Steady as she goes
"The garden of forking paths is an enormous riddle, or parable, whose theme is time"
Jorge Luis Borges
The VII Congress of the Communist Party of Cuba was a rhetorical locus amoenus at which Castroist bureaucrats set aside their anxieties for a few days and rolled out archaic concepts like hopeful fans of Chinese silk, which contrasted with the venue's grim National Revolution aesthetics, complete with a grey Baliño and a transfigured Fidel. However, in this garden of redundancy mysteries were cleared up, illusions were shattered, and the course the island will be on, at least until 2030, was clearly defined.
In the current situation, defined by the chronic crisis of chavismo in Venezuela, the resumption of diplomatic relations with the US and the decrepitude of the ruling elite, this meeting made sufficiently clear the strategy that the regime will be applying during the changeover to post-Castroism. The clarification is relevant because the PCC had before it at least three possible courses of action, which, for the sake of brevity, we will call the "bunker strategy," "democratic transition", and "changes to preserve the status quo."
The bunker strategy
The first course, the bunker, was supported by 57 years of success in the regime's essential task: the preservation, at all costs, of the political class’s monopoly. During this period industrialisation failed, along with agricultural diversification, development plans, the guerrilla strategy in Latin America, pro-Soviet campaigns in Africa, and even battles against mosquitoes that carry tropical diseases. But the authorities endured, like a steel pyramid, firmly built upon the wreckage of the beleaguered nation.
However, the prolongation of the bunker strategy posed a dual problem. On the one hand, the leaders had aged and did not retain the same legitimacy or degree of contact with external reality. On the other, funding sources were disappearing. Castroism had invented dependent socialism: first on the Soviet Union, followed by Venezuela, but the foreseeable collapse of Nicolás Maduro's government, and the successive setbacks suffered by populism in South America doomed the Cuban economy to a second Special Period, soon after emerging from the first. Under these circumstances it was very risky to openly proclaim entrenchment as a survival method. The consequences of absolute political control, 99% of the economy subservient to the State, and the stabling of society were all too well known: backwardness, impoverishment, mass exodus and the maintenance of emergency rule, under which rights and freedoms would continue to be suppressed. Under these conditions it was very difficult to find new funding abroad and to fuel some illusions of change within the country.
The transition to democracy
The second route seemed even riskier. It consisted of recognising, 27 years late, the failure of communism, taking the initiative and undertaking a transition with all its predictable consequences: amnesty for political prisoners, reforming the Constitution, allowing a free press, liberating social forces and facilitating the development of a market economy, slimming down the inefficient state apparatus and, at the end of the journey, achieving national reconciliation through the recognition of civil rights and the holding of free and plural elections. Choosing this path, the funding problems and economic growth could be resolved more quickly, but the PCC ran the risk of losing power in the medium term, even if it had spearheaded the process. In return it would have been able to secure the impunity of its hierarchs and the assets of its children and grandchildren through negotiations with other political forces and guarantees from the governments that had sponsored it. And not only that: the Party could be renewed, regain some degree of legitimacy, and continue to participate in public life, as has happened in some European countries.
Change to avoid change
The third option was to change everything (or change enough), but so that everything would remain essentially the same, like the Prince of Salina in the work by Lampedusa (The Leopard). This option is, obviously, what Raúl and his cadre chose. This roadmap is based on a calculation that the government and the PCC can introduce limited doses of the market economy and paltry political reform to take advantage of the benefits that will be generated by the new relationship with the United States and, at the same time, manage changes with enough breathing room to neutralise their potential social and ideological implications.
This agenda of controlled transformations, without a doubt, includes a battery of measures ranging from eliminating the dual currency, to authorising emigrants to invest in the island, to allowing athletes and musicians to freely work abroad, to changing the slave-like system governing the recruitment of personnel working for foreign companies in Cuba. Other possible reform measures would include expanding access to the Internet, streamlining immigration policy (the cancellation of some taxes and even the elimination of entry visas for Cuban citizens), the relaxation of prohibitions on address changes, authorisations for freelance work in some professions (doctors, teachers, etc.) and other provisions of lesser importance.
All these changes, applied drop by drop, would allow the system to survive. In no way would they affect the regime's fundamental pillars, which, through the sole party-Government-State symbiosis, dominates 90% of the economy, commands the unswerving obedience of the military and the political police, and monopolises education, culture and the media in the country. The apparatus resulting from said reforms would be a neo-Marxist sultanate, which would tolerate a bit more of a market economy, thereby achieving the legitimization needed to acquire foreign aid and further fuel the illusion of greater openness.
What are the prospects for this illusion-of-change strategy?
"Men die, the Party is immortal," the Castro regime's lackeys could be heard repeating. The first part of the hackneyed slogan seems like a funerary drum roll dedicated to the octogenarians making up the Central Committee, while the second is a falsehood refuted by recent history. Various forms of communism have failed in recent decades – some even before their founders did. For practical purposes, the CP disappeared in democratic countries like France and Italy, swept away by the shock wave that caused the fall of the Berlin Wall. It also evaporated in Eastern Europe, in the Soviet Union, in the Horn of Africa and, if we stretch the concept, even in China and Vietnam, where the empty shell of the Party harbours billionaire businessmen, gentrified mandarins, figurehead generals and lifelong apparatchiks.
In Cuba the same thing is bound to happen. The only question is when, the schedule for its demise. But if Cuban society fails to react now to the roadmap sketched by Raúl Castro at this Congress, if fear and indifference continue to prevail in the streets and in homes, the leaders of the regime will retain all their power, be able to comfortably manage the assets they've accumulated for the benefit of their children and grandchildren, and real change will be deferred for another two or three generations. Perhaps by 2030, the new date cited in the final document of the PCC's VII Congress, which was approved (as if there were any doubt) unanimously.
Miguel Sales Figueroa chairs the Unión Liberal Cubana and is the vice-president of Internacional Liberal