Cuba's Military with Unprecedented Power
April 26, 2011
Haroldo Dilla Alfonso
HAVANA TIMES, April 26 — At this very moment in which I'm writing this
article, we still don't know what will be the multiple changes made to
the "Guidelines" that served as the pre-convention discussion document
for the Sixth Congress of the Communist Party of Cuba.
Because of this, little is known about what was discussed and in what
direction the rudder is steering. Undoubtedly, when we find these out,
we will have a clearer idea of how the Cuban political elite plans to
continue advancing its "socialist updating."
It is possible, however, to put forward some ideas about what has
happened among the political elite based on some references by Raul
Castro in his main speech and from the composition of the new Political
I believe there are three issues worth mentioning: the embarrassing mea
culpa of the general/president, the deluge of military officers, and the
emergence of new heirs who will have to walk a tightrope of being and
not being to make it to the final act.
Short on replacements
In the first sense, I am obliged to borrow from Lord Acton's axiom that
"power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
This is just what the president/general demonstrates to us when he
speaks of the poor recruitment of leaders, referring to the errors of
diffused third parties; or when praising the renewal of leaders in
public responsibilities as a condition for good governance, as if the
immense majority of people at that congress, on its political bureau and
he himself were international consultants evaluating a situation from
afar over which they have no responsibility.
They are very not very elegant concessions to the shamelessness that
occurs when there exists no space for opposition or for public opinion
to remind the rulers that political impudence has its limit.
Secondly, and this was the most interesting, the congress confirmed the
absolute predominance of the military (the principal political
supporters of the pro-market orientation and of the technocracy
constructing it) over the other fragment of the elite: the anachronistic
party bureaucrats headed by Machado Ventura.
There were 12 politburo members eliminated (with nine seats going
unfilled due to the reduction in the membership from 24 to 15), the most
visible of which being the minister of Culture, Abel Prieto, who was
said to have threatened the Cuban public with devoting more of his time
to his vocation as a writer.
Of the 15 members of the new Politburo, eight are active officers in the
military or come from its ranks. However among these members are six
people who hold their position in the PB while also holding presidencies
or vice-presidencies in two other more important bodies: the Council of
State and the Council of Ministers. Four of them are organically tied
to the military: Raul Castro, Colome Ibarra, Casas Regueiro and Marino
Murillo; as well as Ramiro Valdes, who is not alien to this club and its
opportunities. Six others have seats with at least one of the two other
institutions and three of these individuals are from the military.
In summary, if being in several of these institutions at the same time
is an indicator of power within the elite, one would have to assume that
of the 12 members of the PB in this situation, seven are tied to the
military group – a degree of concentrated power greater than ever before.
This correlation has been developing since those distant times when
Carlos Lage and Felipe Perez Roque were hunted down like frightened
rabbits. But what catches one's attention is the intensity with which
the president/general laid into his allies of the party bureaucracy,
accustomed to their stingy prosperity at the expense of the state budget
and resolved to put the brakes on any change that implies distancing
them from that budget.
This is another shameless waste, because the president/general has been
the second secretary of the Communist Party for almost five decades, and
he has frequently devoted himself to aspects and internal workings of
institutional life, concerns with which his brother never involved himself.
Nor are the arguments new, because they are continuing to use that same
parroted phrase that "the party guides but does not administer," which
has been the standard line in so many repeated speeches. But what is
indeed new is the context, and in this is what's different within the
interior of the elite. Machado Ventura's guys have not only been
reduced in their public positions, but have also been called to order,
all of which I suppose we will be able to see in more detail in the
party conference scheduled for January 2012.
Lastly, as the whole process of the recruitment of younger leaders
failed, the age of the new archons is extremely high. This makes the
disinterested offer by Raul Castro to govern for only five more years
ring hollow. The press has highlighted that the average age is 68,
which doesn't seem bad. But let's not forget that this factors in a
45-year-old girl scout and two schoolboys in their 50s. Perhaps it
would be more revealing to point out that the median age is 73, and that
a third of these gladiators of socialism are over the average life
expectancy on the island. This is all record setting.
The rising star?
Above all, however, what stands out is the figure of a relatively young
rising star: Marino Murillo. Recruited from Raul's own office, Murillo
has displayed a meteoric career, first substituting for a person very
close to Machado Ventura in the Ministry of Domestic Commerce, and then
taking the place of Jose Luis Rodriguez at the Ministry of the Economy.
In 2009 he was named a member of the Council of State, and in 2011
became a sort of super minister of the Economy and Finance. What is
distinctive about Murillo is that he combined his reign in the area of
the economy with a very conservative discourse. Unlike other figures
who have flirted openly with the renovating side of "updating," Murillo
has always clung to the more traditional side: he speaks disparagingly
of the market, he emphasizes the need for planning in all its details,
he swears that no one will be left abandoned by the state; and he sings
praises of equality, which is not egalitarianism because it's equality
of opportunity, etc.
All of this makes me think that he is vehemently denying exactly with
what wants to do, perhaps because he knows that this is how politics is
played, particularly when it's necessary to do it in a field mined by
the resentments of displaced bureaucrats, along with the appetites of
officials-making-themselves-bourgeoisie and the sensitivity of the
quasi-octogenarian generals who perceive themselves anointed by the
intangibility of the historic leaders.
Murillo is not indicating a solution to that great bottleneck that
affects the Cuban elite: the shortage of regular mechanisms for
recruitment and circulation. But at least he's opening a window in a
room full of smoke. His acid test will be to succeed at achieving real
economic growth. If this results, Murillo as much as the other Cuban
leaders will begin moving the discussion toward greater economic
opening, moving only what is indispensable on the political chessboard
so that the economic opening functions.
If the Fourth Congress (1991) represented hope for socialist and
democratic renovation, and the Fifth Congress (1997) was a setback in
the slight advance that could be achieved, the Sixth Congress is the one
that initiates the process of capitalist restoration in Cuba by the hand
of the Communist Party and the technocratic-military elite. Surely
Murillo also understands this, though I don't believe this generates the
slightest ideological conflict for him.
Murillo knows — from the times when he was a diligent student in
military school — that the leaders who have governed Cuba for half a
century and each one of those who will do so for the next decade will
take advantage of the peculiar polysemous sense of the word socialism,
doing whatever they do but always shielding themselves behind it.
In this way they have associated it indistinctly with Guevarism,
centralized Soviet planning, the Chinese model and always with Jose
Marti, who serves all their aims. Using one or another reference, they
are building, consolidating and improving "socialism."
The fact that they are now updating socialism is nothing strange. In
the end, Murillo — with his short 50 years of life — will say there is
still time to continue with the rhyme for some time as long as they
don't fail in the immediate future with two things: remittances and the
police. And that in the end a semi-submergible oil rig will report the
good news hoped for by Hindus, Norwegians, Brazilians, Venezuelans,
Vietnamese and Spaniards – the same news that Halliburton is observing
through the perforated blockade/embargo.