(IPS) – The absence of more open social policies and real citizen participation are some of the concerns being debated in the run-up to the Sixth Congress of the ruling Cuban Communist Party (PCC) in April.
By Feb. 7, more than seven million people had taken part in meetings called by the Party to discuss the “Proyecto de Lineamientos de la Política Económica y Social del Partido y la Revolución” (Draft Economic and Social Policy Guidelines for the Party and the Revolution), the keynote document for the Party Congress, according to Marino Murillo Jorge, vice president of the Council of Ministers.
At the same time, in alternative debates that have become increasingly common on the island, various representatives of Cuban civil society have circulated their opinions through parallel channels, such as web sites, blogs, social networks, and especially e-mails lists, which read a wide audience.
“The only guarantee of democracy in a society is people’s participation,” Mariela Castro, head of the National Centre for Sex Education (CENESEX), told IPS. “The fact that this is being given the importance it deserves fills me with the hope that we will follow the path to a kind of socialism that is closer to the one I imagine.”
The daughter of Cuban President Raúl Castro and his late wife, women’s rights advocate Vilma Espín, Mariela Castro said it was “a very complex task to redesign the economy in a crisis situation, while continuing to maintain subsidies that cannot be abolished immediately because that would leave the population unprotected.”
The Sixth PCC Congress, postponed since 2002, will be the first to be held since Raúl Castro became president in February 2008.
The historic leader of the Cuban revolution, Fidel Castro, stepped aside as president in July 2006 due to serious illness, and transferred power to his brother. However, Fidel remains First Secretary of the PCC, defined by the constitution as “the highest leading force of society and of the state.”
The Congress in April, to be followed by a Party Conference before the end of the year, must chart the economic and structural reforms regarded as essential by authorities and experts if the socialist model, which has so far been characterised by a strongly centralised state, is to be preserved on the island.
Sources interviewed by IPS said that most of the proposals collected so far at official consultations have been limited to concerns about short-term, circumstantial issues.
Among them are the gradual disappearance of the ration book for subsidised food distribution, a system in effect since the 1960s, or the recently implemented labour reform which involves massive lay-offs.
According to the official newspaper Granma, the meetings prior to the Congress resulted in “619,387 proposals for deletions, additions and modifications, and expressions of doubts and concerns” regarding the 32-page Draft Guidelines. At the conclusion of the discussion process, “the people will be provided with detailed information about its results.”
“We are very unused to in-depth discussions, and very used to vertical decision-making,” writer Fernando Martínez Heredia told IPS, referring to what many people still regard as one of the major obstacles to any process of debate and change in Cuba.
However, Martínez Heredia described as encouraging a late 2010 speech by President Raúl Castro, in which “he set out in tough language the need to discuss very different criteria, as well as the need for people who have responsibilities to meet their obligations.”
The lack of real participation and scrutiny by citizens have been regarded as historic flaws of Cuba’s political system, and now, according to observers, they are seen in a changing scenario where the bureaucracy, entrenched in positions of power, represents the main element of resistance to the in-depth transformations the country needs.
For political scientist Rafael Hernández, “this democratic debate, which extends beyond the rank and file of the PCC, expresses the will to build a consensus about the emerging new model, and not to secure support before the discussion has taken place, nor to dictate the outcome from above, as if it were revealed truth, or an irrefutable directive from on high.”
In Hernández’s view, the main political issues addressed by the Draft Guidelines include “decentralisation, legitimising non-state sectors, the determination to enforce the rule of law and constitutional order, and the downsizing of the state apparatus.”
At the same time, he said he regards as “revealing” the frequency with which some concepts appear in the PCC proposal. “Decentralise” and “decentralised” are mentioned five times, “socialism” twice, and “participation” 16 times, but only twice “in the sense of social or citizen participation.”
Meanwhile, sociologist María Isabel Domínguez, head of the Centre for Psychological and Sociological Research (CIPS), told IPS that “although economic transformations have priority at the moment, social and political processes, which accompany them and from which they are derived, cannot be neglected.”
According to Domínguez, the consequences of economic guidelines must be analysed “in terms of legal changes, as well as their social and political impacts.”
The absence of a more comprehensive view might even hinder “putting some of the aims of the Guidelines into practice,” she said.
Civil society groups like Cofradía de la Negritud (CONEG), an association of black people involved in raising awareness of racial discrimination, and the Red Protagónica Observatorio Crítico, a network of social and cultural projects, have circulated email messages calling for any strategic nationwide plan to include the issues of racial discrimination, respect for diversity, gender differences, climate change challenges and free access to information.
An editorial in the Catholic Archdiocese of Havana’s online magazine Espacio Laical says that “Cuba has recently experienced an increasing diversification of social identities,” which has generated a variety of proposals, but with common issues that could “facilitate dialogue and consensus.”
Among the common elements, it cites “the desire for responsible freedom, the enjoyment of all rights — both individual and social — the defence of sovereignty, freedom of economic initiative and the design of a political model capable of systematically increasing citizen participation and involvement.”