Cuba prepares for Communist Party congress

In November, Venezuela’s revolutionary socialist President Hugo Chavez visited the Cuban capital, Havana, to mark the 10th anniversary of the signing of the historic cooperation pact between Cuba and Venezuela, core of the pro-socialist Bolivarian Alliance for Our America, known by its Spanish acronym ALBA, and to review and strengthen economic and social cooperation between the two socialist revolutions.

At the conclusion of the summit, Cuba’s President Raul Castro announced that the Sixth Cuban Communist Party (PCC) Congress would be held in the second half of April this year. The congress, the first since 1997, will coincide with the 50th anniversary of revolutionary Cuba’s defeat of the US-sponsored mercenary invasion at the Bay of Pigs and Fidel Castro’s declaration, on the eve of hostilities, of the socialist character of Cuba’s popular revolution.

Raul announced that the congress would have a single agenda item: the economy. Other discussions and decisions related to the party’s leadership role in society and its internal functioning would be deferred to a PCC conference, to be convened after the congress sometime later in the year. He also announced the publication of the Draft Economic and Social Policy Guidelines of the Party and the Revolution, a 32-page document detailing the PCC leadership’s proposal for “updating” Cuba’s post-capitalist economic model.

That the Venezuelan president and key members of his working people’s government were present at the public announcement of the PCC’s historic Sixth Congress symbolises the importance of Venezuela’s Bolivarian socialist revolution to the renewal of Cuba’s socialist project two decades after the demise of Soviet bureaucratic “socialism” plunged the Cuban Revolution into a deep and prolonged crisis known as the Special Period. The crisis has been mainly economic, bringing to mind images of long queues for rationed products, bicycles replacing buses and oxen replacing tractors as the Cuban Revolution drew on a wellspring of political consciousness and social solidarity to sustain the core social achievements flowing from the 1959 revolution.

The collapse of the Soviet Union was not only an economic blow, it was also an ideological blow. The old Soviet manuals on “Marxism-Leninism” and their dogmatic certainties were as discredited as the bureaucratic “socialist” regime that spawned them. Yet socialist Cuba, under the leadership of the PCC, stood firm, fulfilling Fidel’s pledge that “Cuba will know how to remain the example of a revolution that does not give in, that does not sell out and does not go down on its knees”. History, he said, had not come to an end. It could be said, poetically, that history was reborn in Venezuela on April 13, 2002, when Hugo Chavez was restored to Venezuela’s presidency after a short-lived US-backed coup in a popular insurrection, opening the way for the de-facto nationalisation of Venezuela’s vast oil wealth by the revolutionary government emerging from this insurrection, and the opening of Venezuela’s socialist revolution, ending Cuba’s isolation in the Americas.

Character of the PCC

As Cuban diplomat and historian Carlos Alzugaray Treto points out in his essay “Cuba: Continuity and political change” published in the October-December, 2009 edition of the Cuban journal Temas, many leftists outside Cuba do not recognise that the PCC is fundamentally different to the parties of bureaucratic power and privilege that ruled the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe: “Despite the fact that the PCC leadership has committed errors that have been recognised and/or rectified, and that methods and styles of work bearing the imprint of their origins in the Soviet political model still persist - such as the excess of centralism, for example - in reality the Cuban leadership has been concerned with two central aspects: the vanguard character of its militants that must be the first in every political social initiative, and the struggle against manifestations of corruption in its ranks. The honesty, sensitivity and the spirit of sacrifice championed by Che Guevara have been, in general, paradigms of Cuban communist conduct and not the privileges and perks of the nomenclatura, as happened under actually existing socialism [i.e., Soviet bureaucratic :socialism” - MC].”

This difference goes to the heart of why Cuba has not succumbed to bureaucratic degeneration and capitalist restoration as happened in the USSR, Eastern Europe and China. Every revolutionary socialist party in power attracts opportunists as well as revolutionaries and there are always problems of bureaucratism, which is a hang-over from capitalism. How rigorously the party, together with the revolutionary working people, can weed out the “rotten apples” from its ranks depends, in the final analysis, on the relationship of forces in society between the old capitalist social order that has been defeated — but which presses in from the outside (imperialism) and wells up from within (the survivals of capitalism) — and the elements of the new emerging socialist order.

In the Soviet Union from the late 1920s, following the death of Lenin and weakened by foreign invasion and civil war, international isolation and the inexperience of the revolutionary leaders in dealing with the new phenomenon of bureaucracy in a socialist state, the rising Stalinist bureaucracy overwhelmed the revolutionaries, and the rest is history. In Cuba since 1959, the revolutionaries have always had the upper hand, as they do today. During the Special Period, generalised scarcity and legal incomes insufficient to cover all basic necessities have given rise to generalised petty corruption, not only among administrators but among the general population. This, in turn, contributed to widespread instances of more serious corruption among public officials, creating a social base for pro-capitalist ideas and influences.

Given that pro-capitalist parties are banned in Cuba (a necessary defensive measure against US attempts at subversion of the revolution), such pro-capitalist ideas and influences are inevitably reflected, to one degree or another, within the PCC. In March 2009, for example, Carlos Lage, executive secretary of the Council of Ministers and foreign minister Felipe Perez Roque were dismissed from their posts for abuse of power. In one of his commentaries, Fidel said that the two leaders had been “seduced by the honey of power”. Yet despite such instances of loss of revolutionary morale and abuse of power, the PCC has preserved its character as a selective organisation of the most class-conscious and revolutionary-minded workers. Any pro-capitalist elements within the PCC are up against a formidable obstacle: a mass revolutionary socialist party led by the historic leadership of the 1959 revolution with some 800,000 members, firm roots in the working class, a heroic tradition of international solidarity from Angola to East Timor and, counting the PCC’s predecessors, five decades of hard-won struggle experience.

As the last congress to be presided over by the historicos, Fidel’s generation, approaches, the Cuban Revolution looks to new generations of capable leaders to continue the struggle. Many in Cuba would agree with Temas editor Rafael Hernandez:  the revolution “must go forward and leave more and more room for the new generations. Those new generations are demanding capability, a degree of decision over their own ideas, their own problems and criteria about  the meaning of a socialist society. And I think that the socialism of the future is the socialism of the young.”

Pre-congress debate

In preparation for the PCC congress, millions of Cubans, both party members and non-members, are participating in grassroots debates on the Draft Economic and Social Policy Guidelines in PCC base committees, workplaces and neighbourhoods. Raul Castro has repeatedly urged a free and frank debate, breaking from past practices of false unanimity and the suppression of differences.  “There is no need to fear differences in a society such as ours, where due to its essential nature there are no antagonistic [social class] contradictions because there are not the social classes that would give rise to them. From the profound exchange of divergent opinions come the best solutions, if such exchanges are guided by sound purposes and the viewpoints are expressed responsibly”, he said in a speech to Cuba’s National Assembly of People’s Power in February 2008.

Two poles have emerged in the national debate on the future of socialism in Cuba. What could be called the critical renovationist current, led by the PCC leadership, recognises the need for far-reaching changes to Cuba’s socialist model in the direction of more public debate, more socialist democracy via the decentralisation of social planning, and an opening to small-scale private and cooperative enterprises to boost the overall efficiency of the economy and thus the material wellbeing of the working people. At the other pole are those who fear such changes, either because they have erroneous or obsolete ideas about the socialist-oriented society or because they defend administrative prerogatives and, in some cases, illicit privileges from criticism and initiative “from below”. 

Within the renovationist current led by the PCC leadership there is a spectrum of opinion. The PCC leadership strives for consensus on the key elements of its proposals for the way forward, the economic aspects of which are summarised in the 291 paragraphs of the draft guidelines. With no alternative proposal on the table and the public debates on the guidelines due to conclude at the end of February, it is likely that the Guidelines, enriched and amended on the basis of the public debates but retaining their core principles and key elements, will be adopted by the PCC congress in April.

[Marce Cameron is the president of the Sydney University Cuba-Venezuela Solidarity Club and runs the Cuba's Socialist Renewal blog.]