance of government officials to provide information that “could be used to help the enemy.” This attitude often becomes such a habit that officials use it to protect themselves from criticism and don’t provide sufficient information about current policies and processes. Raúl Castro has criticized “secretism” on the grounds that citizens need information to better understand and support government policies.

This entry was posted in 60, Volume 26, No. 3. Bookmark the permalink.