Despite speculation of major changes, none were visible at Cuba’s first party congress in sixteen years. The delegates formalized Raul’s replacement of the ailing Fidel Castro (this actually happened three years ago), it re-elected the old revolutionary guard to the key positions, and it approved some trivial reforms. Their heralded reforms reduced the size of the public work force (which accounts for some nine out of ten jobs), allowed private ownership of homes, and approved several hundred other changes that were kept from public view but are surely trivial.
All the talk of making way for a new generation of leaders proved empty. The newly-elected leadership consists of Raul Castro at 76, his first deputy at 77, and a Politburo whose average age is in the 70s. The Congress’s “dog that did not bark” was it failure to elevate younger party members to the party elite. This omission will have a profound effect on Cuba’s future.
The failure of the April 2011 Cuban party congress to address fundamental reform was entirely predictable. We have no historical case of fundamental reform during the lifetime of the “great” revolutionary leader. The Chinese reforms began shortly after Mao’s death in 1976. Gorbachev’s reforms, three decades after Stalin’s death, had to wait the passing of the Stalin clones who served after him. Any fundamental restructuring of the “Great Leader’s” political and economic system questions his lifetime achievements and is not feasible.
Instead of reform, the Ancien Regime “talks” about reform, as they did at the Cuban congress. They realize that the system is failing. Yet they must hold out hope that it can be salvaged by minor tinkering (such as allowing private home ownership or loosening restrictions on private economic activity). As “old revolutionaries” they understand that real reform will destroy all that they have worked for and believe in. Real reform remains off limits.
Within less than ten years, human mortality and infirmity will install leaders too young to have led the glorious revolution. Cuba will be where the Soviet Union was in March of 1985 as the last of the old guard died off, and the party had to turn to a new generation not appointed by Stalin himself.
Who will be Cuba’s Gorbachev? We do not know, but he is inevitable and within a relatively short period of time. Will he, like Gorbachev, unwittingly (or in this case deliberately), destroy the party, or will he be a Deng, who figures out how to preserve the party in the face of meaningful reform?
In my view, the most likely scenario for Cuba’s new “young” leaders is the Gorbachev “system-destruction” model. Why?
The younger members of the Cuban party elite of 2020 must make a practical choice: Are our interests better served by retaining the old system or by destroying it? By that time, the Cuban economy will be tottering. The privileges of high party office will seem trivial compared to other possibilities that they can arrange through their party networks in a “capitalist” Cuba. They need only emulate their former comrades in Russia and Central Asia, as the brave “capitalist” reformers of Cuba. All they need to do is to make sure that they head the property committees, the banks, and the economic ministries as the privatization begins. The United States will delight in their new capitalist allies, only later to express disappointment when they end up owning most of Cuba’s national resources.
For the Castros, the April 2011 party congress was their last chance to prevent this outcome. If they had institutionalized retirements (as did the Chinese) and made way for a new party elite, the party’s emerging leaders would have gained a stake in the system. It would have given the new elite serious pause to explore the Chinese option of an open, foreign-investment-led path that rewarded them sufficiently to retain the party monopoly. Even if they would not be the new billionaires of Cuba, their children could be the “Princelings” of a prosperous and growing Cuba.
Whatever! This option was the road not taken at the April Cuban party congress.