The Revolutionaries who took power in 1959 substituted the 1940 Constitution for the Fundamental Law of the Cuban State*, the Prime Minister assumed the powers of the Head of Government, and the Council of Ministers replaced the Congress. Measures for “the benefit of the people” were decreed that legitimized the power acquired through force. At the same time, civil society was dismantled and civic and political liberties cut. Power was concentrated in the leader, private property passed into the hands of the state, institutionality was undone, and the condition of being a citizen disappeared.
Economic inefficiency was superseded by Soviet subsidies until the collapse the socialist bloc sunk the country into a profound crisis. In response, the government introduced some provisional reforms subordinate to political power. With the triumph of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela a new godfather emerged, and the Cuban government, freed from the pressure of the crisis, put a stop to the reforms. Between that moment and the substitution of the Leader of the Revolution [when Raul Castro stepping in for Fidel Castro], between July 2006 and February 2008, economic deterioration determined the start of new changes within a context of modernizing the model.
The transfer of power among the same forces that had held it since 1959 preordained that the order, depth and speed of the changes would remain subordinate again to political interests. This condition disabled the Minimal Plan of Reforms put forth by General Raúl Castro, which aimed to achieve a strong and efficient agriculture, reduce imports, increase exports, attract investments, halt illegalities, check corruption, deflate the public payrolls, and propel self-employment.
The subordination became instititutionalized during the First Conference of the Cuban Communist Party that took place in 2012. These proceedings revitalized the line suggested by Fidel Castro when, during the Cultural Congress of 1961, he asked, “What are the rights of revolutionary and non-revolutionary writers and artists?” and which he answered himself by saying, “Within the Revolution, everything; against the Revolution, nothing. And this would not be any exceptional law for the artists and for the writers. This is a general principle for all citizens.” As it was not difficult to predict, in the absence of democracy, the change of form to preserve the content did not provide the expected result: the efficiency in preserving power could not be transferred to the economy.
Three years after commencing the modernization of the model, the decline has continued: farm production is deficient; sugar quotas are not reached; the reduction of imports and increase of exports are pending subjects; foreign investments have not reached the expected levels; the relationship between wages and cost of living worsens; illegalities continue their inexorable pace; and the limitations placed on self-employment and “cooperatives” have impeded these sectors taking off.
The Transfer of Power
For biological reasons, the generation that took power in 1959 will exit the political scene in the next three years. This generation is confronting the need to legitimize its successors through different pathways than those through which they legitimized themselves. To do this, they would have to reform the state, including the constitution and the electoral law, against which emerge two simultaneous obstacles: the failure to modernize the model, and the reestablishment of relations with the United States.
The first obstacle is economic stagnation, a situation quite different from when they assumed power in 1959, and confiscated warehouses allowed power that had been acquired by force to be legitimized through the distribution of pre-produced goods. Added to this was the ever-growing exodus from Cuba, uncontrolled corruption, and the rise in citizen discontent, all of which prevents a transfer of power in conditions of prosperity.
The second obstacle is the White House’s new policy towards Cuba. The package of measures announced on 17 December 2014 will have an impact on the empowerment of Cubans, which is the weakest factor in changes for the Cuba of today. Throughout the unfolding of this process, the concept of the “external enemy” will begin to be eclipsed, hence the foreign contradiction — which played such a useful role in preserving power — will gradually be replaced by the contradiction between the Cuban people and government, which complicates the transfer of power.
If to these two great hindrances is added that the government is responsible for all that has occurred, good or bad, throughout more than half a century; that during this time the nomenklatura has acquired vested interests; that there are within it diverging opinions about how far the reforms should go; that the average age of its members militates against the vitality needed to undertake profound changes; and that for decades they have been able to govern unopposed — then the conclusion is that the government is not prepared to take on the contradictory propositions of making the reforms that the country requires, reestablishing relations with the United States, and preserving power. In this contradiction, which will continue setting the pace of the process in the short term, is contained, from my point of view, the explanation of the government’s erratic course:
On 17 December 2014, the Cuban president challenged the US government to adopt mutual measures for improving the bilateral climate, and advancing towards the normalization of ties between the countries (a step forward). On 28 January 2015, at the Third Summit of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States [CELAC], he set forth four demands and said, “If these problems are not resolved, this diplomatic rapprochement between Cuba and the United States will not make sense (a step backward). On 11 April, at the Seventh Summit of the Americas, Raul Castro reduced the demands and said that the principal obstacles to opening the embassies was the removal of Cuba from the list of state sponsors of terrorism, and the provision of banking facilities to enable financial transactions by the Cuban Interests Section in Washington (a step forward). Even though on 12 May, during goodbyes to French President François Hollande, he declared that when Cuba is finally removed from the list of state sponsors of terrorism we will be able to name ambassadors, then on 20 and 21 May, during the third round of talks, the Cuban delegation entrenched itself in their interpretation of the Vienna Convention regarding the limits, the form, and the conduct becoming to North American diplomats (a step backward).
The American position could not have come as a surprise. Prior to departing for the summit in Panama, Barack Obama said, “Our new policy towards Cuba will also facilitate a greater connection to the Cuban people, including a greater flow of resources and information to them, and this is already showing results. We have seen an increase in contact between the people of Cuba and the United States, and the enthusiasm of the Cuban people towards these changes shows that we are taking the right path.” During the summit, Obama said, “Civil society is the conscience of our nations. It is the catalyzing force of change. It is the reason for which strong nations do not fear active citizens. Strong nations accept, support and empower active citizens… And when we engage with a civil society, it is because we believe that our relationship should be with governments and with the people they represent.” He made similar statements during the meeting he had with civil society representatives from Latin America, and in his personal encounter with Raúl Castro.
For her part, US delegation chief Roberta Jacobson, prior to the third round of negotiations, said during her appearance before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the relationship of the US Interests Section in Havana “with the broadest cross-section” of Cubans “will grow once diplomatic relations are established with Cuba.”
That is to say, if despite those declarations there was progress in the removal of Cuba from the list of state sponsors of terrorism and the provision of facilities for banking transactions in Washington, it makes no sense to delay the opening of the embassies because of some “interpretation” of the Vienna Convention.
Upon the conclusion of the third round of talks, the difference between the two delegations could be seen. In the press conference, in answer to the question about a fourth round, Josefina Vidal — from the Cuban side — responded that there has been progress, but that there remained pending topics to discuss forthwith. Meanwhile, Roberta Jacobson said more or less that for those topics another meeting was not necessary. Her position was that the diplomats would conduct themselves such as they do in other regimes similar to that of Cuba, where US diplomats have permission to travel within the country for periods that vary “between 24 hours and 10 days.”
The Dangers of the Erratic Course
The government of Cuba, for the reasons outlined, decided to introduce changes too late. For this reason the interrelation between economic stagnation, wage insufficiency, generalized corruption, popular discontent, and a growing exodus are incompatible with the slowness of the changes.
If this slow march is appreciated by the power structure as a guarantee of its stability, it is not so by Cuban society. The insistence on preserving power and the delay in initiating transformations have led to an extremely complex situation, internally and externally, which requires political will to act in keeping with the gravity of the matter.
To not act as a consequence of this scenario could lead to a fatal result, because an abrupt exit — for whatever reason that might cause it — would lead to a situation in which there would be no peaceful transition, and in which all, without exception, would be losers. Should this occur, the responsibility would fall on those who still hold the reins of power.
The prospect of relations with the United States — the most significant political event for Cuba since the 1959 Revolution — has generated an opportunity that should not be wasted. It is useful to the Cuban government, being that it provides it with “an honorable way out”; it is useful to US interests, for its own reasons; but above all, it is useful to Cubans, because it is a favorable context for their empowerment, and for them to once again become citizens.
Originally published in Diario de Cuba, 24 Jun 2015
Translated by: Alicia Barraqué Ellison
26 June 2015