Monday, May 9, 2016

Cuban Communist Party to launch post-Congress debate

This commentary was written for Australia's Green Left Weekly. It draws together the threads of my previous blog posts on the Cuban Communist Party's 7th Congress. 

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Cuban Communist Party to launch post-Congress debate amid divergent visions


By Marce Cameron

In the wake of Obama's historic visit, the Cuban Communist Party (PCC) held its 7th Congress on April 16-19 in the Havana Convention Centre. Beneath a backdrop featuring a huge likeness of Fidel Castro, PCC secretary Raul Castro delivered the main report on behalf of the Central Committee.

Fidel being Fidel, many Cubans would have been reassured by his surprise appearance at the closing session on the eve of his 90th birthday. Traditionally, PCC congresses are the culmination of a months-long process of consultation with the Party's activist base and the wider Cuban society.

By contrast, an air of secrecy and anticlimax hung over the 7th Congress. Fidel's brief valedictory address, which moved some in the audience to tears and was received with a thunderous and prolonged ovation, served to stamp the Congress with a legitimacy that only Fidel can confer.

While Fidel's appearance at the Congress and the content of Raul's report may have unruffled some feathers, the PCC's central leadership must now strive to reconnect with the Party's grassroots so that a disconnect doesn't harden into a dangerous rift. Having received a sharp rebuke from the party base, it seems the leadership has got the message.

Fidel (left) and Raul (centre) at the 7th Congress
Controversy

The disconnect between the Central Committee and the PCC base is evident in the preparatory process for the 7th Congress. The 6th Congress, held in April 2011, was preceded by a three month process of PCC-wide and public consultations on the draft Economic and Social Policy Guidelines.

While critics have noted the democratic deficiencies of that consultation—such as the fragmentary nature of the local debates, which hindered the emergence of possible alternative platforms for the election of delegates—the Guidelines adopted by the Congress bore the imprint of public opinion.

Initially, the PCC leadership gave every indication that there would be a comparable consultation prior to the 7th Congress. Soon after the 6th Congress, the Central Committee began work—behind closed doors—on two strategic and programmatic documents to be presented to the 7th Congress.

These two documents, the 2016-30 Plan and the 'Conceptualisation of the Cuban socio-economic socialist development model', would complement the Guidelines. As a set of concrete objectives based on certain principles, the Guidelines are neither a programmatic vision nor a socialist plan.

As the 7th Congress approached, it became apparent that the drafting process was well behind schedule. Either the anticipated public consultation would have to be abandoned, or the Congress would have to be postponed. As late as February 23, the Central Committee's Tenth Plenum reiterated its commitment to a public consultation on the draft documents prior to the Congress.

On February 14, Esteban Morales, a prestigious and outspoken Cuban intellectual whose party loyalty is beyond reproach, circulated an acerbic commentary on the Congress process. In 2010, Morales' PCC membership was suspended—one step short of expulsion—for warning that high-level corruption (and not US-sponsored 'dissident' grouplets) was “the real counterrevolution” in Cuba. He was eventually reinstated after receiving numerous public gestures of solidarity.

Morales complained that “for months” he'd been asking for the Congress documents, to no avail. This would be a congress of party functionaries rather than the grassroots “which I consider to be the real party”, he added. He suggested the PCC was regressing in terms of party democracy, and described the mood among the party base as justifiably “indignant”. That perception was anchored in his “broad and continuous contact with Cuban society” as an intellectual and an ordinary citizen.

In a similar vein, on March 27, PCC activist Francisco 'Paquito' Rodriguez published an Open Letter to Raul Castro on his personal blog. Rodriguez is an academic, a journalist for the Cuban trade union confederation's Trabajadores newspaper and a prominent gay rights activist. As a gay rights activist he is said to be close to Mariela Castro, Raul Castro's daughter.

Rodriguez objected to “the lack of discussion of the key Congress documents—which are still shrouded in secrecy—in both the grassroots Party committees and among the rest of the citizenry”.

He proposed that the Congress be postponed till late July to allow for a PCC base and public consultation during April and May. He noted that Raul Castro himself had often insisted that the reform process underway in Cuba must proceed 'without haste', and “I see no reason to rush so decisive a political process … if its preparation has not yet reached maturity”.

Granma responds

Also on March 27, the PCC daily, Granma, acknowledged the controversy in an editorial: “The Granma editorial board has received, through various means, concerns of Party activists (and non-members) who question the reasons why, on this occasion, no public discussion process has been planned, such as that carried out five years ago on the Economic and Social Policy Guidelines.”

Granma made no mention of the Central Committee's earlier commitment to a public consultation. Its core justification for not holding such a consultation was that only 21% of the 2011 Congress Guidelines had been fully implemented, so the 7th Congress would be effectively a continuation of the 6th. The implication is that this is for the Central Committee, not the party as a whole, to decide.

The Granma editorial, which expressed the opinion of the Central Committee, did not discuss the possibility that that same statistic (21%) might call into question the viability of the course set at the 6th Congress, or the party leadership's approach to its implementation. It suggested the leadership can assume an indefinite popular mandate until it decides a new course is desirable:

[R]ather than launch a new society-wide debate process in the throes of implementation, we need to finish what we have begun, continuing to carry out the popular will expressed five years ago and advancing along the course set by the Sixth Congress.

The 1000 Congress delegates elected by the Party base, the 612 National Assembly deputies and some 3500 other selected consultants had contributed to the elaboration of the two key documents, Granma stressed. Put another way, less than 0.05% of Cuban citizens had access to them prior to the Congress. No timeframe has been announced for their wider availability.

As usual, readers submitted comments to the online version of the Granma editorial. Most touched on the controversy. A reader identifying themselves as 'Leandro' argued that a dangerous precedent is being set: a new generation of PCC leaders that lack the legitimacy of the historical leadership “would feel they have the right to hold Congresses without popular participation”.

Cuban philosopher Jose Ramon Fabelo opined that the Conceptualisation of the Cuban socialist model aspired to “is not a task for experts and social scientists alone”. The most important congress “is that which takes place in the streets and workplaces of revolutionary Cuba. Let's not pass up the opportunity to give another lesson in democracy—genuine democracy, Cuban style—to Obama and all those who want to throw their discredited models in our faces”.

Ernesto Estevez stressed the question of representation. How, he asked, can Congress delegates be said to represent the PCC membership when the vast majority of party members are unaware of the content of the draft documents? Delegates' opinions and votes should “reflect the consensus of those that elected them from the grassroots”. For that, the membership must have the documents.

Estevez urged his party to “learn from the errors of the former Soviet Union”. All party members “should zealously uphold the democratic side of centralism, so that democracy operates in the right way and doesn't end up being held hostage to centralism, albeit with the best of intentions”. The lack of consultation is a regression, and “there should be no attempt to compensate after the fact”.

Congress shift

Clearly in response to the rumblings of discontent from the party base, Raul proposed in his Congress report that the documents be adopted by the Congress only “in principle” rather than definitively. They would then be the basis for a “profound and democratic process of analysis by the membership of the Party and the Communist Youth, as well as by broad sectors of our society.”

This wider consultation would be aimed at “improving and enriching” the documents. Raul further proposed that the incoming Central Committee be empowered to approve the final versions, which would be subsequently submitted to the National Assembly. Both proposals were adopted.

Like the Granma editorial, Raul's report did not acknowledge the leadership's earlier commitment to a broad consultative process. It merely stated that there was no such process “given that what is involved is the confirmation and continuity of the line adopted five years ago”. Incongruously, it also said that given the theoretical intricacy of the draft Conceptualisation of the socialist model “and its importance for the future”, it should not be adopted by the Congress.

What's missing from Raul's report is a logically consistent and persuasive explanation for the leadership's abandonment of the foreshadowed pre-Congress PCC base and public consultation process. That explanation can be inferred from Raul's account of the drafting process.

Raul reported that the Conceptualisation document had been drafted no less than eight times. Work on the 2016-2030 Plan began four years ago. It was initially hoped a complete draft would be ready for the Congress, but due to its “great technical complexity” only its bases have been elaborated. A complete, final version is not expected till 2017.

In December and January, the Central Committee redrafted the Congress documents on the basis of some 900 opinions and suggestions submitted by Central Committee members, Raul reported. If, as the Granma editorial claims, “the basis of these [two] documents is the content of the Guidelines”, why has it taken the Central Committee five years to draft them?

Divergent visions

In reality, the Guidelines and their implementation open the door to not one, but several distinctly different socialist models and corresponding medium-term plans. They leave unresolved the vital question posed in 2011 by Havana University planning specialist Oscar Fernandez:

From the traditional state socialism that characterises Cuba today, is it moving towards a more decentralised state socialism? An Asian-style market socialism? A self-managed socialism of the Yugoslav variety? To the so-called participatory socialism of the 21st century? There is an urgent need for a debate aimed at a consensus on the key features of the vision of the future society.

Cuba's Marxist intelligentsia perceives competing poles of socialist thought in Cuba today. Each polarity corresponds to divergent conceptions of the socialist transitional society in general and in Cuba's conditions. Each is seen as influencing the evolution of Cuba's emerging socialist model, and each polarity is reflected to some degree in the content of the Guidelines.

Veteran Cuban sociologist Juan Valdes and Cuban cooperatives proponent Camila PiƱero both perceive essentially three such polarities: state socialism, market socialism and 'socialisation'.

The first pole tends to view the socialist transition through the prism of state power; the second, through the lens of economic development, i.e. GDP growth; the third views progress towards socialism in terms of the socialisation (i.e. democratisation) of party-state power and property.

The Central Committee's glacial progress in drafting the two key documents suggests that it has tried to reconcile, behind closed doors, divergent conceptions of the new Cuban socialist model that is aspired to. They had to be reconciled if the leadership were to present a more or less coherent programmatic vision to the party as a whole—rather than strive to involve the party as a whole in developing that vision from the outset over the five years since the 6th Congress.

Leaving the realm of speculation, opting for secrecy over transparency relegated the vast majority of the PCC's 680,000 members to the role of spectators rather than participants in the 7th Party Congress. Having won the right to be consulted on the socialist model that is aspired to, the party base has—consciously or instinctively—shifted the balance of forces a little towards the socialisation pole.