Monday, February 25, 2008

What is to be done?

Here are some thoughts about yesterday’s events and Raul Castro speech (English here, Spanish here).

First, politics.

Fidel remains present. Raul praised him as the one and only commander in chief, someone for whom there is no substitute, and he said his work will be carried on by the people even when he is no longer physically present. Raul asked the National Assembly “to allow me to continue consulting” Fidel on “decisions of special transcendence for the future of our nation, basically those associated to defense, foreign policy and the socioeconomic development of the country.” He said this even though he had already cited the part of the Cuban constitution that keeps Fidel in the governing loop, noting that Fidel remains head of the party, and the party is constitutionally the “leading force of our State and society.”

As for personnel, yesterday’s news was the concentration of veterans and close Raul associates at the top. There is more to come; Raul noted that “appointments” and the “composition of the government” will be treated in a subsequent National Assembly session.

Raul continues to call for debate – within the system:

“There is no reason to fear discrepancies in a society such as ours, where its very nature precludes the existence of antagonistic contradictions, since the social classes that make it up are not antagonistic themselves.

“The international doomsayers forecasting the death of the Revolution tried to capitalize on the criticisms made during the study and discussion of the speech made on July 26th in Camagüey. They overlooked the fact that it was debate and criticism within socialism.”

He also warned:

“It is also true that some people are inclined to talk before being properly informed. These make demands without thinking whether they are talking rationally or irrationally. As a rule, they agree with those who claim rights without ever mentioning duties…We do not deny their right to expression, provided they do it with respect for the law…But if anyone intends to put pressure motivated by their wishes to be in the limelight or by ambition, demagoguery, opportunism, simulation, arrogance or any other human weakness of a similar nature, we must face them resolutely, avoiding offense but calling a spade a spade.”

As for policy, cutting the bureaucracy is one of Raul’s priorities. He wants “a more compact and operational structure,” with fewer institutions and a better distribution of tasks. He hopes to reduce “the enormous amount of meetings, coordination, permissions, conciliations, provisions, rules and regulations, etc., etc.” He emphasized “institutionalization,” a possible sign of disinterest in new, parallel structures such as Fidel’s “battle of ideas” and social workers.

Another priority is “strengthening of the economy, which is an unavoidable premise to advance in any other area of society, given the real war waged by the United States administration against our country.”

He mentioned unspecified, apparently forthcoming proposals to improve farm production and “marketing” – the latter a reference to the regulations governing transportation and sales in the farmers markets, and the state programs that bring produce to market.

Then there’s the currency question. Cuban officials have long said that ending the dual-currency system is on their agenda, without indicating when action might be taken. Raul continued that line, saying, “We are examining, for instance, everything related to the timely implementation of comrade Fidel’s ideas on ‘the progressive, gradual and prudent revaluation of the Cuban peso’” and “we keep delving into the phenomenon of the double currency in the economy.” Recognizing that the government has numerous levers affecting purchasing power, he signaled a “comprehensive approach” that includes “the wage system, the retail prices, the entitlements and the subsidies running in the millions presently required by numerous services and products distributed on an egalitarian basis, such as those provided by the ration card which under the present conditions of our economy become irrational and unsustainable.”

Raul’s statement last December about “excessive prohibitions” left a big question mark. In his speech, he said that “in the next few weeks we shall start removing the most simple of them. Many had had the purpose of preventing the emergence of new inequalities at a time of general shortages, even when that meant relinquishing certain incomes.”

That could be a signal of an opening in Cuba’s self-employment scheme. But the next passage could point in the opposite direction, because Cuban officials have long noted that some hope that an expansion of Cuba’s trabajadores por cuenta propia could be an avenue to political independence and change:

“The suppression of other procedures, even if they might sound simple to some, will take more time for they require a more comprehensive study and changes of certain legal regulations, in addition to the fact that some of these are influenced by measures taken against our country by successive U.S administrations.”

All in all, I’m left guessing. The speech was dominated by its political context – the lack, for now at least, of any nod toward the next generation in the top leadership.

But the speech indicated actions to come, some in the near term.

Father Time makes one thing certain: Cuba is entering a period where the historicos will attempt to get policy right and hand over the reins to the next generation. This involves tackling the strategic economic challenges that have been identified, ever since Fidel’s last major speech in November 2005, as long-term challenges to socialism’s political longevity.

In short order, we’ll know what course they choose.


Mambi_Watch said...

I feel we should also consider whether the general population will have the patience or hope to see those possible reforms come true.

On this historic occasion, where virtually all have had the chance to reflect on the past almost 50 years of the Revolution (and a transition from Brother to Brother), I would not rule out a possible political shift within the younger population (who might see the transition as a clear abuse of power) that could become significant.

I guess we will see within a year or so. (US policy towards Cuba is also important in this equation.)

And Phil, I'm hoping you get invited back on Maria Elvira Live after your prediction comes true.

CUBA ED said...

By Raul keeping himself surrounded by old friends who are old style ideologues, the message is clear that the changes that are forthcoming will be limited and not politically transcendent. Their major conundrum is the double exchange rate system, which they see as toxic, but which doesn't lend itself to gradual, digestible steps toward elimination. It's probably the major difficulty they wished they didn't have, the embargo included.

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