Raul Castro: More Boring and Conservative Than Ever / Iván García

Raul Castro at the 7th Congress
Raul Castro at the 7th Congress

Ivan Garcia, 17 April 2016 — A little bent and dressed in civilian clothes, with a dark blue suit, light blue shirt, no tie, gold metallic glasses, and a star on his bag, Raul Castro Ruz, 84, president hand-picked by his brother Fidel in 2006, among applause advanced to the dais in the corner of the room in the Palace of Conventions west of Havana.

After briefly adjusting the microphone and with a voice more hoarse than usual, the first secretary of the Communist Party began the longest and most boring speech of his political repertoire.

It was a quarter past ten on the morning of Saturday, 16 April, when the Cuban autocrat began taking stock of the last five years that had passed since the previous congress, held in 2011. In the room a thousand delegates and nearly three hundred guests waited for a transcendental announcement. The speech was broadcast life by Channel 6 on Rebel Radio.

At least in the La Vibora district adjacent to the so-called Red Square, very close to an old bus stop, people were doing other things. At that same time that Raul Castro began his spiel, Rebel TV broadcast the match between Real Madrid and Getafe, a serious competition.

In his apartment, watching the TV, Rene and his two sons chewed their nails watching Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale. When asked their opinions about the 7th Congress, which had just opened, neither had anything to say. I was on my way out when the father said, “Sorry man, I’m not up for that humpbacked grindstone.”

Diana, an office clerk, took advantage of the time to wash clothes and clean the house. “Nobody cares about that. Saturday is for doing things around the house and watching movies of the weekly packet at night.”

Of thirty neighborhood residents,  only two listened to the speech. A patchwork, but they knew what it was about. For Fabricio, self-employed, was interested in knowing if there would be a new twist that would benefit private entrepreneurs.

“They just announced a wholesale market for private non-agricultural cooperatives and who have leased places from the State. I expected they’d report more about it. Vaguely, Raul talked about a new legal framework for private businesses, but without approving measures that will make the proposals launched by Obama effective. He even said that the policies would not allow the self-employed to concentrate businesses and capital. I hope that before the end of the event they will announce something positive.”

Jose Carlos, retired military, in shorts and slippers, smoking and drinking coffee, saw Raul Castro’s appearance on TV. “I’ll have to analyze the speech later when it comes out in [the newspaper] Granma. But it seemed very conservative and long to me. Raul always stood out for the brevity of his speeches. Strategically, the government is backing off. Obama left Cuba on 22 March, but the sequel he left behind is a concern to more than one in the Politburo. What’s the economic situation of the country? It seems irresponsible to me to slow down measures that could get us out of the doldrums.”

For the former soldier, Raul’s comment about the difference between Democrats and Republicans in the US struck a nerve: “It’s like as if one day we had two political parties on the island, and I led one and Fidel led the other,” the general-president joked. The message for Jose Carlos was, “In Cuba, in the political arena, nothing is going to change.”

Not even many of the opponents followed the speech life. Some were traveling outside the country and others prefer to read it in the press and listen to summaries.

The dissident poet and journalist Jorge Olivera spent two hours and twenty minutes in front of the TV. The speech, little of note. “More of the same. Raul Castro repeated his litany on the economic plane and in the political he kept his foot on the brake. If someone expected something new, they’re disappointed.”

Hildebrando Chaviano, an opposition lawyer and independent journalist, who in the last elections ran for election to the People’s Power, believes that there is a regression to the past. “It’s notable even in the repression. When I returned from a trip to Peru, Customs dusted off their old methods of seizing books and papers. The impact of Obama’s visit has been a Trojan Horse. The government will do what it knows best, exercise social control and repress those who think differently. In any event, something they will have to announce at this congress. Time is running out and so is the apathy of the people toward the system in general.”

Castro II replayed the worn out anti-imperialist rhetoric and the attacks on the OAS. With regards to future business with the United States, his words implied that the government will only accept what benefits state enterprises.

He returned to the exotic Soviet narrative, of hollow slogans and a warlike atmosphere. Language from other times now re-soled with the news that on 2 December there will be a lavish military parage to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Revolutionary Armed Forces and the ninetieth birthday of his brother Fidel.

Although he announced a reform of the Constitution, the most striking was the decision to limit to  the age of entry into the Central Committee to people 60 or under, and for the Politburo, 70 and under. Putting makeup on the face of the exterior gallery.

An attempt to “rejuvenate” a nation with a low birthrate, an unstoppable exodus (the vast majority of those emigrating are young people) and an accelerated aging of the population.

Like it or not, Cuba will remain a country of ole people. In any case, the “rejuvenation” in the party leadership will begin to be seen in 2018, after Raul Castro retires.

And the old Castro leadership always valued above all good or evil. The rules are for others. Not them.