Posted on Thursday, 12.02.10
On the cusp of a new social contract?
BY MARIFELI PEREZ-STABLE
In April 2011, the Cuban Communist Party will finally hold its congress, almost 14 years since the last one. Only in wartime did the Communist Parties in the Soviet Union, China and Vietnam delay their congresses.
Stalin didn’t hold one for 13 years after 1939, Mao — not yet in power — let 17 years go by before calling one in 1945 and the Vietnamese met regularly only after the North-South reunification of 1976.
Since 1997, Cuba hasn’t experienced anything like World War II or the Vietnam War. After assuming the presidency in February 2008, Raúl Castro announced the congress for late 2009. Subsequently he said that more time was needed to get economic policy just right. On Nov. 9, Castro at last made it official, even if the reasons for the long delay have never been publicly recognized.
By the mid-1990s, the modest reforms issued earlier in the decade hit a wall. In 1995, Fidel Castro said: “All openings have entailed risks. If we have to carry out more reforms, we will do so. For the time being they are unnecessary.” By 2003, retrenchment and recentralization had won the day. In late 2005, he warned that forsaking socialist ideals or letting markets loose would doom the revolution.
When he fell ill in 2006, Castro divvied up his responsibilities: Raúl became interim successor, and six others assumed other tasks. In so doing, the comandante revealed his penchant for bypassing institutions.
Healthcare, education and energy, for example, fall within the purview of various ministries. Castro, however, had established special programs in these areas that only he supervised. Funds for their activities, moreover, weren’t assigned through institutional channels: Castro himself sought them directly from the Central Bank.
Shortly after his brother’s illness, Raúl emphasized la institucionalidad, the notion that institutions matter. Not an earth-shaking proposition but one that sent a clear signal: The days of abrupt twists and turns were over. Last August, he told the National Assembly: “We must forever banish the idea that Cuba be the only country in the world where people can live without working.”
If that’s an astounding admission, so is the goal of laying off 500,000 workers from the state payroll by next April.
At least another half million will subsequently find themselves holding pink slips. Alternative sources of employment such as cooperatives and self-employment should absorb most of the unemployed.
Cuban leaders are more addicted than most to politically correct rhetoric. Thus, the unemployed are los disponibles (available ones) and the economic reforms are just an “updating” of the Cuban model. The socioeconomic guidelines that the party congress will duly approve insist on state command of the economy and an uncompromised equality. If you’re thinking squaring the circle, so am I.
Cuba may be on the cusp of a new social contract. If the reforms take off, ordinary Cubans will be more responsible for their own well-being than at any time since 1959.
Eliminating subsidies, reducing social expenditures, hiring other Cubans and paying taxes require a wholesale transformation of their mind-sets. Many would thrive, others would not.
Raúl Castro and his cohorts also need to change their ways. As of Nov. 19, more than 80,000 citizens had applied for self-employment licenses: 35 percent obtained them, 15 percent are pending and half were denied.
In 2011, the government plans to purchase $130 million in goods to be sold to the self-employed. In retrospect, we might look back and see a crossroads: for the first time, economic policies played themselves out, without anyone cutting them short. Along the way, Cuban leaders began to grasp the wisdom of the late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping’s maxim: “It doesn’t matter whether the cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice.”
While visiting China in 2003, Fidel Castro said: “I can’t really be sure just what kind of a China I am visiting.” In China recently, Ricardo Alarcón, president of Cuba’s national assembly, noted: “Cuba is prepared to take advantage of China’s experience of development in reform and opening.”
If we see Cuban leaders trying to square the circle, all bets are off.