April 12, 2021
Rafael Hernández

The Path to the VIII Party Congress: Cuban Politics Between the New Government and Contemporary Society

I begin by making some general observations:

Understanding the transition in which Cuba finds itself today, the political process that characterizes it during this moment, the ongoing debate about current policies and their scope, and the path that will open as of April is anything but obvious to the naked eye, nor can it be reduced to a set of theses or a true or false quiz.

I am referring to the domestic debate, concentrating on the disagreement, among experts, not because it is the only one or the loudest, but because this debate implies a space to express different views like never before. The noisy debate mainly comes from the media, both State and opposition, which in the end are similar due to their tendency to confuse the mission of reporting by analyzing through ideological loyalties that does little to capture the nature of the political process. Noisy, too, is the avalanche of “fast and furious” opinions on the internet, which has not improved this confusing panorama, but rather further polarized the ideological climate and blurred real politics and its meaning.

Even though the diversity of perspectives among experts is not always ideological, it does include approaches with different political implications. This corresponds to what is produced at research centers and universities, academic and cultural publications and events, as well as sometimes controversial information covered by provincial press (Cienfuegos, Ciego de Ávila), and the work of think tanks and institutions such as the Institute for Economic Research (INIE), the National Office of Statistics and Information (ONEI), etc., that are filtered through networks and email groups and shared more informally.

This spectrum of perspectives and nuances is manifested even without departing from what could be identified as the framework of a reformed socialism. Reducing the wealth of this panorama to a handful of authors (two or three from “inside,” and a few others from “outside”), almost always economists and usually the same ones, is limiting and exhausting if one tries to understand the complexity of the ongoing political process through it.

A final, introductory observation is that these comments may not match many of the commonsense interpretations and ideas that are often repeated. I interpret politics like a puzzle with visible pieces that allow an image to be discerned. Even if in many cases I do not agree, I do not spend time explaining how I would have designed it, but rather trying to explain its real causes and effects. I am guided by data, facts, regulations, and other elements that, although public, are not often considered, especially from the outside, and sometimes even from the inside. I am also guided by examining national and international situations, including public opinion which has become a constant source of pressure today.

The policies, how they work, and the current context

The path of Cuban politics cannot be analyzed or anticipated without focusing on the current interaction between how it’s applied and its effects on the society that experiences and reacts to it. This action-reaction is more decisive when explaining and predicting it than the tension between different ideological views. Although there are more than two ideological currents that affect the present and the probable future, these are more relevant in sectors such as the media, education and culture, the treatment of émigrés, and, sometimes, security. However, those ideological differences are not the ones that allow us to explain the economic and political transformations that affect the functioning of the system and its institutions, foreign policy, defense, and even topics apparently as ideological as the relationship between the Church and the State.

Below I share seven key ideas about the political moment and its peculiarities and then point out some problems within the current critical juncture that affect us.

  1. There is a consensus within the political class about the deepening of reforms. This consensus is based on the Guidelines (2011) and their readjustments (2016), as well as the Constitution (2019), and especially the Socio-economic Strategy (EES, July, 2020) to face COVID-19. Among the most recent reforms are those included in the monetary unification (“Ordenamiento”), the revision of the criteria applied to self-employment (TCP) since 1993, and the confirmation of pending SMEs. Both the implementation of the Ordenamiento and that of the new approach to TCP are being corrected on the fly, responding to complaints from the population to reduce social costs and avoid irreversible impacts, especially for the most vulnerable groups.
  2. There are no previous experiences, nor theory about reforms, that foresee their impact in the specific case of current Cuban society. The thousands of pages written about the reforms in Eastern Europe and the USSR may have points in common with Cuba, especially in some aspects of how they began, but are different with respect to the socio-economic model to which they arrive, as is made clear by the new Constitution, which unlike in those other countries, does not restore capitalism. If we compare the case of Cuba on the one hand, and those of China and Vietnam on the other, we will notice substantial differences that my economist friends often overlook. The first is that Cuban society is not characterized by a traditional rural order, with millions of people in extreme poverty who can die of hunger or curable diseases. Nor is Cuba divided into ethnic minorities with different languages, nor are Cubans used to ancestral regimes of authority and social discipline. Today’s Cuba, with all its problems, is a paradigm of Western modernity and social development when compared to these others (see United Nations Human Development Index, 2020). The second difference is that neither China nor Vietnam, when initiating their reforms, were subjected to hostility from a border power like the US, nor did they suffer the multilateral effect of a lasting embargo like ours. The third is that the Chinese and Vietnamese living in the vast impoverished areas of the interior can dream of working 14 hours a day in the Adidas factories, located in the glittering cities of the coast, while Cubans can hardly imagine another form of promised land better than Hialeah. Therefore, when applied there and here, the same measures can have different effects.
  3. There is a new government, a different constitutional framework, and a very different society. Less than three years ago, the supposed measure of change was “the end of Fidel,” “the overcoming of the gerontocracy,” and the “generational change.” Nobody talks about it anymore. For barely two years we have had a new Constitution where the definition of property over the means of production went from “familial” (self-employment) to one that only restricts its concentration, its precise limits yet to be defined. Already the VII Congress of the PCC in 2016 had agreed that this private property, in the form of SMEs, was necessary within the new socialism.
  4. The state sector, which, according to the new Constitution continues to predominate, needs to be transformed as much as, or more than, the private sector. This private sector is not going to function or take hold until the state sector is transformed into a public sector; that is, until it can become autonomous and coherently connected with the private sector. Thus, the growth and real significance of the private sector, including the cooperative, will depend on its degree of integration with the public sector, as well as with that of foreign investment, which would give it a real weight in the economy, in addition to having an impact on specific market segments and services.
  5. The second backbone of reform is decentralization. The relationship between central power and provinces, territories, and municipalities has historically been one of vertical subordination. There can be no liberation of productive forces if it is not from below, where these forces are implanted, especially those of small and medium scale both private and state. The new Constitution revolutionizes the role of municipalities (Title VIII, Chapter II). There is talk of “municipalizing” politics, including granting the autonomy to generate a local economy, which includes job creation, tax configuration, investments and even relations with foreign capital.
  6. The reforms signal new forms of interaction among actors in the state and non-state sectors. Unlike the economic functions of the US federal system (federal and state government, Federal Reserve System, etc.), the Cuban system has tended to reproduce, both above and below, the supremacy of the PCC and its structures, not only to adopt policies and monitor them, but in decision making and management. To make these economic policies a reality, the nine ministries of the economy, the autonomous public enterprises at the national and local levels, the local governments, the cooperatives, and private sector entities are required to function in a cohesive manner with each other. This new interweaving is one of the main challenges of the transition.
  7. Overcoming the crisis requires growth, and reforms require riding on legislative wheels. Cuban economists tend to focus on the macro analysis of this growth and its factors, including the supply side. In doing so, they often pay less attention to studying the demand side, the functioning of the retail market, consumption (family, social, business), the unequal distribution of liquidity in social segments and territories (including foreign currency in convertible currency), the role of work and local actors, the amount and channeling of remittances, and other factors that affect real growth and living standards in a different way.
    Furthermore, the legislative process implied by reforms is not restricted to the availability of  convenience legal measures. Jurists (and economists) tend to identify this process as the adoption of appropriate regulations or standards, equating it to that of a surgeon choosing instruments placed on a tray. In doing so, they do not consider that this surgeon, in any case, is operating for the first time, so that regardless of how much sophistry or theory he may dominate, he does not know what his effect will be on the living organism involved. If the legislative process were pure legal logic, separated from political, social, and cultural factors, it would not have the contradictory character that defines it everywhere.

Problems on the path to the VIII Congress of the PCC

Although these are ongoing processes that demand continuity and development, in 2020 the government signaled its determination in areas such as the application of monetary and exchange unification, salary increases, extension and modernization of communications (institutional, social and private access to ICT, the digitization of society, etc.), diversification and tightening of international alliances (China and Russia, but also with the EU), and reaffirming the standardization policy with the US (despite the disgrace of Trump).

In other areas of politics, however, there is little or no progress. Examples, and without space to elaborate on them, include the institutionalization of relations with Cuba’s emigration, or the recognition of the impact that unions, professional organizations, associations, NGOs, etc. have on how a political system functions.

Maintaining the VIII PCC Congress (April 16-19), while applying the policies agreed upon during the VII, despite the re-emergence of COVID-19 and the worsening of the already difficult economic situation, is an expression of political will. It is clear that the Ordenmiento measures could have been adopted earlier—the question is whether not having postponed them once again, despite the costs, would have been the correct political decision.

Even though the agenda of the VIII Congress was not known as of the writing of this text, it is possible to consider problems that are visible on the national political radar. These have a structural contradictory nature. In other words, these are contradictions that do not depend on “subjective” factors such as ideological lenses, or technical errors, but rather on tensions inherent in the economic and social situation and their reflection in the policies implemented. This complex equation has COVID-19 as an independent variable.

I limit myself here to commenting very concisely on four problem areas:

  • To what extent do the application of reforms and the political climate in society amid COVID-19 support or interfere with each other?

Structural contradictions (or antinomies) that run through policies include:

  1. External dependency (tourism, remittances, food imports) vs. restrictions on visits (emigrants, tourists, “mules”).
  2. Stimulating producers through better prices in the state wholesale market (competition with prices paid by the private sector) vs. protection of family consumption in the context of the Ordenamiento (basic food basket, price control).
  3. Salary increases vs. shortages (drop in production and supply, inflation).
  4. Socio-economic security coverage (pensions, help to the most vulnerable groups) vs. COVID-19 expenses (medicines, hospital care, food, transportation, etc.)
  5. Monetary and exchange unification (end of CUC, new exchange rate) vs. market segmentation (CUP, MLC).
  • How do the consequences of the Ordenamiento and COVID-19 affect decentralization policy?

According to the Economic Strategy to Face the Crisis and COVID-19 (EES), it is necessary to: ensure “municipal self-sufficiency of agricultural products,” assert “municipal development strategies and land and urban planning,” and put them in the hands of local power and its institutions; facilitate the approval of investments at a certain scale; and order the largest supply of strategic inputs, such as construction materials, to “local production plans.”

  1. The application of territorial measures to combat the pandemic vs. unequal distribution of infrastructure and resources.
  2. The application of reforms that grant greater autonomy (make profitable state companies, TCP, municipal governments) vs. central government intervention (inflation, price control).
  • To what extent has the health crisis and economic adjustment affected the continuity of the legislative process?

The legislative plan for 2020 included urgent topics such as territorial planning, the courts, criminal procedures, housing, public health, claims of constitutional rights, and national defense. The pandemic postponed almost all of them, including a decree-law scheduled for last September on demonstrations and assembly (Article 56: “the rights of assembly, demonstration and association, for lawful and peaceful purposes, are recognized by the State.”). Others on citizenship, land, migration, and foreigners, important for emigration procedures and their rights, were also postponed. However, the Associations Law planned for 2022 in the 2019 schedule has been maintained for the same date.

Tracing COVID-19 and its effects requires prioritizing areas in the legislative schedule, and the VIII Congress could probably influence that political review.

  • What new ideas has COVID-19 contributed to the prevailing economic culture in Cuban political documents, government discourse, and economic debate?

The revaluation of health, higher education, culture, and science, barely defined as “public services” and “budgeted sectors” (meaning, “unproductive”) in the prevailing documents and macroeconomic logic has reached a higher level of importance thanks to COVID-19. The challenges of the pandemic have forced us to look more towards innovation and development in the production of high-end medicines and medical services, in contrast to sectors such as tourism, where more conventional representations prevail and with poor added value. Can these lessons be extended to conceptual changes in the management of the economy, and to other sectors, in addition to drug production and public health?

I have limited myself to commenting on the implementation of economic policy and some, not all, of its own contradictions. I identify them as contradictions inherent to that policy—even if pure economic reason reduces them to expressions of ideological blindness or lack of knowledge from the decision makers—because they reflect a political reason faced with a complex national situation, as described by Cuban social science.

It would also be necessary to consider other problems of politics; like say, those of a new government, which no longer has, and will not have, the type and level of consensus that existed in the past but will have to constantly promote it. Explaining its political rationale and its circumstance is not the same as agreeing with it or justifying it, but aims only to understand it and be better able to anticipate it. For example, appreciating how this picture would interact in a changing relationship with the United States and with Cuban emigration, which, although not a panacea, could lessen the festering of those and other problems based on to historical patterns.

To understand this interaction and its future in realistic terms, one must learn to think about it within present context, and with another mindset.

Rafael Hernández is a Cuban political scientist and chief editor of Temas, a social science journal based in Havana.