Channeling Dissent

September 25, 2007

AT A PUBLIC PRESENTATION OF A BOOK ON the Cuban constitution in Havana in June, a lawyer quipped,'"Too bad this book will be outdated so soon! "Less than a year ago such a remark might have raised eyebrows and perhaps called into question the speaker's loyalty to the revolution. Instead. it generated approving nods and laugh- ter. As transformations sweep Eastern Europe, Fidel Castro exhorts Cubans to maintain absolute unity in defense of socialism and independence. While resisting external pres- sure, however, Cubans are engaged in a broad public debate on reforms needed to save their socialist revolution. In March, the Communist Party (PCC) issued a call for widespread discussion in preparation for the fourth party congress to be held in the first half of 1991. Though couched in the uncompromising rhetoric of "socialism or death," the call represented a significant departure from the past. It did not offer the Cuban Politburo's agenda for resolving the nation's problems. but rather solicited public analysis and debate of alternative policies. Unanimity, previously touted asadisplayof "democratic unity," wasexplicitly rejected in favor of tolerance of diverse opinions: "Certainty of the people's overwhelming support spares us the unreal quest for unanimity, which is often false, mechanical and formal and can lead to pretense, double standards or hiding of opinions, and illustrates the need [for]...diversity of views on a certain issue." At first, many were skeptical of the party leadership's sincerity. To some, the call was a public relations strategy to buy time. An even more cynical interpretation suggested that the debate would be used to identify potential troublemakers. Indeed, individuals and small groups who declared their opposition to socialism orto Cuba's one-party system found no tolerance of their political views; some were even ar- rested. Many thers, familiar with public discussion where opposing views are encouraged and respected, were unsure how to respond. This combination of fear, cynicism and inexperience turned thefirstroundof meetings in April intoan unmitigated disaster. Participants stood up one after the other to declare their loyalty to Fidel, socialism and the leadership of the Communist Party. Dismayed, Carlos Aldana, head of the Central Committee's Department of Revolutionary Orienta- tion, called the sessions to a halt. A month later, the debate resumed, this time with qualitatively different results. The meetings of provincial party and national mass or- ganizations involved several thousand delegates and typi- cally lasted from eight to 14 hours each, portions of which were televised. A fascinated public watched and listened almost daily to sharp criticism of dysfunctional economic institutions, stagnant bureaucracies, ineffective political struc- tures and policies which impede creativity and responsive- ness. As the discussion proceeded, problems were detailed with increasing specificity and the debate became bolder and more dynamic. In an apparent attempt to assuage both conservatives and those supportive of vigorous democratic discussion, the Politburo issued a statement on June 23 defining its position on the parameters of the debate: adherence to socialism under the leadership of a single party, but with a commitment to public debate: "Those limitscannot be set beforehand....The point of the discussion is precisely to promote views...[andl to consider alternatives to improve our work ... Not open to question is, of course, the socialist option...which...involves the principles of revolution, socialism and national independence....Nor will we accept the new reactionary dogma that there is no democracy or renewal without mul- tiple parties..... Within these limits, the debate expanded into almost every workplace, where not only national issues, but local policies and problems were submitted to energetic, frank discussion. Although the debates are bounded by allegiance to social- ism, defects in Cuba's economic system are people's greatest worry. At almost every meeting participants presented a series of horror stories revealing inefficiencies, irrational and stifling bureaucratic procedures, and ineffective labor poli- cies. Issues previously considered too problematic for public discussion were put forward. For example, at the June 12 assembly of the Union of Communist Youth (UJC), a dele- gate insisted that immigration and travel policies be resolved in a coherent and publicway.Suchpolicieshavealwaysbeen announced and justified without debate. In fact, Cuban authorities are currently considering reforms in this area, including removal of all travel restrictions. Substantial concern was expressed about the vitality of Cuba's political institutions. Cuba's legislative assemblies, the People's Power, were criticized as formalistic, impotent at the municipal level and unrepresentative at the national level. One participant at the City ofHavana meeting noted that many delegates to the national assembly of People's Power who live in the capital represent municipalities in other provinces and often know little about the provinces they are supposed to represent. In a discussion paper prepared for a debate among spe- cialists in constitutional and administrative law, Angel Fernaindez Rubio-Legra, of the Superior Institute of Interna- tional Relations, analyzed the municipal assemblies and made numerous sullggestions: separate legislative, political and administrative functions, a smaller bureaucracy, longer legislative sessions to provide time for genuine deliberation, _Icnuinc dclieration and longer terms of office (five years instead of two-and-a- half). Sone Cubans recommend that delegates to People's Power become full-time paid representatives; others argue that this would remove delegates from direct contact with working people. Another suggestion being debated is direct election of national assembly delegates; currently they are elected by the municipal assemblies. Many of these sugges- tions would require modification of the constitution. Already some steps have been taken to improve the functioning of the People's Power. In February, Juan Es- calona, former Minister of Justice. was named president of the National Assembly. Escalona is credited with having transformed the Ministry of Justice from an inert, inept bureaucracy into a dynamic, professional institution. It is expected that he will do the same for the National Assembly, where he has already begun to pare down the staff and bureaucratic procedures. T HE STRUCTURE AND FUNCTIONS OF THE PCC are also being scrutinized. Granma reported that at the Havana party assembly the first secretary from Artemisa argued that the PCC put an end to "clandestine" discussion of issues. Numerous delegates have called for elimination of bureaucratic party structures and a more democratic process for selecting the party leadership. In several sessions, the party was reproached for assuming administrative and gov- ernmental tasks instead of limiting itself to its legitimate role of political leadership. Overandover again, delegates argued that the functions of the Council of State and legislative bodies, the ministries, and the Communist Party should be clearly defined and distinct. A recurrent refrain was that party militants are tired of "reunismo"-attending ig innumerable meetings that rarely seem important and tend to interfere with other tasks. To the surprise of many, the Federation of Cuban Women (FMC) was criticized in several sessions as having lost its relevance to the revolution. Some even suggested that its work at the base level be eliminated since it duplicates many of the services performed by the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution. These criticisms inspired emotional debate and reflection at the FMC meeting, in which several delegates acknowledged that the organization had lost its identity and that a bureaucratic apparatus had replaced lively exchanges. Many argued for a renewal of the organization. Among the subjects submitted officially for discussion was the admission of religious believers to the party, a proposal Fidel Castro publicly advocated in April. Press accounts of the meetings reported some disagreement, pri- marily on the grounds of maintaining ideological purity. The overwhelming majority, however, appeared to favor elimi- nating discrimination against religious believers. In private discussions, many also advocate elimination of all forms of discrimination, including against gays and lesbians. Cuba is engaged in this process of democratization in an atmosphere charged with anxiety about the future. When several dozen Cubans sought asylum in foreign embassies in mid-July, the tensions heightened, and some feared the debates would be cut off. In an unprecedented move, the UJC Communist youth organization responded by staking out a position against "conservatives" in the party. In the July 23 issue of Juventud Rebelde, the UJC warned: "We must not allow some [party members] to use such dangers to cling to the defense of their conservative positions in the Revolu- tion." The UJC's preemptive statement strengthened the hand of those who support continuing democratization, and may be an indication that even the party leadership is willing to shed the veneer of consensus that has hidden internal disagreements from public view. What concrete proposals will be made at the party con- gress next year is still unknown. Some continue to doubt that the points of view expressed in the process will really influence decision-making at the top. But there is growing expectation that significant reforms will be adopted, and that the political process will become increasingly more demo- cratic. Failure to respond positively and concretely to these expectations will almost certainly increase tensions and frustrations. In the context of a deepening economic crisis, that could prove explosive. Expanding political democracy seems to be the only option for strengthening the system's capacity to withstand the economic troubles on the horizon. Whatever the results of the fourth party congress, the process of discussion and debate has already altered Cuban politics, setting in motion a process not easily stopped.

Tags: Cuba, socialism, Revolution, Dissent, debate

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